Graffiti as Spatializing Practice and Performance

Tracey Bowen
University of Toronto


Graffiti writing/making is a performance of marking various points of contact between individuals and the world, whether they are a celebration of existence or a declaration of resistance. As many theorists suggest, graffiti is not just about an optical experience, but rather one that is inherently haptic and physical. This essay examines two particular spaces of graffiti performance. Both spaces are physically experienced as urban places: Graffiti Alley in Toronto and Lilac Alley in San Francisco. The investigation of these two spaces focuses on understanding our reading practices of alternative and marginal urban texts as embodied spatialized experiences.

I am here

[1] Graffiti is the visual residue of a spatialized performance that speaks to a diverse range of issues from social resistance to enacting identity. As Halsey and Young (2006) have suggested, graffiti is not just about optical traces of the visual marking of I was here, but rather a haptic endeavour, a spatializing practice that claims spaces, makes places, and illuminates margins and borderlands. The context for reading graffiti is embodied within the performance of bearing witness to another's existence, as well as reading texts in the form of tactile inscriptions that present information through visual codes in relation to the ever-changing socio-cultural and physical contexts where it is found. As Brighenti (2010) so aptly suggests, "[F]or inscriptions to take place, witnesses are needed" (p. 325). Our readings of these inscriptions require a literacy that is embodied and informed by a spatial awareness of how changing our position in relation to what we see, either physically, or virtually, affects the way we use the codes provided to explain the nature of the experience to ourselves and others.

[2] The graffiti work I am describing here is a form of street aesthetic that employs large colourful images, text, pictograms, symbols, and cartoon-like pictures that create a visual representation for others to view. In some contexts, this form of graffiti might be labelled as "street art" by tourist/viewers and community organizations in response to the negative connotations that are often associated with the term graffiti. However, the works I am discussing are not necessarily sanctioned as street art; yet, they maintain a sensibility that is unofficially intended to be encountered as an aesthetic experience. Both Queen Street Alley in Toronto and Lilac Alley in San Francisco are socially sanctioned spaces where permission to paint is assumed. I am not including, however, the calligraphic "tags" that mark territory, although they also claim/mark space in a particular way that is often performative, [1] since they speak to a different kind of identity marking, over multiple spaces, that is not within the scope of this essay.

[3] Interacting with graffiti that is often found in marginalized places summons a spatialized reading of the history and performance of the place. A spatialized reading of graffiti also invokes an analysis of what Soja (1996) describes as "the spatiality of social life" illuminating both "culture cores and peripheries" (p. 16). For many years, Soja has challenged researchers and educators across disciplines to consider the spatializing practices that affect how we make sense of the world. Soja (1996) uses the concept of "third space;" these are lived spaces of representation where material spaces and the spaces of representation coexist (p. 11). Third space is about the colliding of various social forces (recognized institutions, institutionalized values and beliefs) with the reality of various modes of lived experience. This dynamic interaction affects the ways in which we read relations between the social and the political, and insert ourselves into different socially constructed spaces. We make new meaning through our imaginings of these spaces and undergo a "radical restructuring" of the ways we think about our experiences (Soja, 1996, p. 2-3). As de Certeau (1993) suggests in his essay, Walking in the City, "spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life" (p. 131). The spatializing practice of graffiti writing/making may challenge or complement our understanding of how diverse individuals inhabit the city and perform their experiences of such habitation. I am defining graffiti here as a form of writing which uses visual representations that historically relates to a particular urban aesthetic. [2] Brighenti (2010) describes graffiti as the interstitial practice "about whose definition and boundaries different social actors holdinevitably different conceptions," thereby making any definition contextually determined (p. 316).Using the term "writing" then, describes the activity that happens between the embodied performance of the writer (graffiti artist/performer) as well as the residue of this act viewed as an inscription on a surface, most often urban in nature, but also virtual in some cases, due to the proliferation of graffiti-based websites such as Graffiti Archaeology.

[4] Leander and Sheehy (2004) examine literacy practices that evolve from spatial perspectives (p. 1). They see space as "a product and process of socially dynamic relations" that occur through the shifting borders, margins, and centers inherent in the texts we use and produce. Elizabeth Birr Moje (2004) suggests that spatializing our theoretical examinations of cultural practices should not just examine "how larger structures act on people to assign them to spaces or to deny them resources within spaces, but with how people make sense of and act in spaces" (p. 18). Simonsen (2005) also contends, "space serves an intermediary or mediating role through which 'one' seeks to apprehend something or somebody else" (p. 6). These spaces "matter" to all of us, and they become particularly important to youth in relation to identity construction and performance (Birr Moje, 2004, p. 16).

[5] Simonsen's (2005) interpretation of Henri Lefebvre's Production of Space offers his position that the city "symbolized a person's being and consciousness, reflecting a shift from the individual to the collective level" (p. 3). Furthermore, Lefebvre's body/space relationship illuminates that "bodily practices that give rise to socially constructed modes of space and time are at the same time definitions of selfhood internalized within the body" (p. 4). As Birr Moje contends, this is perhaps why space matters, particularly when linking graffiti writing to the performing of identity, and conceptualizing the writing performance as an endeavour to communicate various identity formations within the city. While the graffiti images we peruse as "tourists" within these spaces may be infused with meanings, they are also the physical traces of another's performance of identity and a way of being/existing within that same space. The graffiti writer's way of being in the space often transcends the semiotic meanings that tourists may be seeking within the visual graffiti text. I am using the term "tourist" here to describe individuals, myself included, who seek out the traces of graffiti writing performances through alleyways, underpasses, and marginal spaces, in an attempt not only to examine the visual residue, but also perhaps to bear witness to the performance itself. Tourists are not necessarily those who live in adjoining neighbourhoods or those who frequent the shops and markets that front the alleyways, but rather individuals who are looking for particular encounters and experiences. These tourists are twenty-first century flàneurs, reading the city through the marks, symbols, gestures, and urban anthropological detritus left by others.

[6] Simonsen (2005) suggests that "Bodies themselves generate spaces which are produced by and for their gestures" (p. 6); gestures being the "whole body" performance of writing on walls, in between doorways, around corners, and underfoot (Brighenti, 2010, p. 317). Graffiti is a spatializing practice in that it both inhabits and creates spaces through the activities of both the writers/artists and the viewers/tourists. The graffiti images are texts to be read, and experienced haptically and bodily. They have emerged as a result of the artist/writer performing the space and leaving behind evidence of existence for others to witness (Bowen, 2010). The spaces are created through "a set of affordances, as process of production, as experience and event" (Brighenti, 2010, p. 317).

[7] This essay examines two particular spaces of graffiti performance. These spaces are physically experienced as urban places: Graffiti Alley in the Queen Street West district of Toronto, and Lilac Alley in the Mission district of San Francisco. The investigation of these two spaces focuses on understanding how our reading practices of alternative and marginal urban texts is embodied as a spatialized experience. Additionally, the larger question regarding "the strategies" (communicative, performative, patronizing, and/or aesthetic) adopted by some individuals "to control spaces and the other people in them" (Birr Moje, 2004, p. 19), provides a starting point for examining the ways in which space contextualizes and affects graffiti performances and witnessing experiences. Particularly important to this discussion, is understanding that the alleyways and other graffiti spaces "define flows of circulation, set paths and trajectories for people and consequently, determine the possibilities and impossibilities of encounters" (Brighenti, 2010, p. 322).

[8] The Queen Street and Lilac Alleys offer corridors which are defined by the flow of activity of neighbourhood inhabitants traversing the brightly coloured pathways, by those carving out short-cuts, and by those (tourists) interested in exploring the interstitial spaces of urban energy. In all cases, the spaces develop through the flow of embodied encounters and connections; they are grounded in the curiosity and desire for unpredictable experiences.

Spatializing practices and urban identity

[9] When touring the spaces where graffiti pieces abound, the viewer/tourist engages in a form of mapping urban space by connecting similar and repeated symbols, codes, and representations, particularly when the graffiti pieces join together to form a continuum along alleys, up the sides of buildings, travelling around corners, and stretching high up to rooflines. Cobarrubias and Pickles (2009) explore the ways in which particular social activists use mapping as a strategy to visually "refigure the relations of power that structure socio-spatial life and to revamp the social spaces of everyday life in ways that produce new political subjects" (p. 42). Social activist groups around the world are challenging existing power structures by remapping boundaries and margins and developing new "spatial imaginaries" through their work, often produced as a visual text of some sort (Cobarrubias and Pickles, 2009, p. 37 and p. 42). Graffiti artists/writers also map their activity across particular spaces. They open up opportunities for alternative readings of urban-ness and identities enacted through performances that are imbued with the history of the space and also with the possibility of new imaginings. Cobarrubias and Pickles employ Foucault's ideas of disrupting established boundaries and sanctioned conventions in order to see new worlds. New worlds develop within spaces of incidental encounter, such as alleyways and the peripheries of urban living, spaces that may be considered non-spaces as they are not recognized as contributing to the urban aesthetic in an "official" role. However, they underline the neighbourhood frontispiece of commerce, community, and collectivity. Encounters within these spaces are affected by the residue of the spatial imaginaries of others, the historical residue of the walls and the physical groundings of the space, and the tourist-like intentions of visitors who explore, photograph, and at times, visually contribute. [3]

[10] A large body of scholarship has amassed around the discourse of graffiti in terms of inscribing urban-ness by looking at the spaces where graffiti has proliferated and what that exposure means for the writers, for the graffiti tourists, and for the inclusion of marginal voices that are not easily heard. Chmielewska (2007) explores graffiti in terms of place. She examines the various pieces through the lenses of text, language, and context in relation to the identity markers that emerge from a form of graffiti semiotics. While thorough examinations of the materiality of surface (for example, decaying walls and industrial outcrops) and topical traces of gesture as a form of cultural language are important scholarship, it is also crucial to consider the spatial constructs of graffiti performance and the sensorial transformation of these marginal places. The referential language and tactile surface of graffiti writing focuses on the graphic, semiotic, and identity-making affordances of an activity that connotes risk, resistance, and indifference. There is no doubt that the materiality of graffiti pieces deserve continued scholarship and attention. However, experiencing graffiti bodily requires a new avenue for investigation that explores the spaces that graffiti has created through repeated and multiple performances of writing. These spaces are physical, conceptual, and social in nature.

[11] Valle and Weiss (2010) contend that graffiti artists construct "tribe"-like communities with the intent of developing an "aesthetic aura" through "aesthetic/sense-based experiences" for others to encounter on their own terms (p. 133). These tribe-like rituals of taking up space [4] and performing writing on the walls creates physical openings for discovery, for pseudo-tourism, and for "the continuous activity between aesthetic intervention and response" within the interstitial spaces of the city (Bowen, 2010, p. 88). [5] Viewer/tourist interaction through discovery, decoding, and rethinking, marks a shifting social exchange that is documented visually, albeit temporarily, and rewritten again and again by re-performing and re-witnessing existence through aesthetic and often incidental encounters.

[12] Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) suggests that people "organize" and "attach meaning" to spaces through sensory experiences (p. 5). We experience spaces, physically, visually, haptically, and aurally (Bowen, 2010). Tuan (1977) suggests that "space is that which allows movement" and that movement provokes sensory experiences (p. 6). Graffiti pieces that mark particular spaces describe the experiences of the artists/writer/performers that move through these corridors. The corridors present the simultaneity of bodies creating and performing existence in space. The residue provides aesthetic encounters. de Certeau (1993) proposes that when walking through city spaces, what is left behind, whether footprints that infer passersby, or the traces that describe performances, gets "substituted for the practice. It [the trace] exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten" (p. 131). The performative actions of the marginalized graffiti artists are often lost within the aesthetic traces left behind, albeit these traces were often constructed through actions of resistance, only to be re-inscribed as a way of forgetting.

[13] The alleyways where graffiti proliferates and aesthetic encounters abound also act as sites for intimate encounters with the traces left from the experiences of others. The larger pieces, such as those found in both Lilac Alley in the San Francisco Mission and the Queen Street Alley in Toronto, provide a macro experience contextualized by performance, sub-cultural codes, and neighbourhood collaborations, but the intimate encounters with surface, inscription, and hapticity provide openings for particularities about the space to emerge. These particularities may include traces of the performers and their movements and residue of the history of the particular space, the nooks and crannies of worn surfaces. The alleyway as aesthetic place develops from our spatial imaginings and experiences, and helps identify the graffiti artist/writer/performers as urban aesthetes. Chmielewska (2007) contends, however, that researchers (such as myself) must be cognizant of the limitations of exploring and analyzing "visual worlds through textual arguments," and in the case of this paper, spatial experiences through textual arguments and two dimensional images (p. 153). The photos included in this essay can only reference the physical, visual, and visceral located-ness of the Queen St. and Lilac alleyways through trace evidence. The spatializing practice of writing/performing is only authentically experienced in situ. However, we may project our understandings of the performances as tourists of the spaces, always through a deferred sense of witnessing the "I am here-ness" of the performance.

Writing spaces: Toronto & San Francisco

[14] Lilac Alley sits within a network of street art, traditional and contemporary murals in the Mission district of San Francisco. The Mission itself is a visual, aural, and tactile place of culture, commerce, and Mexican traditions such as "muralismo." [6] Lilac is one of three alleyways that have become aesthetically constructed and politically charged spaces (the two others being the Clarion and Balmy alleys) where the graffiti writing represents trace evidence of the performances of others, as seen in the examples in Figure 1 and Figure 2. The graffiti aesthetic emerges primarily along the corridor of Lilac Alley; however, its influence seeps out into some of the more contemporary murals for which the Mission has become so well known. Jacoby (2009) describes the emergence of the graffiti activity in the Mission around 1988/89, as an aesthetic that "both disrupted and furthered the mural movement with their gestural tags and exquisitely rendered 'pieces' that give muralismo an overdue infusion of technical innovation and panache" (p. 76). More than a disruption to the carefully rendered murals that speak of history, resistance movements, cultural icons, and moments of cultural renaissance, the graffiti along Lilac alley creates a fissure along the Mexican narratives.

boat first weekend 089.jpg

boat first weekend 087.jpg

Figure 1 and Figure 2: Lilac Alley, San Francisco, February 2010.

[15] When I first visited the Mission in 2009, I was captivated by the colour of the walls, the people, and the streets. Within this place, aesthetics becomes the conceptual space where history, commerce, family, politics, and territorialism collide. The Mission murals, supported by a community organization Precita Eyes, are mapped across the neighbourhood district and commodified as tourism through the detailed maps available at the organization's headquarters. The graffiti spaces, however, are unmapped. They exist as the in-between spaces, unsanctioned, yet a part of the larger aesthetic order. The works claim walls, drain pipes, doors, crevices and by my next visit in 2010, the trace evidence seeped onto the ground, as pictured in Figure 3, underfoot and out to the street corners, fully exposed to the footsteps of the walking tourist.

Figure 3: Mission district sidewalk graffiti, May 2011

[16] Walking on top of the graffiti physically claims us as a continued part of the performance. Instead of viewing the work as tourists, we now re-mark the work with our own footsteps. As Alejandro Murgria suggests of the work found in the alley spaces, each piece, the way in which the representations claim the space, "is a challenge: a gauntlet against forgetting" (qtd. in Jacoby, 2009, p. 98). The activity of spatializing past performances through our entering and taking up the space, re-performs the encounter between writer and surface, an act against forgetting and against dismissing the margins. Jacoby (2009) contends that the graffiti work emerging as spaces between the sanctioned traditions of muralismo in the Mission is "responsive to the physical environment of the city, exploiting decayed surfaces as found backgrounds" through mark, symbol, and gesture (p. 115). As the residue of the performative embodying of space, the graffiti is "accepted as edits" to the urban landscape with "indifference to preservation" or temporality (Jacoby, 2009, p. 118).

[17] The all-encompassing aesthetic experience of the Mission makes the usual everyday act of taking up space much more conscious and tangible. The graffiti writing that has created the spaces of Lilac Alley challenges the permanence and formal beauty of the traditional murals that have marked and mapped the Mission. The marks and gestures of Lilac Alley, like Queen Street Alley in Toronto, claim space as a result of performing writing and performing making of place. The work "flows through and binds" the writer to the tourist (Brighenti, 2010, p. 324). Evidence of the writing performances makes visible the complex relationships between neighbours, tourists, icons of the present, and heroes of the past.

[18] The alley that extends from Portland to Spadina behind Queen Street West in Toronto has become a site for graffiti dialogue, community interaction, a "lived space; the space of inhabitants and users," of those who traverse and flow through the corridors as part of everyday routine, a site for "bringing into being alternative imaginations of space" (Simonsen, 2005, p. 7). The alley space re-presents the energy of the commerce, community, and connectivity that occurs street-side of this particular neighbourhood. The Queen Street Alley has long been a part of graffiti tourism in Toronto. (I first visited the site in1994, when it was still a space of unsanctioned activity.) The corridor has been constructed by and affords the opportunity to develop writing aesthetically, performatively, and in sync with the neighbourhood it underscores. On a recent visit/tour of the alley (February 2012), I witnessed the work of Mosie (his writer name), seen in Figure 4, while he painted and claimed his place. His act of writing was a performance of inscribing, of leaving the residue of his activity within the alley for others to witness after the fact. Queen Street Alley, however, is a popular destination for locals and tourists, so Mosie's performance became a site of engagement between him as performer and the viewer/tourists who paused as they moved through the space. Watching others watch Mosie, as seen in Figures 5 and 6, is a way of bearing witness of the actor/writer performing for his audience, a way of creating a theatrical space where meaning is constructed and negotiated through experiencing an incidental encounter.

Figure 4: Mosie writing

Figure 5: Mosie writing for an audience in Queen Street Alley.

[19] Mosie's performance is about claiming space within a phantasmagoria of the residue of other writers. His presence within the alley and performance of claiming space extends from his identity making, extends from his body movements, and as Brighenti (2010) contends, "body is where it all begins" (p. 327).


[20] The materiality of graffiti writing in both the Queen Street and Lilac Alley spaces presents a kind of "informational surface" inscribed with the layered residue of the history of that space (Quintero, 2007, p. 5). The material inscriptions and performed gestures are "communication embodied in streets" (Quintero, 2007, p. 5). Graffiti writing is a spatializing practice not only for the writers themselves, but also for the viewers/tourists who encounter the writing performances in situ, for those who experience the colourful corridors as everyday passageways, and for those who investigate past performances through the layers and traces left behind.

[21] The writing on the walls defines the space visually and also conceptually as information spaces that hold layered histories of past performances and the visual chatter of other voices. Graffiti writing begins with the body in space, defining the space through physical performance, and then leaves space for other bodies to experience through incidental encounter. We viewers and tourists are invited to bear witness to the marking of the existence of the performing "Other." As Halsey and Young (2006) have stated, graffiti writing is a haptic endeavour that draws us to the interstitial spaces of the city.

[22] There is much to be learned within the in-between spaces where social relations and cultural cores are often critiqued by those whose voices are drowned out by the "spectacle of visual culture" in a commoditised world of official urban spaces (Garoian & Gaudelius, 2008, p. 38). The juxtaposition of Queen Street Alley and Lilac Alley with their respective neighbouring spaces of cultural commerce enables new ways of experiencing the collision of lived experiences with the complexity of cultural peripheries. Graffiti writing, as both spatializing practice and performance, offers incidental witnessing opportunities and the chance to encounter another's claim: "I am/was here."


I would like to thank Mosie for permitting me to photograph his writing performance for this article. I would also like to thank all graffiti writers who create the spaces of incidental encounter that we all may traverse.


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[1] See Brighenti, 2010, and Chmielewska, 2007.

[2] See Cooper & Chalfant, 1984, and Chalfant & Prigoff, 1987, regarding New York "Wild Style."

[3] See also Bowen, 2010.

[4] See also Paul107, 2003, regarding writer attitudes.

[5] See also Bowen, 2010.

[6] See Jacoby, 2009.