Graffiti Art Therapy

 

Ezekiel-Eric Rothman

Art Therapy Research MAP640B

Janice Hoshino, Ph.D., ATR-BC

December 11, 2002

ABSTRACT

 

This study investigates the therapeutic effectiveness of using art therapy in conjunction with graffiti art and culture in the treatment of socially-defiant adolescents who have been detained and/or put on probation for defacing public property with graffiti.  A group of seven boys will participate in a six week Graffiti Art Therapy group facilitated by an art therapy graduate student and a legitimate graffiti artist/youth worker.  T tests will be run on the Adolescent Treatment Outcomes Module (ATOM) pre to post to determine level of significance (p<.05).  In addition, journals kept by participants provide data for a qualitative analysis of Graffiti Art Therapy treatment effectiveness.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In the adult-run society which dictates social structure, adolescents are largely misunderstood.  The adolescent experience is significantly different than that of the adult experience in that it is a time when one struggles with identity and the processes of becoming an individual.  Due to society’s preoccupation with adult reality, young people’s needs are often overlooked and youth are expected to comply with adult designated standards.  This dynamic creates a distance between adolescents and adults and causes youth to behave in opposition to adult, authority figures.  The majority of efforts made by adult society at reaching adolescents fail to succeed because of the lack of empathy and ability to connect and/or relate to young people.  Rather than approaching this population through behavior modification, attempts made by assisting them in their growth process may be more significant and permanent. The practice of graffiti has become a popular way for adolescents to act out in opposition to the authoritative, adult society that restricts them.  By directly disobeying the law and demonstrating their defiance of societal norms, young graffiti writers engage in a socially unacceptable form of making themselves seen and heard by society.  Graffiti becomes a way for young people to outwardly express their inner struggle for identity through a creative outlet.  It is as though they are literally “writing back” to society as they take matters in to their own hands.  Because these kids aren’t given the opportunities and outlets to express themselves freely, these natural impulses are suppressed and, in turn, get channeled through the socially defiant act of writing on society’s walls, the very walls that confine them.

 

In the eyes of the general public, graffiti is a nuisance and an infringement upon the lives of innocent citizens.  It has become a major problem in most big cities, causing an uproar and driving law enforcement to instigate a “war on graffiti” (Austin, 2001).  This war costs millions of tax dollars every year which go solely to the cleanup of graffiti and punishment measures for the perpetrators.  Despite all of the money and energy put into “controlling” the graffiti problem, efforts are untriumphant as adolescents continue to paint their urban landscape with the colors of their experience. In order to move toward a viable solution to the graffiti problem, it is essential that efforts be made at understanding the motivation for the behavior of the kids that participate in this illegal activity and approaching them with empathy.  Rather than trying to solve the problem by dealing with its symptoms, which is not only a waste of money but serves to prolong the issue, solutions must get at the source of the problem in order to sustain any change.  This involves working with the kids who are doing graffiti and helping them understand the process of development that they are going through as individuals in search of identity.

 

The Graffiti Art Therapy Research Project was designed as a model for demonstrating the therapeutic possibilities of working with adolescent graffiti offenders from within their own realm of interest.  The project explores the effects of using the medium of graffiti art and culture to give these kids an opportunity to develop their creative expressions in a socially acceptable venue.  Through this experience the participants have the opportunity to explore issues of identity and self in community by engaging in art directives, facilitated by an art therapist, which can offer reflective insight and instigate therapeutic change and maturation.  The art therapy groups are co-facilitated by a youth worker who was once an illegal graffiti artist as an adolescent and is now a law-abiding, positive role model. Thus, the young participants are able to connect with and be influenced by someone they can relate to and respect, as opposed to an adult professional who represents the institution of authority.

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

(The Adolescent Search For Identity)

 

Adolescence is a difficult stage in life.  It is the time in a person’s life when they must develop their own sense of identity and form a notion of them self that is separate from their parents.  Often this process of identity formation is wrought with turmoil, as the individual must struggle against the authoritative forces in their life, which pose a threat to the adolescent’s sense of autonomy.  Building from the ideas of Erik Erikson, Newberger (1999) writes, “the critical task of adolescence, Erikson wrote, is to form a personal identity amid such a storm of biological and social maturation and psychic turbulence that he spoke of the stage as a crisis” (p.221).  This crisis that Erikson refers to is the fuel behind the fire that so many adolescents demonstrate by acting out against society.

 

According to Linesch(1988), “the adolescent is faced with an enormous task, one that can only be accomplished with the experimentation and rebelliousness that have come to be typical of teenage youngsters in our society” (p.5).  Adolescence is a natural time of resistance to authority.  This preoccupation with rebelliousness is directly related to the developmental process that this age group is dealing with.  In order to truly see themselves as autonomous individuals, adolescents must reject the forces of authority that seem to want only to control them.  It is through this process of rejection that they may establish their own sense of who they are. Riley (2001) says that, “achieving some notion of ‘who am I?’, is the constant quest and narcissistic focus for the years between childhood and adulthood” (p.140).  Teenagers are on a quest to figure out who they are as individuals.  The natural progression of that quest involves the adoption of some form of outlet which enables the youth to share who they are with the world as well as provide a screen for them to see themselves in a light that fosters identification with their proposed identity.  According to Belfer(1990), “adolescents search for identity as much as they seek a context for the expression of their identity” (p.558). Many adolescents engage in antisocial behavior as they explore their individuality and test the boundaries around them.  Often, the public sphere becomes the target of their resistance as it represents to them all things controlling or authoritative.  Society, with all its rules, regulations and limitations, becomes the super-parent from which to separate from.  As all youth in this stage of adolescence must go through similar fights for independence, they are able to relate to one another and join together in their fight against the oppressive forces of authority.  Society becomes the collective parental figure in which all youth can have a shared experience of the fight for identity.

 

Graffiti as Self Expression

 

As adolescents grapple with both their quest for identity and their opposition to authority, they inevitably find ways of expressing their inner turmoil and conflict.  One example which illustrates these two dynamics is the practice of graffiti.  The act of graffiti demonstrates both adolescent opposition to society, by breaking the law and defacing public property, as well as the need for identity formation, in the repetitive writing of their name.  The act of graffiti has become such a wide spread practice among youth that society has been forced to confront it as a phenomena. In a society that has become so preoccupied with media, the value of self worth is often judged by fame.  Austin(2001) feels that in the U.S. “to see one’s ‘name in lights’ is to achieve an exalted public status in the eyes of the world” (p.39).  The Western societal culture of consumerism breeds the saturation of city landscapes with advertisements.  These advertisements are commercial, corporate, colorful signs in shared public space which imply “don’t forget this name”(Austin, 2001).  This sets the stage for the attitude which equates widespread recognition with identity and desirability.  Young people in this society adopt this attitude from the collective culture but at the same time are not included in it.  Therefore, they create their own unique manner of self expression.  These culturally  acquired attitudes fit into their own world view and are accessible within the limitations that society has put on them.

 

Many people, young and old want to be recognized.  In a time when they are unsure of who they are, adolescents seek validation for their evolving sense of self.  This creates an even greater need to be seen and heard in the public sphere. Austin(2001) quotes MIDG, a young writer(graffiti artist) from New York, as saying, “people know us because we paint trains.  If we just stayed in the neighborhoods, no one would ever know who we are”(p.47).  Graffiti becomes a way for the struggling adolescent to communicate his inner identity conflict and be acknowledged in the world.  In Bryan’s(1998) documentary video, Graffiti Verite 2, Wel, a writer from Los Angeles, is asked to share his motivation for his illegal art:

 

“It’s an expression of my mind.  It’s my mind coming to reality.  It’s a thought comin to reality so people can see it.  It’s the manifestation of a thought, so everybody to see what I’m thinking”  “Why is it important for anybody to really give a shit about what you’re thinking?”  “Really it’s for me, you know what I’m sayin’, it’s me showing the world, it’s like me yellin, Well, you know what I’m sayin’, it’s me yellin to the whole world.....I exist, I’m here”.

 

As a result of their struggle for identity and their lack of control within the social order, adolescents are full with displaced energy.  They must, as a natural process of identity formation, express themselves outwardly to externalize their inner struggle and work it out in the world. Linesch(1988) writes, “the feelings of self absorption and isolation, which the adolescent experiences contributes to their propensity toward creativity”(p.5).  Youth in this stage have a natural need to express themselves.  And for some youth, graffiti acts as a creative form of expression for a population whose tumultuous energy is so often suppressed by society.  Asyl’m, a writer from California, in an interview captured on video (Graffiti Verite' 2) by Bryan(1998),  contends:

 

 “There’s so many laws out there, you know, especially here to the minorities, and we’re just fed up, you know, that’s just a way of getting out there and sayin’ forget you guys.......Yeah I feel oppressed.....doing graffiti relieves some of that oppression.  Going out there without people telling you what to do.......There is not freedom of expression, there isn’t such a thing, there’s always someone out there that’s in control.  So I guess it would be nice if we did have freedom of expression.   So you know, graffiti allows us to do this.  I’ll go out there and be free.”

 

In another interview from the video Graffiti Verite' 2, Bryan(1998), captures a writer named Bruin saying, 

 

“it is an art form in which I would say almost personifies the oppression that the individual has gone through and I would say that it hardly ever gets captivated as much as graffiti captivates that struggle”.

 

In a time when violence and drug use has become so common among adolescents, graffiti acts as a less self destructive, if illegal, alternative for channeling the rebellious energy of youth.  It has become a ritualized rebellion and formed into a whole culture which offers young people a way to express themselves and their personal frustrations as well as give them a public forum for social criticism.

 

“We’re out here cause this is our way of expressing ourselves, our way of keeping it real for ourselves, that’s what it’s about”.

 

These words from a writer called Elfe (Graffiti Verite' 2), exemplify the notion that graffiti is a necessary coping mechanism for the unfavorable conditions put on writers by their own adolescent turmoil in conjunction with the oppression of society.  However, the majority of authority figures, who make the rules in the “oppressive” society do not have compassion for these young people.

 

 

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