Graffiti Art Therapy

"All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers.”  - Orison Swett Marden

Dealing with the “Problem” of Graffiti

 

However necessary and constructive graffiti may be for certain adolescents in their struggle, in the eyes of the general public it is viewed as being unnecessary and very destructive.  It is, however, illegal and infringes on the lives of others.  Austin (2001) quotes Paul Korshin in a letter to the New York times saying, “[Writing is] not the cry of an anxious ego, eager to communicate joy or angst, but the defiant snarl of a nuisance.  The uniqueness of art ought not to be confused with a phenomenon so pervasive as graffiti”(p.94).  Austin goes on to quote a Metropolitan Transit Authority officer saying that New Yorkers have “got to get away from the idea that [writing] is cute or a way for someone to express themselves in a mechanistic society.......that’s a lot of nonsense”(p.89).

 

Graffiti has become a huge problem in many urban environments and cities spend millions of dollars every year in attempts to control it.  However, because of the widespread cultural legacy that graffiti has created across generations and nations of young people, society continues to be terrorized by it’s prevalence.  Several attempts have been made by authorities to reduce and control the amount of graffiti but to no avail.  In 1974, during Mayor Lindsay’s Anti-Graffiti law and task force, $10 million a year was being spent to reduce the surface covered by graffiti to just 50%.  According to Lindsay’s task force, reducing graffiti to “a more acceptable level”(10% surface coverage) would require an estimated $24 million per year(Austin, 2001).  A 1974 report in the New York Times, during the height of the War on Graffiti, quotes a Metropolitan Transit Authority officer saying that the anti-graffiti law passed “has proved no deterrent whatsoever”(Austin, 2001).

 

The powers that be continue to be defeated in the “War on Graffiti” as they fail to control the prolific scrawlings of rebellious, young, social deviants.  This is due, in large part, to the approach that the authorities have taken.  As a writer called Relic articulates in Bryan’s(1995) video, Graffiti Verite:

 

“Rather than to understand the problem and see why kids are doing it, they sit there and try to stop it... not knowing that the thing that fuels this...this kind of movement is the energy that the kids have.  Now with society not giving these kids a different way, or a different form to express their energies and them just taking something away, their energies are gonna go into somethin else.  With graffiti, it’s a positive energy that these kids are doing.  Their putting their efforts into something beautiful to make something look nice.  Now with the city taking it away from us and taking  away our yards and not allowing us to do what we want to do, they’re sort of stopping a lot of kids from taking that energy and making it positive and these kids are turning their energy into something negative.  They’re starting to go out there gang bangin’ cause they can’t kick back in their yards anymore”.

 

Speaking to this same issue Tobin (1995) writes: 

Instead of trying to work with the youth who are doing the graffiti, the various politicians have taken the classic stance and declared war on graffiti writers.  This approach is outdated and accomplishes little as far as fixing the problems that motivate these kids to do graffiti in the first place.  This strategy only breeds resentment from the youth who perpetuate these crimes. (p.1)

 

 Most of the tactics that law enforcement has used to try and deal with the graffiti problem involve efforts to cleanup graffiti rather than deal with source of it’s prevalence.  There are several programs, which are funded by city dollars, whose sole purpose is to paint over graffiti.  However, this is not a solution by any means as it becomes more of an invitation to writers by providing a “blank canvas”, so to speak.  Tucker argues, in his essay, Graffiti: Art and Crime:

 

Surely instead of spending so much money on graffiti clean up and on revention task forces, it would make sense for the money to be channeled into opportunities for youths to be educated about artistic process and learn about the arts through legal wall projects, funded by the city.  Also it would educate the youths by giving them a creative outlet within their own community that would teach them about giving to the community and help it grow and prosper.  (p.8)

 

These kids obviously have something that they need to express and are determined to do so.  It is unrealistic to expect them to stop doing something that not only serves a purpose in their development of identity, but it is something that they are invested in and passionate about.  The more the authorities try and stop it, the more graffiti will exist as a “problem” in their eyes.  The creative energy that these youth have is a valuable thing that can be an asset to their character development as well as an asset to the whole of society if channeled in the right way. 


 Without the proper guidance of healthy role models who are willing to relate to youth on their level, adolescents are forced to develop their own set of values and way of socially interacting.  Riley (2001) says that for the disaffected youth who has “street culture as their principal source of exposure to values, adulthood comes early- an adulthood that misses appropriate opportunities to solve many areas of the developmental stages that makes real adulthood a successful achievement” (p.140).  According to Hanna, Hanna & Keys (1999), “one of the first things to recognize about defiant adolescents is that often they have been deprived of people who can serve as models of how to appropriately interact with and relate to others” (p.4).  Young people can successfully direct their energy toward positive, productive goals if only they are given the opportunity to go through their process of identity discovery in a healthy and supported way by people who can understand them.  Elikann(1999) says, “if young people at an early age aren’t surrounded with interested parents, cohesive communities or other positive role models who just fortunately are around, then we have to make proactive responses to intervene with programs of mentors and people to look up to” (p. 203).

 

Alternative Treatments

 

The justice system and society in general view juvenile delinquents as “bad” and make no attempt to see them as products of society.  They are not often given the chance to be rehabilitated or guided in a different direction, and when they are it fails because they are not sufficiently reached (Elikann, 1999).

 

According to Flowers (1990), “non-institutional corrections are seen as more effective in treating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders, more humane, and more cost-efficient than placing juveniles in training schools and adult institutions” (p.185).  Amdur, Davidson, Mitchell, & Redner(1990) conducted a study investigating the effectiveness of different alternatives treatments for delinquent adolescents, outside of the juvenile justice system.  The authors note that “interventions with troublesome youth have swung from an emphasis on social treatment to a preference for punishment” (p.3).  Therefore, they set up several different control samples to measure effectiveness of various form of treatment with troubled youth. One of the interventions that Amdur, Davidson, Mitchell, & Redner (1990) found to be effective was called “Youth Advocacy” which was described as follows:

 

 The Youth Advocacy intervention was based on a differential opportunity theory of delinquency.  According to this theory, youth with few opportunities to gain access to desired objects through legitimate channels turn to illegitimate methods instead.  In this intervention, the volunteer helps the youth identify goals and impediments to reaching them.  Then together they plan a strategy for overcoming identified obstacles.  The volunteer then tries to provide access to legitimate channels for meeting needs. (p.41)

 

The researchers discuss the significance of the therapeutic relationship regarding the effectiveness of this intervention and found that the interaction with the youth on their level provides the basis for developing the ability to relate.  In this study, the researchers asked the question, “does it matter who delivers the intervention?”  They found that 19-20 year old college students were more able to be effective treatment agents with delinquents than older volunteers due to “reduced social distance”.  Amdur, Davidson, Mitchell, & Redner(1990) said that “over professionalized staff or those trained in a restricted professional role often express ambivalence about entering the natural environment of delinquent youth” (p.239).  In their study, the authors found that “it was essential to select change agents who were willing to become directly involved in the youth’s natural setting” (p.239).

 

Elikann(1999) writes about a successful intervention with a 14 year old socially defiant kid.  This adolescent was approached by Molly Baldwin of ROCA, a youth services program in Chelsea, Massachusetts,  whose method of reaching youth was through their own interests.  She started a basketball gym program, for kids who like to play basketball, and used it as a way to develop a non-threatening relationship by approaching them with something they were interested in.  This particular 14 year old boy had this to say about his experience:

 

Teachers would say, “you got detention because of this, you’re not going to pass because of this”.  DSS says “you’ve got to do this because your mother dah da dah.”  And opposed to- here was this one place in the world that was saying, “well, you know what....what do you want to do?”......And so I love to play basketball, so that was kind of the bait-and-switch and I really just came down once a week on Mondays to play basketball....We’d go down there just to play ball and really, over a course of time, she’d use that as a way to get to know me and to begin to develop a relationship with me.  She’d start upping the ante in our conversations about my life and some decisions that I was making in my life or not making. (p.183)  It is the youth workers, who are capable and willing to interact with youth within and around the youths’ cultural world, that are most successful in reaching this population of young people.

 

The Arts Incentive Program (AIP), which was initiated at McLean Hospital in Belmont Massachusetts, provides opportunities for adolescents with various mental and behavior problems to interact with community-based youth workers through the arts (Fliegel, 200).  Through innovative art therapy programming, the AIP involves adolescents in “youth-based activities that replicate the viable stage-appropriate healing elements of the therapeutic milieu” (p.83).  They have found that “a clinical response to the adolescent’s own interests motivates recovery, as at-risk and beyond-risk adolescents are linked with community arts and youth development projects, where they acquire lifelong skills and a positive sense of self” (p.81). Fliegel(2000) notes:

 

There are those who perceive clinicians as condescending, pathologizing, authoritarian, and insensitive.  Clinicians have limited contact with youth community arts centers, but youth development workers are in it for the long haul, as it is these mentors who consistently encounter teens’ problems with school, family, drugs, crime, and violence.  Ironically youth workers rarely have clinical training, or even the benefit of clinical supervision.  Clinicians and youth workers must be open to learning about the assets, attributes, and difficulties within each other’s organizations. By linking the art world to the clinical setting, and providing clinical support to youth development programs, art therapists solidify an alliance between those committed to adolescent health, and maximize programmatic strengths in both circles.  (p.84)

 

Adolescents are a difficult population for adults to approach with the intention of changing their behavior.  Because of their sensitivity to authorities’ threat on their individuality, adolescents will often shutdown and close themselves off to adults in any kind of authoritative position.  Fliegel(2000) writes, boredom, apathy, nonchalance: these are the hallmarks of the disenfranchised teenager.  To demonstrate involvement or interest in the world violates the social code, which prohibits collaboration with untrustworthy adults” (p.85).  In order for adults to be seen as trustworthy, they have to develop a relationship, which acknowledges and respects the youth’s reality.  Hanna, Hanna, & Keys(1999) argue that “a counseling technique performed without a properly established empathic and trusting relationship seems to many defiant adolescents to be a threat to their integrity, and just another covert or overt attempt at manipulation” (p.3). And according to Fliegel (2000), “many adolescents anticipate that treatment will be one more intolerable imposition by the same unfeeling adults whose callousness has already brought them to the brink of annihilation” (p.82).  Similarly, in his work with adolescent criminals referred by the Massachusetts Division of Youth Services, Newberger(1999) found that “not a few of these kids were, as the term is used “hardened”.  That’s to say that they were familiar with therapists and jaded with people who professed interest in helping them.  Getting them to talk was no small task” (p.220). In acknowledgment of this troublesome obstacle in reaching adolescents, Esman(1983) writes: 

  
Perhaps the most taxing problem in the treatment of the severely disturbed adolescent is that of finding a channel for the establishment of a therapeutic relationship.  Too old for the play techniques of early childhood, the adolescent  has not yet evolved the cognitive and self-observing capacities that will permit him to use the free association approach of adult analytic therapy, and is, in any case a frequently unwilling patient, oriented more to action than to reflection as a means of reducing tension and warding off anxiety.  (p.141) Thus, as it has been found, troubled adolescents require a special approach to treatment, which fits within their realm of interest and allows for creative self expression.

 

 

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