The Practical Radical

Of Graffiti, Space and Youth | April 4, 2010


Rio is a gorgeous city – stunning really. The city is up against both the mountains and the ocean. The people are vibrant. The music amazing.

Yet one thing that I missed that my 12 years old son, Liam, noticed immediately was the graffiti. It was everywhere. The last time I noticed graffiti was in Rome, where I found the incongruence between the ancient monuments such as the Coliseum with the proliferation of graffiti everywhere quite striking. The graffiti in Rome struck me as a way that youth were trying to take back a city they did not feel part of. The graffiti had an angry, gritty feel to it. The young against the old – an urban inter-generational argument of sorts.


Graffiti in a Rome Subway

What was different with the graffiti in Rio was that though there was seemingly an equal amount of it, the graffiti was, according to Liam, “#$%^ awesome”. These were truly graffiti artists, a cut above the scrawl that I saw in Rome. At Liam’s behest we took a quick urban safari and took photos of the different graffiti, some pictured here. From this safari I learned a lot about graffiti culture such as what “toying” is  (“toying” or writing over someones graffiti is a way to show  disrespect for inferior work); that EVERYONE has a tag, dad; and that you have to be careful not to toy or copy a gang’s tag. Complicated, illuminating and yet another thing I as parent had to get a handle on.

In stepping back and reflecting, there were are two things struck me about the graffiti. First, on my two experiences with graffiti – the angst filled graffiti of Rome vs the graffiti art of Rio – I think the difference between the two cities has a lot to do with the demographic context within which the graffiti was being done. Italy, as is most of Europe and the developed world, is demographically much older; compared to Rio where, like in much of the developing world, there is a much larger percentage of the population which is youthful. You can see this in the age pyramids below, where the bulge for Brazil is from 0-25 years old, and Italy where the bulge is between 30 and 50.

My experience in some developing country cities is that though youth often face oppression, there is also a growing realization that they are the majority, and, if the country is moving in a positive direction and they are able to engage meaningfully in everyday life, they are the ones to benefit first and their is a sense of hope.[1] In the developed world youth make up a much smaller percentage of the population and  they have a level of say in their city equal to their numbers. This lack of power and influence can breed discontent and often leads to violence. We have seen  some of this urban violence in Europe in the last few years, often  by youth from immigrant communities who are in the majority, but have little power within in their society. See an excellent article done by Jackie Amsden on the violence in France in 2005 – Fires, Festivals and Franchise – Youth Citizenship in France.

Second, it strikes me that graffiti is an important way for youth to claim their space within their respective cities. Research has shown that cities are not an inviting or engaging space for youth – in fact planners often design cities to “manage” the youth “problem”. Urban design is often focused on assuring youth activities such as skateboarding, biking, or hanging out are discouraged. Often recreation space and services for youth are in short supply. Through graffiti youth are able to symbolically claim their space and mark their territory so to speak. It is  important to note that some cities and international agencies recognize that space for youth is in short supply, and so are working to create space which can  engage their burgeoning youth populations. For example, UN-HABITAT and local governments have  developed programs such as the One Stop Youth Resource Centres, which are youth led and initiated, and focus on providing a safe and generative space for youth to work.

So, in the end, I come back to where I started – Rio is a beautiful city. What is less obvious but arguably more important for the long-term sustainability of the city, is that it is the cities youth who in large part are responsible for bringing about this beauty. They are its principal inhabitants, and through public demonstrations such as graffiti we can see both what they are capable of today and what promise they can bring for tomorrow.

[1] Having said this, if the country is not going in a positive direction, then youth can as well be the ones who bring violence to the streets. The violence following the Kenyan elections is an example of this.

* this post can as well be found on the Sustainable Cities blog

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