Visual content analysis of stencil graffiti: employing street reading

Axel Philipps, Ralph Richter

Stencil graffiti are visual street interventions with various contents. Such contents can be detected employing street reading, a method for exploring environment-specific everyday cultures. This method examines communication devices such as signs, text messages and symbols used in everyday interactions. In our study, we combined street reading with content analysis for the purpose of studying and classifying stencil graffiti. Our analytical procedure offers a framework for practicing street reading of a specific visual public phenomenon and, in particular, reveals characteristics of stenciling and its contents. The findings challenge arguments which assume a strong relation between stenciling and political involvement. In our case study, most stencil graffiti appear to be cryptic, personal tags and advertisements. Only a small proportion of stencil graffiti actually address current political issues or contain propaganda.

From the perspective of urban studies, spatiality is socially produced (i.e. social space). Architecture and urban planning constitute space-related meanings. Functional spaces like private houses, public buildings or public spaces induce specific connotations and behavioral options. Additionally, the functionally characterized urban space is superimposed by meanings related to everyday cultures. The latter produce their own understanding of urban environments. For this reason, urban studies are interested in examining the everyday-specific appropriation of urban space. The focus here is to reconstruct environment-specific everyday cultures or particular forms of urban usurpation through unauthorized signs, texts and pictures.

Prominent research about unofficial forms of urban usurpation, for example, has focused on writing, etching, drawing, or spraying graffiti1 on public surfaces. Graffiti have been studied for various reasons since people started using it as a form of anonymous, visual dialog for the purpose of demarcating a territory (Ley and Cybriwsky 1974), constituting an identity (Carrington 2009) and reflecting on community concerns (Reisner 1971) or specific events (Klingman and Shalev, 2001). Nonetheless, the term graffiti comprises various distinct forms of expressions like parole graffiti, signatures and stencil graffiti. Whereas studies have examined written and drawn graffiti (Reisner 1971; Klingman and Shalev, 2001) and signatures (Ley and Cybriwsky 1974; Macdonald 2002; Snyder 2009), little is known about stencil graffiti. Stencil graffiti are created with paint and a template for designing contrastive and reductive pictures and texts. First appearances have been acknowledged on the wall of the Cosquer cave near Marseilles on the south coast of France. Hand stencils in the cave were produced around 25,000 BC. Throughout history, stencil graffiti occurred alongside political propaganda and trading activities and was also used for decorative and artistic purposes. With the upcoming of street art as a new form of urban art (Austin 2010), stencil graffiti were documented in many magazines, books and websites. These collections present a wide variety of images and contents and offer some general remarks on stencil graffiti. However, systematic approaches and investigations are still lacking.

The main problem is that stencil collections are using material from around the world and are focusing on the variations instead of providing an in-depth analysis (Howze 2008; MacPhee 2004; Manco 2002). Most empirical studies on stencil graffiti, consequently, focus on local contexts for empirically and methodically controlled investigations (FigueroaSaaverda 2007; Kane 2009; McGaw 2008; Tsilimpounidi/Walsh 2010). They examine stencil graffiti and its makers based on material collections and interviews. Usually, such material collections are restricted to a few case studies and tend to predominantly serve illustrative purposes instead of being assembled for systematic investigations.

Our study offers a systematic exploration of stencil graffiti using the method of “street reading” (Alber 1997; Schubert 2005; Sinclair 1997). Street reading was established to explore environment-specific everyday cultures by examining communication devices like signs, text messages and symbols used in everyday interactions. Apart from street reading, another similar approach to the culture of graffiti writers is described as “reading the walls” (Macdonald 2002; Snyder 2009). Reading the walls means to decipher stylish signatures. Of course, such reading requires insider knowledge about graffiti writers and their styles. In contrast to graffiti writing, stencil graffiti are addressed to the public using pointed, reduced icons and text messages. In many cases, the communication with stencil graffiti is even based on commonly known signs, phrases, and pictures. It is argued that most stencil graffiti present short-term political issues, that they are deployed for the purpose of mobilizing demonstrations and social movements and propagating political ideologies (Chaffee 1993; Manco 2002; Rafferty 1991; Tsilimpounidi/Walsh 2010). For these reasons, everyone can usually read stencil images and texts. For content analysis purposes, we therefore decided to identify such elements in stencil graffiti and use them for classifying stencil graffiti.

Hence, our first aim is to offer an analytical procedure for a systematic approach to unsanctioned visual materials on urban surfaces. Secondly, we provide findings about stencil appearances in the street and about the stencil makers’ intentions. Here, we focus on the question of what the contents and frequencies reveal about the stencil makers and whether there is any evidence of strong political involvement.

Street reading and different kinds of meaning

Street reading focuses on the messages conveyed through inscriptions in the architecture or street arrangements, pedestrian ways, trees, lamps, signposts etc. (Alber 1997; Schubert 2005). Apart from the messages inherent in urban planning and development, urban space is also loaded with other signs and symbols. Shop owners add decorations, instructions or advertisements, pedestrians leave messages (i.e. graffiti, stickers, notes) on lampposts, windows and walls or present certain styles or company logos on clothes. All these messages produce an environment specific everyday culture, which can be observed and investigated during street reading.

In his New York study, Alber (1997) documented street messages by collecting symbols and inscriptions in urban spaces. For this purpose, he defined street messages as all the text-based artefacts in the streets. This included graffiti, posters, stickers, postings, traffic signs, advertisements and even portable messages on clothes, cars or shopping bags. He then related the text content with media forms and spatial contexts in order to reveal specific everyday cultures in different streets, places or neighborhoods.

Consequently, street reading is used to synchronically explore an environment-specific culture to its full extent. Its objective is a comprehensive description of space-related cultures. Less attention is paid to specific communication devices and how they change over time. Unsanctioned texts like graffiti, in particular, are categorized as being indicative of an identification with a specific neighborhood or social group (Alber 1997; Schubert 2005) – or are even perceived as being altogether “meaningless” (Sinclair 1997: 3). Carrington (2009) took a different approach. She collected photographs, video footages, documentary data and field notes in selected streets and communities in the USA, the UK and Australia, concentrating on graffiti texts. However, she was not interested in environment-specific interrelations and only wrote about graffiti texts in general. In our research, we combined the street reading approach with content analysis, thereby offering an analytical procedure for studying and classifying stencil graffiti. As a consequence, the research objective shifts the focus from describing an environment-specific culture to achieving a categorical-functional understanding of the usage of a communication device like stencil graffiti.

The approach of street reading can also be used for investigating specific visual phenomena in public spaces. However, focusing on a particular visual communication device excludes all others. If we concentrate solely on graffiti stencils, any official and authorized street messages like signposts, landmarks, or advertising on billboards are ignored. But since stencil graffiti are reduced to pointed messages for communicating with the public (Manco 2002; Rafferty 1991), it should be possible to identify various ‘objective meanings’ (Mannheim 1964). In his theoretical outlines of documentary interpretations, Mannheim (1964) distinguished between three kinds of meaning: objective, intentional, and documentary. Objective meaning is shared knowledge necessary for understanding and acting in everyday life and other spheres like art, science or trade. Such knowledge is generally given with languages and is independent from individual intentions or experiences. In contrast, an individual perspective characterizes intentional meanings. Such meaning is defined by what is individually and consciously intended. Documentary meaning, however, is not given with intentions but is documented in practices as a specific ‘habitus’. Hence, the documentary meaning is revealed by examining how people speak or act, which is never coincidental and appears in countless variations. Methodically speaking, instead of concentrating on what is being said or produced, the focus is on how something is being said or created (Mannheim 1964: 134). For instance, focusing on how stencil graffiti are designed offers insights about the habitual orientations of stencil makers. The usage of a lowtech, easy-to-use and cost-effective reproductive technology was interpreted as stencil makers rejecting and counteracting a high-tech, digitalized world by reanimating such old-fashioned reproductive tools (Carrington 2009). Or that, by copying utilitarian styles and typography, they mimic official texts or advertisement in order to alter dominant meanings and disrupt everyday activities (Brisman 2010; Manco 2002; Rafferty 1991; Visconti et al. 2010). Both practices indicate a provocative orientation contra the contemporary structures and ideologies of the consumer society.

In this article, we focus on the content or “objective meaning” of stencil graffiti. Thus, we investigate the content of materially disseminated stencils. Of course, street reading hardly offers any profound information on individual intentions. Examining the intentional meaning would require in-depth analysis of stencil makers’ biographical experiences, their objectives and creations. However, street reading Visual Methodologies Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012 PHILIPPS AND RICHTER 29 generates data about visual occurrences of stencil graffiti on urban space which permits suggestions about related intentions.

Stencil graffiti are grouped into a number of categories: abstract, figurative, faces, characters, personal tags, animals, political, religious and so on (i.e., Howze 2008; MacPhee 2004; Manco 2002). In all these categories, stencil graffiti are differentiated and sorted according to what is typically (objectively) known as a face, an animal or a political icon. However, it is difficult to understand why such stencil graffiti of a face, words or animal were sprayed onto an urban surface just by looking at them. Nonetheless, some icons or phrases have functional relations representing specific ideas and world views. As a consequence, if such symbols and signs are used in stencil graffiti, they provide information about the purposes for which they are frequently employed. For instance, stencil makers who reproduce political icons or phrases in the public, communicate and confirm underlying ideologies. Such icons, like a five-pointed star or the portrait of Che Guevara, can be deciphered in any context. Their meanings would not change if they are put in the street, in a gallery or a living room. Of course, the meaning may change along with a change of colors or shape, like a black or red raised fist, but a raised fist still is a revolutionary icon and symbol. Even so, proper names are more than conventional signs or words. They intend to bring up memories of specific events, groups or products which allow for conclusions about their usage with stencil graffiti. For instance, stenciling a brand for advertising purposes is a well-established guerrilla-marketing practice.

The literature on stencil graffiti and street art suggests four different types of objective functional contents. Beside formal classifications of stencil graffiti contents into abstract, figurative or animalistic, there also are functional categories of political content, advertisements, personal tags and religious symbols (Howze, 2008; MacPhee, 2004; Manco, 2002). Political stencils represent and propagate different utopian and ideological convictions ranging from anarchist to far right-wing ideas. Advertisements with stencil graffiti are intended to appeal to consumer groups attracted to graffiti writing and street art. Graffiti writers use letter combinations as personal tags (graffiti writer’s signature) in order to gain fame and respect from other graffiti writers for skilled stylized signatures with a high spatial density or placement in spectacular places. Finally, religious emblems and symbols in stencil graffiti communicate specific commitments or beliefs to onlookers.

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