When is a window broken? Reverse Graffiti and Social Rules


I was in Barcelona recently and found myself puzzling over something. Almost all of the graffiti was on the shutters of shops – not the stone or brickwork. It appears as though the ‘taggers” (also see this on Birmingham tagging and youtube) have decided not to spray the buildings themselves. If this is a correct observation (and please tell me if it’s way off the mark) what’s going on here? …

Something I was reading in the new book Respect in the neighbourhood: why neighbourliness matters, edited by Kevin Harris, got me thinking. In Philip Connolly’s chapter on the Heelgood Factor (making communities walkable) he refers to the 1980’s idea of the broken window approach to neighbourhoods and Zimbardo’s experiment in the 1970’s.

Two cars were left unattended, one in the Bronx in New York and one in the wealthier Palo Alto neighbourhood near San Franscisco. The bronx car was stripped within hours but in Palo Alto the car sat unharmed for a weekend, until Zimbardo provoked action by deliberately smashing one of the windows – only then did it appear to be fair game and the destruction begin. This encouraged a whole new set of thinking about the need to make rapid repairs in neighbourhoods to ensure that people respected the environment.

But the question is what qualifiies as a broken window? Who decides? If there is a social convention in Barcelona which says tagging the shutters is fine, the brickwork not – then applying a ‘broken windows’ policy there could actually damage community relations rather than improve – by cleaning up grafitti which the community regards as acceptable. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But another blogger Andrew Brown pointed me in the direction of another challenge to how you would police a ‘broken windows’ approach: Reverse Graffiti sees the art (or vandlism) creating by cleaning grime from public buildings – a hyper version of the ‘clean me’ scrawl on white vans. Take a look at inhabit for some fab photos and the simple challenge:

When is cleaning the sidewalks a crime? When you’re doing it to create art. Obviously.

In some cities the only response from the authorities has been to clean the place up – de-grime it. I wonder how long it will be before we see taggers buying solvent, so they can reverse tag by creating clean patterns in other people’s graffiti? Broken window?


  1. troutmask says:

    Unfortunatly as this shows there is some graffiti on the walls.
    The one thing I have always noticed about Barca graffiti is how like Miro paintings some of it looks (or maybe that’s just me)

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