Thursday, July 28, 2011
Hideous. Modern art. Criminal. Free expression.
Graffiti can inspire strong, divided reactions within a community, leading to disagreements over what it is, whether it has purpose, and what to do about it.
For recent CSU Monterey Bay grad Scott Lydon, it was initially a way to understand the increasing prevalence of gang-related homicides in Salinas. After the March 2010 death of a 6-year-old boy from a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting, he was struck by a desire to get involved in anti-gang efforts.
“I was very upset to see this happen, especially after I had seen violence up close and personal on two deployments to the Middle East,” Lydon says. “I wanted to learn as much as I could to somehow address the issue.”
Under the guidance of mentor Dr. Ruben Mendoza, a professor of Social, Behavioral and Global Studies, Lydon’s concern evolved into an honors thesis. Influenced by Mendoza’s work researching the symbolism and territoriality of gang graffiti in other U.S. cities such as El Paso, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz. – and inspired by his own experience with geographic information system mapping while working as a radar technician in the Navy – Lydon decided to examine the graffiti in Salinas. He teamed up with David Sosa, another CSUMB senior, to work on a year-long honors Capstone Project through the archaeology department.
For the first few months, they went out every Sunday to take pictures of graffiti for later analysis – over 500 in all, concentrating on the areas around the five most recent homicide locations.
But what they found soon steered the project in a new direction: Most of the graffiti they were coming across was not actually done by gang members. Investigation into one ambiguous symbol – a red TNG – led them to 12ozProphet, an online forum where users can share and discuss their graffiti. There they discovered “tagging crews,” groups of graffiti writers that regard what they do as street art, rather than a way to mark territory. When Lydon and Sosa eventually encountered one such crew in the field, it turned out to be just a couple of bored teenagers.
Less than 5 percent of the graffiti Lydon and Sosa mapped showed gang connections.
“We watch the news and we read the newspaper and it just seemed like all the reports we were seeing about Salinas were about gangs,” he says. “I went into the project expecting to see way more gang-related graffiti.”
Nevertheless, their preliminary research into the theory behind gangs still provided a useful background for trying to understand the tagging crews.
“Most of these gang members are second-generation immigrants, so many of them are having trouble assimilating. Gangs give them a hierarchy and structure that is not there for them in society,” Sosa says.
Graffiti groups also can provide individuals with a sense of belonging they might not find elsewhere. “Tagging crews bring these kids together as a group to produce something,” he adds.
The results of the study impressed Mendoza, who encouraged Lydon and Sosa to share it with policymakers.
Studies like the one done by Lydon and Sosa can help explain youth violence, the type of crimes kids are committing and why, Mendoza says. “Unfortunately, too many of our schools have eliminated the arts, and we’ve reduced our kids to little more than test takers. They begin to dread the institution, so once they’re out of it, they want to deface it.”
But when they took their project to a special Salinas City Council meeting about graffiti, they made little headway. According to Lydon, the city is trying to clean up public areas and track taggers, but lacks resources to launch preventative efforts.
Now, Lydon hopes to get the information out in order to start a public discussion. He is particularly enthused about the possibility of having more street murals in Salinas, which in previous case studies have made a positive impact and help people feel safer.
He and Sosa believe that with education and opportunity, there is potential to transform an urban facet of Salinas.
“There has to be an outlet for these kids to use that energy in another area or they’ll just keep defacing property,” Sosa says. “There has to be a mentality change, where they understand the effects of what they’re doing.”
To view graffiti photographs shot by Scott Lydon and David Sosa, visit their Flickr page at www.flickr.com/photos/lydon_sosa_graffiti.