Using Palimpsest to Understand the City’s Cultural Re-appropriation of Graffiti and Street Art and the Impact it has on its Representational and Socio- Political Function21 minute read

Abstract

Having worked for renowned street artist Banksy’s press relations team for the past few summers, including throughout his critically-acclaimed exhibition ‘Dismaland’ in Weston- Super-Mare in 2015, I have been conditioned to celebrate street-art; appraising its satirical socio-political commentary and commending the voice it gives the minority. However, living in Shoreditch for the past two years has me questioning the authenticity of today’s graffiti: has its original functionality been subverted, and if it has what implication might this have on its power to represent?

Throughout this essay I use the metaphor of palimpsest to assess how and why graffiti in London has changed since the ‘aerosol revolution’ (BBC Four, 2015) of the 1970s. This research is structured as follows; section 2.0 establishes the contextual and historical background to this essay, section 3.0 outlines the methods used throughout, and importantly addresses the issue of reflexivity within such a subjective subject matter.

Sections 4.1 and 4.2 discusses graffiti as both a site of representation and of socio-political protest. However, section 4.3 traces the re-appropriation of this subcultural activity by the new urban regime. Touching on the power to both condone and condemn street-art, legal graffiti sites and graffiti advertising, the research concludes that Oli Mould’s (2017) ‘Creative city’ has initiated Jean Baudrillard’s (1996) ‘death of reality’, ultimately removing a large part of the practice’s authentic functionality.


Background

For tens of thousands of years mankind have been leaving their mark on walls (BBC Four, 2015). Brooklyn’s graffiti artist Rusk even suggests that this motivation to leave behind territorial stains is an “innate human compulsion” (BBC Four, 2015). Graffiti can be seen as symptom of the socio-politics within a city, a metaphorical voice given to contradict the hegemonic narratives (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017). The writings on the wall therefore become the ‘poem the city writes to itself’ (Figure one). Such projections onto the wall can even be traced back to the Biblical story of Balthazar’s feast, in which supernatural writings on the wall appeared as a prophecy for the upcoming demise of the Babylonian Empire. Applying this metaphor, David Ley and Roman Cybriwsky suggest  the voice granted by such writings on the wall offer a glimpse of what’s to come: ‘Today’s graffiti are tomorrow’s headlines’ (Ley and Cybriwsky, 1974: 491).

Figure one. Graffiti is a poem the city writes to itself, Boom. Source: Pinterest
Figure one. Graffiti is a poem the city writes to itself, Boom. Source: Pinterest

In a post-modern and increasingly globalised world, ‘space’ starts to be recognised as an intersection of relations; being continuously constructed and always part of a process (Massey, 2005). With space being consistently produced and re-produced, George Orwell visualises this as the city being written over many times, with none of its past truly erased (Orwell, 1938). This essay likens this imagery to graffiti work ‘coming and going as a series of urban apparitions’ that creates a ‘vast dialect of hide-and-seek that is played out across the city’s cultural geography, and between street artists and their various urban audiences’ (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017: 33). As such, the walls of London can be likened to the literal translation of a palimpsest. This research project explores the cultural re-appropriation of graffiti through a palimpsestuous lens. It investigates the echoes of the past onto the present through the metaphorical layering of graffiti and uses palimpsest as a guide to map out the changes in socio-political representations within London since the 1970s.

The predominant locational focus of this project will be ‘the Mecca of street art’ (BBC Four, 2015), London’s Shoreditch, located in the East End, although my research will also take us to a mural once found in Wood Green and the Leake Street tunnel located behind the Southbank. As a hub of cultural expression, Shoreditch is an interesting location to look     at the interplay of two key trends that have dominated urban life since street art has become an inner-city phenomenon; social control and social trend (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017). The regime of social control is characterized by exponential growth in urban surveillance via the following methods; increased policing, CCTV, restrictive  environmental designs all of which filter into aggressive anti-graffiti campaigns. These operations act as such a threat to unrestricted street art that some claim them to be the cause of graffiti ‘facing its last days’ (Oswald, 2012). Not only this, but it acts a subtle reminder  of the colonial roots characterizing space with ‘cleanliness’ and ‘purity’ (Tsilimpounidi, 2015), demonstrating that every blank wall signifies a place under control (BBC Four, 2015). This governance is thoroughly entangled with social trend; consumption-driven urban development. Quality of life is commoditised and ‘meticulously manufactured and marketed to those young professionals whom city leaders hope to attract’ (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017), essentially aiming to create what Richard Florida coined the ‘creative class’ (Florida, 2002). Peter Taylor suggests that cities engaging in creative competition remains a systemic requirement of the Neoliberal race to the global top via capital accumulation, or what he labels as the ‘hierarchy of cities’ (Taylor, 2004). In the context of Shoreditch, we see these two trends omnipresent within the process of ‘Shoreditchification’ (Proud, 2014), a cycle of cultural re-appropriation and commodification, which ultimately revokes the neighborhood’s original authenticity rendering it a homogenous space (Proud, 2014). This research therefore scrutinizes the power to both celebrate cultural practice for profit, whilst simultaneously being able to criminalize it, and suggests that these contrasting forces truly animate and give a new meaning to the contemporary practice of graffiti and street art today.


Methodology and reflexivity

Given the visual nature of street art and graffiti, the primary methodology used throughout this project will be visual ethnography captured through the means of photography.

Photography enables the researcher to capture moments, which help to create a lived experience rather than attempting to reduce a social and visual phenomenon to text (Saukko, 2003). Taking photographs additionally enables further off-site reflections. Furthermore, a walking tour of Shoreditch’s graffiti was undertaken with the Strawberry Tours company. This tour helped to establish a fundamental repertoire of knowledge of Shoreditch’s graffiti and thus added a contextual grounding to my research. Given that space is continuously changing; being fabricated and re-fabricated (Massey, 2005) in order to truly engage with its representations it was necessary to re-visit the site on multiple occasions. Other items used throughout my analysis include a historical collection of London’ graffiti presented in Roger Perry’s ‘The Writing On The Wall’ (2015), articles, graffiti documentaries and documentation outlining local authority stances on graffiti.

Although this research aimed to capture an extensive array of evidence relevant to the research question, it is imperative from the outset to establish that very few methods are able to faultlessly capture all of the relevant information (Roulston, 2010). Likewise, the impact of reflexivity must be addressed as the role of researcher will inevitably impact the position of the research conducted (Haynes, 2012). Applying my personal experiences and perspectives forcibly guaranteed that I was approaching the research from an embedded position. My positionality is both ‘socially constructed and culturally located’ (Chris Jenks, 1995: 210) and consequentially, throughout this essay I must avoid making any certain truth statements. I therefore challenge any claims to objectivity, instead I accept that the outcome of my research will intrinsically contains a level subjectivity.


GRAFFITI AS A SITE OF REPRESENTATION

Street art and graffiti captures the spatio-social interactions within peoples’ places of being and their inhabitation of space and consequentially, the ‘writings on the wall’ offer an insight into the polyvalent character of the urban environment (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017), or act as a ‘social diary’ on public display (Bleeps.gr, 2014: 221).

Consequentially, this research explores graffiti as a means of understanding the subtext of the city without referring to official accounts. Whilst on the Shoreditch graffiti tour, we were introduced to a piece of street art by artist Jimmy C (Figure two). The mural depicts a father or grandfather figure holding a young child, surrounded by a halo of bright yellow light. This piece of graffiti, as explained by our tour guide, was a commemoration to the owner of what use to be Joe’s

Greasy Spoon Café, recently replaced by chain restaurant ‘Pho Village’. It is a recreation of one of Joe’s photographs that could be found hanging on the wall of the family owned breakfast bar. The two characters are both cloaked in dreary expressions and slowly fading into the facade of the newly opened Vietnamese street food restaurant. One interpretation of this piece could suggest that the artwork is a social commentary by Jimmy C on the displacement of authentic elements of Shoreditch’s past via Proud’s process of ‘Shoreditchification’  (Proud, 2014) and thus stands as a representation of Shoreditch’s dynamic  socio-cultural composition.

Figure two. Strawberry Tours of Shoreditch’s graffiti.
Figure two. Strawberry Tours of Shoreditch’s graffiti. Source: Researcher, taken 09/02/2018.

GRAFFITI AS A FORM OF POLITICAL COMMUNICATION AND SITE OF PROTEST

From the May 1968 Paris riots, to the Arab Springs and a post-financial crisis Athens, all  of these momentous moments of political unrest have been marked by huge proliferation in political graffiti. Emerging in times of ‘economic inequality and social upheaval’ (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017: 27), this grassroots visual vocabulary serves to represent the power struggles, the marginalities and the countercultures present within the tapestry of a city: it is intrinsically socio-political (BBC Four, 2015). As such, the stains on the walls of a city can be interpreted as a ‘visual history of marginalized and minority groups’ (Tsilimpounidi, 2015: 18). Opening a city up as a moving platform of open dialogue thus plays an important role in exposing counterhegemonic narratives and the ‘city walls… screaming a thousand stories’ (Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017: 77) expose another of its functionalities; ‘a barometer of crisis’ (Chaffee, 1993: 3). During the 1970s when the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham first investigated graffiti, working-class problems were used as a key to unlocking the point and purpose behind such subcultural expressionism (Cohen, 1972). Although working-class resistance may be a facet in the multi-dimensional force propelling artists, or ‘writers’ to leave their mark, this essay argues in line with Nancy Mcdonald that there is more to this urban resistance than simply class struggles, notably racial tensions, gender conflicts etc (Mcdonald, 2001).

Photographer Roger Perry’s re-released ‘The Writing On The Wall’ documents the ‘politically charged, revolution-demanding slogans’ spray-painted across the walls of London in the 1970s (Clack, 2015). The socio-political commentary of Figure 3 (top)  speaks to a time of mass social commotion; throughout this documentation period the state moved  from a conservative government, to labour and then reverted back to conservative and this time of political turmoil was mirrored through its visual protest. Such acts of dissident are still present amongst the streets of London today. A short walk through Shoreditch took me past Mistress May (Figure 3 bottom), presenting the UK’s current Prime Minister Theresa May as a dominatrix, who through the words ‘let you eat cake’ is likened to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who was was accused of being out of touch with the lives of the French peasants. Such commentary on current British politics is additionally echoed within  satirical interpretations of US politics via the ‘Tangerine Tyrant’ poster of Donald Trump (Figure 3 bottom), the current President of the United States of America. Throughout section 4.3, this essay will discuss the impact that urban governance and the Creative City (Mould, 2017) have on the political and social function of graffiti in this day and age in London.

Figure three. Top. Source: ‘The Writing On The Wall’ (Perry, 2015). Bottom. Source: Researcher, taken 09/02/2018 on Strawberry Tours of Shoreditch’s Graffiti
Figure three. Top. Source: ‘The Writing On The Wall’ (Perry, 2015). Bottom. Source: Researcher, taken 09/02/2018 on Strawberry Tours of Shoreditch’s Graffiti

 


SUBCULTURAL PRACTICES RE-APPROPRIATED

It is important to highlight at this point the impossibility of recounting any one particular totalizing discourse on space (Edensor, 2008). There isn’t an exact accuracy, or truth  behind culture, instead culture is created through different translations and shared   meanings (Hall, 1997). As such, one must be cautious in only celebrating cultural practices, such as graffiti. Throughout the walking tour of Shoreditch it was particularly important to be aware of this. Given the tour guide’s enthusiasm and passion for the graffiti surrounding us it was easy to fall into the trap of consuming all of this artwork at face value; glorifying its “fabulous resistance” or its “undeniable authenticity”. But as Stuart Hall (1997) advises, one must understand the shared meaning behind such cultural movements; its not enough to interpret them all at one aesthetic level. A friendly piece of artwork (figure 4) left behind by an artist, supposedly disgruntled by her graffiti being part of a mainstream street art tour even helps remind us of this. Within this section, the research turns to a critical perspective, looking specifically at the impact of current regimes in creating a new   meaning for the contemporary practice of graffiti and street art.

Figure four.
Figure four.

Historically, local authoritative stances on street art have been very clear; ‘Graffiti is not art…’ (Assoication of London Government, 2005: 3), instead it is ‘illegal marks…made by a person or persons on any physical element compromising the outdoor environment’ (Assoication of London Government, 2005: 6). By consequence, under section 1C of the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, graffiti and fly-posting can result in an antisocial behavior order and is still liable for civil prosecution under trespassing (Mulcahy and Flessas, 2016). This position in many circumstances is still being upheld by the authorities; as mentioned previously, aggressive urban surveillance and continuous anti-graffiti campaigns (figure 5) are a common component of Shoreditch’s street life. In fact, Gov.UK, the United Kingdom’s public sector information website, actively encourages the reporting of graffiti through their online mapping system (figure 5).

Figure five.
Figure five.

However, street art is now a global phenomena and has certain potential for city promotion and tourism (Gravari-Barbas and Guinand, 2017). The phantasmagoria of the redecorated city, is something that is now calling for the reclamation of such subcultural activities by Capitalism (Mulcahy and Flessas, 2016). London’s urban governance is starting to shift its stance on graffiti and this research attempts to understand this change using Oli Mould’s capital C, ‘Creative city’ (Mould, 2017). His theory suggests that within a framework of planning, procedure and finance the city is able to commercialize subcultural activities as part of grand city visions as outlined earlier in section 1.0. Taking a look at Hackney Council’s rather convoluted stance on graffiti, will help illuminate the mechanisms allowing the power of the writings on the wall to be transferred from what might have originally be deemed marginal voices, to contemporary regimes.

“the Council accepts that properly authorised and appropriate street art may be recognised and supported subject to … that art not being a detriment to local environmental quality.” (Hackney Council Graffiti Policy, 2018).

The local borough controlling Shoreditch has therefore granted themselves the power to assess what can stay, and what can go. They are the ultimate judge of what is ‘appropriate’, which begs the question, appropriate for what? London’s Leake Street Tunnel, located behind the South Bank, opened in 2008 as one of  the world’s first legalized graffiti spots (Mould, 2017) and marks significant changes in the state’s interpretation of street art. This essay addresses the birth of a new form of graffiti, legal graffiti, as site of oxymoron adding yet another layer to its palimpsest. Disdain for the law, arguably is a fundamental characteristic of graffiti for many writers, who suggest that the element of shock that encourages a passer-by to stop and think about the meaning behind a piece of artwork is only achievable through illegal methods (Mulcahy and Flessas, 2016). It’s what Channel 4’s documentary ‘Graffiti Wars’ labels as a means to ‘raise a middle finger to authority’ (BBC Four, 2015). Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi (2017) suggest that when a practitioner forfeits their free-from experience, the urban street skills that  define the practice of graffiti are equally surrendered, leading artists to conclude ‘if it’s not illegal, then it’s not graffiti’ (Workforce and PAC, 2012: 20-21). As such, these sites of legal graffiti act as manifestations of Oli Mould’s Creative city, which furthers the re- appropriating of subcultural activity (Mould, 2017).

Adding an ancillary layer to the palimpsest is the commercialization of legal graffiti. This research explores the involvement of corporate enterprises in the production of street art. Graffiti advertising isn’t a particularly new phenomenon; the Rolling Stones used graffiti   as a form of promotion for their 1974 album ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll’. Culture and arts magazine ‘Vice’ laments this suggesting that graffiti should be a spontaneous act, and not a marketing ploy; ‘the less said about this, the better, as it marks a serious hijacking of what should be a powerful and independent way of expressing oneself, not a means to sell records’ (Stewart-Lockhart, 2014). The employment of graffiti in advertisement becomes increasingly visible when one starts to look out for it; a short walk through Shoreditch will take you through walls lined with ‘quasi-subliminal teaser’s’ (Bond and Kirshenbaum, 1998; 112), as demonstrated through figure 6. Their discreet omnipresence helps the consumer to unknowingly familiarize themselves with the products making them feel as though they had found them off their own accord, whilst simultaneously helping to build street credibility for the brands which contracted them (Alvelos, 2014). Commissioned aesthetics cease to counteract the hegemonic narratives of the city (Tsilimpounidi, 2015) and no subcultural object can be re-appropriated without implications on the process as a whole, it empties graffiti of any purpose at all (Alevelos, 2014).

Figure six.
Figure six.

CASE STUDY: SLAVE LABOUR

A short commute away from Shoreditch, this research takes a look at the case study of a Banksy mural (below) in Wood Green on the side of a Poundland Store. Painted in 2012, it depicts a young boy crouched over a sewing machine making Union Jack bunting. Widely accepted as a critique of the use of child labour in creating apparel for the Queen’s diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 (Batty, 2013), this piece attracted global attention. Controversy arose when the graffiti was removed from its original location and ultimately sold in a private auction in Covent Garden for $1.1 million (Kopfstein, 2013). The national outcry condemned Wood Green Investments, who owned the wall on which it was painted, for removing the artwork from the community that Banksy intended it to benefit (Mulcahy and Flessas, 2016). It wasn’t long before local politicians had their say: they too criticized its removal on both legal and ethical grounds. Rather ironically, they fought to keep the mural within their borough, a jurisdiction like most which criminalizes graffiti. This case study serves to demonstrate that when ‘street art becomes recognized as having aesthetic and commercial value in the global marketplace, the jurisprudence of street art begins to raise many more questions than when it was seen as just a local activity with no commercial value’ (Mulcahy and Flessas, 2016: 2).


Conclusion: the implication of the re-appropriation of graffiti

Throughout this essay, I have discussed themes of representation, socio-political communication and cultural re-appropriation. The palimpsest metaphor has been utilised to guide my research through the many layers of London’s graffiti and the demise of its  power to represent. In sections 4.1 and 4.2 this essay asserted that graffiti could be both a site of representation and of socio-political protest. Section 4.3, however, turned to a  critical approach of subcultural activities and via the application of Oli Mould’s (2017) Creative city, it explored the city’s capitalistic mechanisms re-appropriating street art through authorities’ ability to judge what can stay and what can go, legal graffiti sites and graffiti advertising. This section ultimately assesses the implication that this has on the art- form’s representational and socio-political function.

Jean Baudrillard declared that ‘every object claims to be a function’ (Baudrillard, 1996). Arguing in line with Oli Mould, this research suggests that the re-appropriation of graffiti from contemporary regimes demands a certain functionality of street-art ‘telling us how it should be seen, used, or consumed’ (Mould, 2017: 117). Thus, the Creative city’s application of graffiti for a means not intended, represents an extreme example of a ‘murder of reality’ (Baudrillard, 1996). As such, this research suggests that graffiti’s new subverted function no longer holds the same power to expose hegemonic narratives of the city as it once did and by consequence offers a very limited insight into the polyvalent tapestry of the urban environment. Walking through the art-stained walls of Shoreditch the saliency of this really struck me; by and large I didn’t feel as though I was immersed by a sense of resistance, or defiance that is depicted throughout Roger Perry’s ‘The Writing on The Wall’ (2015). Instead, I was enveloped by aesthetically attractive murals, offering little political backlash that seemed to fit perfectly within the construction of the ‘Creative city’ (Mould, 2017). Even political commentary are fleeting given the temporary nature of throw-up posters; fading and wearing quickly against the natural elements. These stand is stark contrast to the permanent nature of Roger Perry’s aerosol-painted political backlash. It’s too simplistic to say that all of these murals offer no socio-political commentary; as Jimmy C’s mural of ‘Joe’ showed, understanding the context to a piece can aid tremendously in unearthing further meaning behind it. But nonetheless, this research maintains these pieces certainly appear subdued in comparison to what one might have witnessed walking through the streets of London in the 1970s. Given the current socio-political environment, with Brexit having recently divided the nation and with great austerity measures being introduced by the conservative government, it is surprising that the city, arguably, hasn’t been marked by a huge proliferation in politically-charged writings. If it’s true that artwork offers ‘glimpses  in the potential for transgressions and transformations of existing social structures’ (Tsilimpounidi, 2015: 83), then this paints a rather bleak picture of what I interpret as an oppressed society, who have had their power to protest revoked. The current urban regime is therefore presented as a dangerous force that has absorbed and neutralised the very act of rebelling against it. Worse still, it has commoditized it and is selling it back to society thus speaking to the ‘insatiability of the ‘spirit’ of capitalism, and the rapidity of the Creative city’s appropriating mechanisms’ (Mould, 2017: 164).

Lucy Beauvallet


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