Graffiti Writing as Urban Narrative

Evan Hennessy Carver


Perhaps more than any other kind of writing, graffiti writing embodies what Sheila Hones called text as ‘spatial event’ (2008: 1307). It thrives in urban spaces that are simultaneously “under-programmed” and highly visible. It is ever-changing, and can represent a kind of “future narrative,” disrupting the typical expectations of literary arc. And because graffiti is public speech and occupies space, it is inherently political. To illustrate the opportunities of graffiti as material for critical literary geographers, I focus on a heavily painted site in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, Germany. After years of standing as emblems of Kreuzberg’s leftist-anarchist identity, some of the pieces at the site were painted over by the artists, to prevent them being appropriated by developers as a marketing tool. But subjecting the site to a close reading reveals more than a simple clash over gentrification. I argue that the interplay between text and context at the site shows it emerging as what Sennett has called ‘narrative space’—a ‘more humane urban design’ that allows spaces to ‘become full of time when they permit certain properties of narratives to operate in everyday life’ (1992: 190). Not only does this reading complicate the traditional categorizations of what is “literary” and what is “geographic,” it shows how a multi-authored text written directly onto the surfaces of the city can adaptively articulate social identity, resist powers that would inscribe a single legibility on urban space, and allow citizens to recognize the power -- and responsibility – that comes with co-creating public space.      


graffiti; legibility; public space; literary geography

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