The writing on the wall: exploring the cultural value of graffiti and street art

Doctoral candidate’s research interprets graffiti’s deeper meaning among Latinx and Black urban subcultures in Los Angeles

Illescas posing outdoors in front of a colorful mural painting
Doctoral candidate Ismael Illescas gathered insights from current and former graffiti writers about how their work connects with concepts of art, identity, culture, and space.

Ismael Illescas grew up admiring the graffiti around his neighborhood in Los Angeles. He had migrated to the city with his mother and brother from Ecuador in the 1990s as part of a large Latin American diaspora. In his urban environment, he found himself surrounded by beautiful, cryptic messages. They were written on walls and scrawled daringly across billboards. Little by little, he began to understand the meanings behind some of these messages. And, eventually, he started writing back. 

Illescas became a graffiti writer himself, for a time. He has since given it up, but he never lost his initial sense of curiosity and admiration. In fact, now, as a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Latino Studies, his dissertation research has taken him back to Los Angeles, where he gathered insights from current and former graffiti writers about how their work connects with concepts of art, identity, culture, and space. 

For those who create it, graffiti is an expression of identity and an outlet for creativity, social connection, and achievement, according to Illescas’s research. Some of the most popular graffiti yards in Los Angeles are abandoned spaces in communities of color that neither the economy nor the city has been willing to invest in, he says. But graffiti allows Black and Latino young men to transform these areas into spaces of congregation and empowerment. 

“In a city where these youth are marginalised, ostracized, and invisibilized, graffiti is a way for them to become visible,” Illescas said. “They feel that the system is against them, and upward social mobility is limited for them, so putting their names up around the city is a way for them to achieve respect from their peers and assert their dignity, and that doesn’t come easily from other places and institutions in society.”

an example of placa style graffiti writing as part of a mural
The artists of a legal mural in Los Angeles list 
their names in a style inspired by traditional   
"placas." Photo courtesy of Ismael Illescas.

Graffiti also offers what Illescas calls an “illicit cartography,” meaning that it can be read like a cultural map of the city. Graffiti styles in East Los Angeles, for example, reflect Mexican-American artistic influence that began with Pachuco counterculture in the 1940s. Rich graffiti writing traditions emerged, including “placas,” or tags that list a writer’s stylized signature, and “barrio calligraphy,” which blends rolling scripts with Old English lettering. In the 1980s, those traditions then incorporated colorful, whimsical East Coast influences.

“The result is that Los Angeles has a really unique graffiti style,” Illescas said. “Although outsiders might not necessarily notice it, you can easily see the Mexican-American artistic influence in the aesthetics, and that has become associated with Latinx urban identities.”

Graffiti is a multiracial and multi-ethnic subculture, and Illescas says his research aims to recognize the specific contributions of Black and Latinx communities. He’s also critically examining the subculture’s hypermasculinity and how that may limit its transformative potential.  And he’s particularly interested in shedding light on how race may affect public perceptions of graffiti.

Depending on the context, graffiti can either be publicly admired as “street art”—and valued up to millions of dollars—or it can be criminalized at levels ranging up to felony charges and years of jail time. In Los Angeles, a city which many researchers consider to be highly racially segregated, Black and Latinx communities, like South Central Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, are the places where graffiti is most likely to be severely criminalized and lumped together with gang activity, Illescas says.

Meanwhile, Illescas says street art is more likely to be recognized as such within arts districts, where officially sanctioned “beautification” projects use public art to attract more business and new residents, which can contribute to gentrification issues. And some of the most famous street artists are actually white men, like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who have each attained international recognition for the artistic value of their illegal works. 

“This is where systemic racism occurs,” Illescas said. “You have some people who are more prone to being criminalized and severely punished for a very similar act, and that punishment falls mainly on young Black and Latino men.”

community members gathered near a mural in Los Angeles
Undiscovered America was the first legal aerosol mural by commissioned
graffiti artists in the Los Angeles arts district. Photo courtesy of Ismael Illescas.

For these reasons, Illescas has found that many graffiti writers of color have mixed feelings about the growing public appreciation for street art. 

“On the one hand, it’s a capitalistic appropriation of transgressive graffiti into commercialized street art,” Illescas said. “But it also ties into the efforts of graffiti writers who have been pushing for years to decriminalize their art and demonstrate its artistic and social value and the types of knowledge that it brings with it.”

Street art has, in fact, already brought opportunities for some veteran Black and Latino graffiti writers, who told Illescas they had recently been commissioned for their art or had found jobs as tour guides in arts districts. But each of these artists got their start creating illegal graffiti tags. Illescas believes that decriminalization will ultimately require transforming public appreciation of street art into a deeper understanding of the expressive value of other forms of graffiti. And he hopes his research might aid in that process.  

“The graffiti that we see up in the streets may seem like an insignificant tag or scribble to some people, but there’s a lot of meaning behind it,” he said. “There needs to be a recognition that graffiti is actually a visual representation of someone’s identity, and it’s also potentially their starting point to a very meaningful artistic career.”