In Defense and Pursuit of Graffiti

The Independent Study Project (ISP) takes place during a month long period at the end of the semester. This opportunity to do independently-designed fieldwork abroad as an undergraduate student is the reason I chose the SIT program. It’s also the reason I’m sharing an apartment with 2 other students in Sarajevo, spending my days wandering the streets to look for graffiti instead of sitting in classes. How does this qualify as “research?”

I walked into my first ISP meeting with the idea that I would come to Sarajevo to look at post-Dayton “democracy” (emphasis on the quote marks) in Bosnia to determine if this country should continue to be the paradigm for American intervention and nation building. The driving force behind my curiosity was the suspicion that democracy here is not what Americans believe it to be, and that Bosnia is in fact a poor example to use when justifying other interventions– as diplomats tend to do. After listening to an explanation much like this, my adviser (a Polish scholar who lives in Sarajevo and is doing her own research in Srebrenica) was quick to tell me that everyone already knows democracy in Bosnia is a myth.

“Well, people in America don’t seem to know that…our politicians keep mentioning Bosnia as a good thing and saying we should do it–”

“That’s absurd, I’ve never heard anyone use Bosnia as a positive example of anything.”

She then went on to tell me how many authors from various places have written books about Bosnia as a “failed state” and other depressing things. Basically, I would be writing more of the same if I chose this topic, which I could have done on Whitman campus instead of coming all the way to the Balkans.

Feeling discouraged, I said before leaving, “there is one other thing I have in mind.”

I told her that I’ve noticed a lot of graffiti during this semester. “I could do something with that.”

“I love it.”

That’s great. But how do I take graffiti and turn it into an academic topic?  Graffiti in relation to Peace and Conflict Studies is an underdeveloped subject, which means I’m pretty much on my own here. It’s exciting! But also confusing. Every adviser who reads my project proposal comes away with a different idea about what I’m doing. When people I try to interview ask me what I’m doing, I say, “uhm, uh, well…I’m looking at graffiti.” If this doesn’t seem to make sense, I add, “and uh…what it indicates about post-conflict social dynamics in Sarajevo–ethnic tensions, sentiments toward the international community, things like that.” There, that sounds academic. Ish.

And then people ask me how I plan on researching graffiti. What am I going to read? Who am I even supposed to talk to? Where should I go?… I don’t know, go down an alley, read whatever is written there, talk to anyone who writes it…sounds straight-forward. Some of my friends have taken the liberty of offering their opinion, “oh, so it’s bulls***.”

🙂      [this is the passive-aggressive smile I’ve been using]

Fine, here it is: my best effort in defense of graffiti.

Graffiti is important to consider as a political tool because it is universally accessible, unlike many things in the political arena, and it is a way that citizens directly engage in politics. Unlike academia, graffiti is available to people without a high level of education; in cases where graffiti is an image rather than words, it is even accessible to anyone illiterate. This makes graffiti an instrument of marginalized locals— from those who are impoverished or uneducated to those who lack official status as citizens. A particularly striking feature of graffiti is that it can be used to rewrite mainstream narratives quite literally: authors can deface state-sanctioned monuments and establishments with a can of spray paint. They can confront a version of the truth erected by the government and “vandalize” it with their own words. Graffiti is also a paradoxical approach to politics for it ruins the quality of public space in order to create an alternative record. For those who use it wisely, graffiti is empowering.

My spontaneous decision to research graffiti is ironic in a way. I came here pursuing a heavily academic and traditional topic. I came to investigate the political system, to view it from the top-down. But now I’m abandoning all the methods I’ve been using and the sort of topic I’ve been training to research in order to investigate politics from the opposite end.




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