Art in Action: An Analysis of Political Graffiti in Washington D.C.

Levi Mitzen 

George Mason University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 


This study examines how graffiti, both the symbolic artifact itself and the act of producing graffiti, is used as a means of navigating power dynamics via counter-hegemonic political expression. Because social phenomena may only be understood in relation to the historic materialistic context in which it occurs, this study will focus on graffiti specifically within the city of Washington D.C. Sixteen randomly selected D.C. neighborhoods located in Wards 1, 2 and 8 were surveyed for graffiti deemed to be political. Once documented and coded, a content analysis was conducted to detect themes in how graffiti operates politically, focusing on both the content of the graffiti as well as the social context in which it existed. With a sample size of over 800, the sheer prevalence of political graffiti supports the assertion that graffiti does function in this capacity. By conducting such a study as this, graffiti was shown to be a highly complex social phenomenon; one that plays a central role in the placemaking process of the public sphere, issues of criminality and political legitimacy, and the autonomy of a community to express itself politically. These results are discussed in terms of how they adhere to a Marxian theoretical framework set forth by the work of Antonio Gramsci ([1935] 1989), Walter Benjamin (1936), Louis Althusser (1971), and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1990; 1993). 

Keywords: Graffiti, Subaltern, Discourse, Hegemony, Public Placemaking.


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