Thesis Title

Read the Writing on the Walls: Graffiti and Art Therapy

Graduation Date

Spring 1996

Document Type

Master's Thesis

Document Form


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy

Degree Granting Institution

Notre Dame de Namur University

Program Name

Art Therapy


Graffiti has become a disconcerting epidemic, spreading outside inner cities and growing to expensive proportions nationwide. The cost to clean graffiti in the US is believed to exceed four million dollars annually. As community members and law enforcers struggle to maintain control of their city’s walls, the question of why youth write graffiti is left up to debate. This descriptive research solicits the input of nine male graffiti writers from San Jose, California, ranging in age from 14 to 28, including both active and retired writers. Subjects volunteered to participate in individual one-hour informal interviews and were questioned about their motivation to write graffiti Subject responses were ranked in the categories of identity formation, creative outlet, artistic aspect of graffiti, power, rebellion, sensation of engaging in a risk-taking activity, and non-verbal communication. The additional categories of addiction and boredom evolved from the interviews. Research results strongly suggest graffiti is linked to the adolescent task of identity formation Graffiti satisfies the adolescent needs of self-affirmation, recognition, peer feedback and mutual respect Five subjects also connected their attraction to graffiti with its artistic aspect and sensation of risk. Four subjects ranked graffiti in the categories of creative outlet and addiction. The remaining categories received two or less responses Older participants were aware of the negative social stigma attached to graffiti and had difficulty bridging their writing careers into conventional society. Public rejection may force the graffiti writer into a prolonged moratorium or negative identity. It is likely than art therapist could provide the necessary tools to assist the graffiti writer in his transformation as well as educate the community about the important needs of adolescence.