Hi. My name is Ron Baird and I am a youth studies scholar in the Youth Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. A fun fact about myself is that I am the founding member and singer songwriter for the seminal Southern California straight edge hardcore band Stäläg-13. Hence my abiding interest in researching youth subcultures. I just scrape in as a PhD candidate as I have actually completed my thesis, though I have yet to be awarded my degree, as I do not graduate till the end of July. For my PhD I conducted a qualitative research study focusing on graffiti writers in Melbourne, Australia using ethnographic research methods incorporating semi-structured interviews and observation of graffiti practice. I was interested in investigating how, primarily young men, learn their subcultural practices and found that they learn informally by observation in a community of practice. My thesis is titled Reframing graffiti writing as a community practice: Sites of youth learning and social engagement.
I did not actually set out to study graffiti writers I came to it via a severe setback in my initial PhD study, which was investigating youth gang formation in the outer Western Suburbs of Melbourne. However, when the project was abruptly ended by the city council I was working with I was left without a research cohort and in desperation began contacting local councils. Luckily I contacted a very amenable youth services manager, who allowed me to begin attending their weekly aerosol art program for at risk young people in an effort to make links with youth gang members. Though after a few weeks in the field I thought I would switch my topic to graffiti writers. However, while I had access to a cohort of potential participants, I did not have a relevant research question or a theoretical framework for this new topic.
So, how did I come to research graffiti writing using the concept of communities of practice? Étienne Wenger (1998, p. 7) explains that ‘Communities of practice are an integral part of our daily lives. They are so informal and so pervasive that they rarely come into explicit focus, but for the same reasons they are quite familiar’. Communities of Practice are everywhere yet they are difficult to see precisely for their ubiquity, however they are equally tangible for this reason. When I first read this sentence I was perplexed, how could something integral and so pervasive not be visible or at least not obviously so? I pondered this question as I attempted to come to grips with a theoretical framework for my research.
I began attending the aerosol art program weekly on Tuesday evenings, notebook and voice recorder in hand. A mix of young people would attend mainly young males and occasionally a few young females between the ages of 15 and 19. They would talk, draw in their sketchbooks and paint graffiti pieces with council supplied spray paint organised and led by two older mentors who were themselves dedicated graffiti writers. At this stage I was still unsure of my research design, as I did not have clear research questions for these participants, let alone a theoretical framework to analyse the data I was collecting as my initial research project was focused on youth gang formation and employed a completely different theoretical framework and set of research questions.
An important pivotal point in my research occurred on a very warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon in November 2014. I was at the aerosol art program and I approached Joe a 15 year old graffiti writer who was busy painting a piece and I asked him what he was doing. He acknowledged me and said he was doing a fade on his piece and perplexed I said “a fade? What is that?” Joe, who was the youngest participant in the study, is quick witted and always handy with a joke or sarcastic quip, though he usually keeps to himself and just paints. To my surprise Joe replied in detail that “a fade is when you fade the paint at the edges of the letters to give the piece a shadow or a 3D effect, you transition from applying more paint to gradually less paint or the other way around and you can also do this to transition between colours.” I replied “OK, cool and how do you do that?” Joe responded saying “well it is all about can control.” I asked “can control, what is that?” Joe stopped painting and thought for a moment and then replied insightfully, “it is how you control the can when painting. You have to think of the can as a tool that is an extension of your arm and it involves how much pressure you put on the nib and how close you hold the can to the wall and how you use the can when painting.” Joe continued. “For example in doing a fill you press the nib down fully and use the can like a brush back and forth. When doing a fine line you use less pressure on the nib, hold the can close to the wall and put your whole body into the action to steady your hand to produce a clean fine line.” I then asked Joe how he learned can control and he said, “well by repeated practice, just doing it and talking to my mates and watching other people in my crew paint and also by talking to the mentors in the program.” This exchange really crystalized the core themes of my study that graffiti is a practice and that the graffiti crew is a communally situated site of informal social learning.
I suddenly had a light bulb moment; wow, this young man just described tacit knowledge and embodied learning of graffiti writing skills. I was excited and thinking to myself graffiti is not just senseless vandalism this is a highly skilled learnt practice that requires commitment, dedication, talent, hard work, and I was struck by an idea. I recalled Étienne Wenger’s (1998) words ‘communities of practice are an integral part of our daily lives.’ What Joe had just described to me appeared to be informal social learning in a community of practice. I had just discovered my research questions and my theoretical framework and set out to find out how graffiti writers learn their practice.
In my thesis I argue that a new frame of reference is required in order to analyse the practice of graffiti writing. Against this backdrop, the aim of my study was to develop new knowledge about graffiti as a site of informal learning by developing an understanding of graffiti as a learnt practice. The issues addressed in my thesis concern the development of an understanding of how graffiti writers learn the practice of graffiti writing; this includes not only the learning of the technical skills of using cans of spray paint to create artworks, but equally the unwritten rules and guidelines that govern participation in the practice of graffiti writing.
If you are a PhD candidate working on a project related to the sociology of youth please consider writing a post for our series spotlighting the fantastic work being done by PhD candidates in this area. To talk ideas please contact Julia Cook (email@example.com) and Signe Ravn (firstname.lastname@example.org).