Broken Windows Ideology and the (Mis)Reading of Graffiti

  • Stefano BlochEmail author


In this article, I discuss the misreading of graffiti and misidentification of graffiti writers as part of anti-gang policing informed by broken windows ideology. Based on personal observation and autoethnographic reflection, analysis of gang identification protocol, and interviews with graffiti writers who negatively define themselves against gang members as part of constructive identity formation, I argue that relying on graffiti as an indicator of gang activity calls into question the merits and efficacy of anti-gang policing. I situate this discussion within a cultural criminological framework and critique of broken windows policing.



Thank you to the thoughtful and encouraging reviewers, editor Avi Brisman, Wisk One, and those critical scholars who have produced the work needed to help people see and understand graffiti for what it actually is, including Joe Austin, Tim Cresswell, Faye Docuyanan, Jeff Ferrell, Kurt Iveson, Susan A. Phillips, Gregory Snyder, Robert Weide, and Alison Young.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

There is no conflict of interest or competing claims herein.


  1. Adams, K. L., & Winter, A. (1997). Gang graffiti as a discourse genre. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 1(3), 337–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alarcón, D. (2015). How do you define a gang member? The New York Times Magazine, 27 May. Available at:
  3. Alonso, A. (1999). Territoriality among African American street gangs in Los Angeles. Master’s thesis, Department of Geography, University of Southern California.Google Scholar
  4. Austin, J. (2001). Taking the train: How graffiti art became an urban crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baker, M. (2009). Crips and nuns defining gang-related crime in California under the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. McGeorge Law Review, 40(4), 891–902.Google Scholar
  6. Ball, R. A., & Curry, D. G. (1995). The logic of definition in criminology: Purposes and methods for defining “gangs.” Criminology, 33(2), 225–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barrows, J., & Huff, C. R. (2009). Gangs and public policy. Criminology & Public Policy, 8(4), 675–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  9. Bjerregaard, B. (1998). The constitutionality of anti-gang legislation. Campbell Law Review, 21(1), 31–47.Google Scholar
  10. Bjerregaard, B. (2002). Self-definitions of gang membership and involvement in delinquent activities. Youth & Society, 34(1), 31–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bloch, S. (2016). Place-based elicitation: Interviewing graffiti writers at the scene of the crime. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 47(2), 171–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bloch, S. (2019). Going all city: Struggle and survival in LA's graffiti subculture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Brotherton, D. (2015). Youth street gangs: A critical appraisal. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. Brown, R. R. (2008). The gang’s all here: Evaluating the need for national gang database. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 42(3), 293.Google Scholar
  16. Caldwell, B. (2010). Criminalizing day-to-day life: A socio-legal critique of gang injunctions. American Journal of Criminal Law, 37(3), 241.Google Scholar
  17. California State Auditor. (2016). The CalGang Criminal Intelligence System. Retrieved March 5, 2018, from
  18. California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988, Penal Code 186.20–186.34.Google Scholar
  19. Camp, J. T., & Heatherton, C. (Eds.). (2016). Policing the planet: Why the policing crisis led to Black Lives Matter. New York: Verso Books.Google Scholar
  20. Campbell, A. (1987). Self definition by rejection: The case of gang girls. Social Problems, 34(5), 451–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Castleman, C. (1982). Getting up: Subway graffiti in New York. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. Chastanet, F. (2009). Cholo writing: Latino gang graffiti in Los Angeles. Årsta: Dokument Press.Google Scholar
  23. Cheng, T. (2017). Violence prevention and targeting the elusive gang member. Law & Society Review, 51(1), 42–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent boys. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  25. Cohen, A. K. (1972). Social control and subcultural change. Youth & Society, 3(3), 259–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Conquergood, D. (2005). Street literacy. In J. Flood, S. B. Heath, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts (pp. 354–375). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Cresswell, T. (1996). In place-out of place: Geography, ideology, and transgression. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  28. Curry, D. C. (2015). The logic of defining gangs revisited. In S. Decker & D. C. Pyrooz (Eds.), The handbook of gangs (pp. 7–27). New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Dar, A., & Hunnicutt, G. (2017). Famously anonymous artistic outlaws: The negotiation of dual identities among former graffiti writers. Identity, 17(4), 207–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Docuyanan, F. (2000). Governing graffiti in contested urban spaces. PoLAR: Political & Legal Anthropology Review, 23(1), 103–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Durán, R. (2009). The core ideals of the Mexican American gang: Living the presentation of defiance. Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 34(2), 99–134.Google Scholar
  32. Ellis, C. S., & Bochner, A. P. (2006). Analyzing analytic autoethnography: An autopsy. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 429–449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Elsbach, K. D., & Bhattacharya, C. B. (2001). Defining who you are by what you're not: Organizational disidentification and the national rifle association. Organization Science, 12(4), 393–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Esbensen, F.-A., Winfree, L. T., He, Ni, & Taylor, T. J. (2001). Youth gangs and definitional issues: When is a gang a gang, and why does it matter? Crime & Delinquency, 47(1), 105–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. FBI. (2012). Violent gangs galley. Retrieved March 5, 2018, from
  36. Ferrell, J. (1995). Style matters. In J. Ferrell & C. R. Sanders (Eds.), Cultural criminology. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Ferrell, J. (1996). Crimes of style: Urban graffiti and the politics of criminality. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Ferrell, J. (2006). The aesthetics of cultural criminology. In B. A. Arrigo & C. R. Williams (Eds.), Philosophy, crime, and criminology (pp. 257–278). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  39. Ferrell, J. (2013). Cultural criminology and the politics of meaning. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 21(3), 257–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ferrell, J. (2018). Criminological ethnography: Living and knowing. In S. K. Rice & M. D. Maltz (Eds.), Doing ethnography in criminology. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  41. Ferrell, J., & Weide, R. D. (2010). Spot theory. City, 14(1–2), 48–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Fleisher, M. S., & Decker, S. H. (2001). An overview of the challenge of prison gangs. Corrections Management Quarterly, 5(1), 1–9.Google Scholar
  43. Fraser, A., & Atkinson, C. (2014). Making up gangs: Looping, labelling and the new politics of intelligence-led policing. Youth Justice, 14(2), 154–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Fudge, Z. D. (2013). Gang definitions, how do they work: What the juggalos teach us about the inadequacy of current anti-gang law. Marquette Law Review, 97(4), 979.Google Scholar
  45. Garot, R. (2007). “Where You From!” Gang identity as performance. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 36(1), 50–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Gau, J. M., & Pratt, T. C. (2008). Broken windows or window dressing? Citizens’(in) ability to tell the difference between disorder and crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 7(2), 163–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Gelman, A., Fagan J., & Kiss, A. (2007). An analysis of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy in the context of claims of racial bias. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479)[September], 813–823. Available at:
  48. Glazer, N. (1979). On subway graffiti in New York. The Public Interest, 54, 3.Google Scholar
  49. Greenlee, M. (2010). Sociolinguistic issues in gang-related prosecutions: Homies, hearsay and expert standards. In M. Coulthard & A. Johnson (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of forensic linguistics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  50. Hall, S., & Jefferson, T. (Eds.) (1976/1990). Resistance through rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  51. Hallsworth, S. (2006). Racial targeting and social control: Looking behind the police. Critical Criminology, 14(3), 293–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Hallsworth, S., & Young, T. (2008). Gang talk and gang talkers: A critique. Crime Media Culture, 4(2), 175–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Harcourt, B. E. (2001). Illusion of order: The false promise of broken windows policing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Hufstader, R. A. (2015). Immigration reliance on gang databases: Unchecked discretion and undesirable consequences. New York University Law Review, 90(2), 671–709.Google Scholar
  55. Idaho Criminal Gang Enforcement Act, Penal Code 18-8502.Google Scholar
  56. Innes, M., & Fielding, N. (2002). From community to communicative policing: ‘Signal crimes’ and the problem of public reassurance. Sociological Research Online, 7(2), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Iveson, K. (2010). The wars on graffiti and the new military urbanism. City, 14(1–2), 115–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Katz, J. (2000). The gang myth. In S. Karstedt & K. Bussmann (Eds.), Social dynamics of crime and Control (pp. 171–187). London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  59. Katz, J., & Jackson-Jacobs, C. (2004). The criminologists’ gang. In C. Sumner (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to criminology (pp. 91–124). London: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  60. Kennedy, D. M. (2009). Gangs and public policy: Constructing and deconstructing gang databases. Criminology & Public Policy, 8(4), 711–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Klein, M. W. (1995). The American street gang: Its nature, prevalence, and control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Kontos, L., & Barrios, L. (2016). Gangs in the United States and Latina/o communities, Latinos and criminal justice: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.Google Scholar
  63. Kramer, R. (2010). Moral panics and urban growth machines: Official reactions to graffiti in New York City, 1990–2005. Qualitative Sociology, 33(3), 297–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Kramer, R. (2012). Political elites, “broken windows”, and the commodification of urban space. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 20(3), 229–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Ley, D., & Cybriwsky, R. (1974). Urban graffiti as territorial markers. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 64, 491–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Leyton, S. (2003). The new blacklists: The threat to civil liberties posed by gang databases. In D. F. Hawkins, S. L. Myers, Jr., & R.N. Stone (Eds.), Crime control and social justice: The Delicate balance (pp. 109–172). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  67. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. (2011). Gang Homicides in Los Angeles County 1980–2008. Retrieved March 1, 2017, from
  68. MacDiarmid, L., & Downing, S. (2012). A rough aging out: Graffiti writers and subcultural drift. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 7(2), 605.Google Scholar
  69. Macdonald, N. (2001). The graffiti subculture: Youth, masculinity and identity in London and New York. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Maxson C., & Klein M. (1996). Defining gang homicide: An updated look at member and motive approaches. In Ronald Huff C. (Ed.), Gangs in America (2nd ed., pp. 107–137). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  71. McDowell, M. G., & Fernandez, L. A. (2018). ‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the theory and practice of police abolition. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 26(3), 373–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Miller, J. A. (1995). Struggles over the symbolic: Gang style and the meanings of social control. In J. Ferrell & C. R. Sanders (Eds.), Cultural criminology. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Mitman, T. (2018). The art of defiance: Graffiti, politics and the reimagined city in Philadelphia. Chicago, IL: Intellect.Google Scholar
  74. Moore, J. W. (1978). Homeboys: Gangs, drugs, and prison in the barrios of Los Angeles. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Murphy, E. (2010). Databases, doctrine, and constitutional criminal procedure. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 37(3), 803–836.Google Scholar
  76. Patton, D. U., Eschmann, R. D., & Butler, D. A. (2013). Internet banging: New trends in social media, gang violence, masculinity and hip hop. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(5), A54–A59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Phillips, S. A. (1999). Wallbangin’: Graffiti and gangs in LA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  78. Phillips, S. A. (2016). Deconstructing gang graffiti. In J. I. Ross (Ed.), Routledge handbook on graffiti and street art (pp. 48–60). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  79. Rios, V. M. (2011). Punished: Policing the lives of Black and Latino boys. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Rios, V. M. (2017). Human targets: Schools, police, and the criminalization of Latino youth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Rios, V. M., & Navarro, K. (2010). Insider gang knowledge: The case for non-police gang experts in the courtroom. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 18(1), 21–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Rosenfeld, R., Bray, T. M., & Egley, A. (1999). Facilitating violence: A comparison of gang-motivated, gang-affiliated, and non-gang youth homicides. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 15(4), 495–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Ross, J. I., Bengtsen, P., Lennon, J. F., Phillips, S., & Wilson, J. Z. (2017). In search of academic legitimacy: The current state of scholarship on graffiti and street art. The Social Science Journal, 54(4), 411–419.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Ross, J. I., & Lennon, J. F. (2018). Teaching about graffiti and street art to undergraduate students at US universities: Confronting challenges and seizing opportunities. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 6(2), 1–18.Google Scholar
  85. Ross, J. I., & Wright, B. S. (2014). “I’ve got better things to worry about”: police perceptions of graffiti and street art in a large mid-Atlantic City. Police Quarterly, 17(2), 176–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Sampson, R. J., & Raudenbush, S. W. (2004). Seeing disorder: Neighborhood stigma and the social construction of “broken windows.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 67(4), 319–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Sanday, P. R. (2007). Fraternity gang rape: Sex, brotherhood, and privilege on campus. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Schaefer, D. (2004). Perceptual biases, graffiti and fraternity crime: Points of deflection that distort social justice. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 12(2), 179–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Skarbek, D. (2014). The social order of the underworld: How prison gangs govern the American penal system. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Snyder, G. J. (2011). Graffiti lives: Beyond the tag in New York’s urban underground. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  91. Snyder, G. J. (2016). Long live the tag: Representing the foundations of graffiti. In K. Avramidis & M. Tsilimpounidi (Eds.), Graffiti and street art: Reading, writing and representing the city (pp. 264–273). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  92. Sullivan, M. (2006). Maybe we shouldn’t study gangs: Does reification obscure youth violence? Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(2), 170–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Vigil, J. D. (1988). Barrio gangs: Street life and identity in Southern California. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  94. Vitale, A. S. (2008). City of disorder: How the quality of life campaign transformed New York politics. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  95. Vitale, A. S. (2017). The end of policing. New York: Verso Books.Google Scholar
  96. Wacquant, L. (2001). Deadly symbiosis when ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment & Society, 3(1), 95–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Wacquant, L. (2014). Class, race and hyperincarceration in revanchist America. Socialism & Democracy, 28(3), 35–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Welch, K. P. (2011). Graffiti and the constitution: A first amendment analysis of the Los Angeles tagging crew injunction. Southern Calfornia Law Review, 85(1), 205–245.Google Scholar
  99. Wilson, S. (2012). Los Angeles’ war on street artists. August 30. Retrieved February 21, 2019, from
  100. Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly, March, 29–38.Google Scholar
  101. Winston, A. (2016). You may be in California’s gang database and not even know it. Reveal. March 23. Retrieved March 10, 2018, from
  102. Wood, J., & Alleyne, E. (2010). Street gang theory and research: Where are we now and where do we go from here? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), 100–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Wright, J. D. (2005). The constitutional failure of gang databases. Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, 2, 115.Google Scholar
  104. Young, I. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  105. Zatz, M. S. (1987). Chicano youth gangs and crime: The creation of a moral panic. Contemporary Crisis, 11(2), 129–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Zatz, M. S., & Krecker, R. P. (2003). Anti-gang initiatives as racialized policy. In D. F. Hawkins, S. L. Myers, Jr., & R. N. Stone (Eds.), Crime control and social justice: The delicate balance (pp. 173–196). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography and Development, Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Social, Cultural, and Critical TheoryUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations