In London, authorities first painted over graffiti that mocked the Olympic Games and corporate sponsors, but recently commissioned graffiti as part of the Canals Project for East London’s waterways (Wainwright ).
Such developments do not necessarily demonstrate a greater leniency towards graffiti.
First, we observe that there has been much less attention for diverging (and conflicting) interpretations among the public.
Many studies point at the mismatch of interpretations of graffiti as either art or crime between writers on the one hand and authorities, (supposedly) reflecting the concerns of the public, on the other hand (Whitford ).
Given the ambiguity in how authorities deal with graffiti, we think it is striking that the dominant approach in criminological research on disorder views graffiti unambiguously as a social problem: something threatening that must be prevented and dealt with because it would cause fear and (more) crime.
This idea is most common in studies following the ecological tradition (social disorganization theory) or the broken windows theory.
Yet, authorities, and many criminologists as well, tend to see graffiti as an unambiguous signal of disorder or even crime.
Informed by the broken windows theory, many local governments seek to prevent and remove graffiti (e.g. Studies in the tradition of the broken windows theory and social disorganization theory seem to assume that the public more or less agrees on what phenomena are ‘disorder’, and graffiti would be one of such phenomena.
Annoying paintings everywhere, [it] should be forbidden, and the perpetrators [should] clean everything with a toothbrush. There is an exception, what happens in cities, a boring wall is embellished with a nice painting made by experienced professional artists.
The citation above, of a participant in our study who describes his first image of graffiti that comes to mind, summarizes our argument: public opinions on disorder (graffiti, in this case) may vary considerably, not only between people but people themselves make different judgments, depending on what they see in which context.