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Visions of protest: graffiti
Visions of protest: graffiti

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7  Why did the Hackney zebras work?

In the case of the Hackney zebras, illicit graffiti worked very well as an articulation of public protest and was successful in getting its message across and in achieving its aim. The next activity explores possible reasons behind the Hackney zebras’ success.

Activity 5  Why did the Hackney zebras work?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

In the text box below, note down possible reasons that could explain why the Hackney zebra graffiti was successful in getting the activists’ message across. How might it have contributed to achieving the aims of the associated campaign? While you are thinking about possible explanations, consider what kind of evidence you have come across in your study of this section that could support your arguments.

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There are a range of possible explanations. Here is what a member of the course team came up with:

The message this graffiti was trying to get across was relatively simple and could be understood by a wide audience and appealed to many people’s sense of humour. As evidenced by the reactions of members of the public that are shown in the video, many people also approved of the message it was trying to get across. However, we do not know whether the views expressed by the people that are shown on the video are representative of all local residents. The fact that the zebra graffiti was linked to a long-standing public campaign and petition is likely to have been a big factor of its success. The zebras also appeared in a very prominent location which will have given the associated campaign a higher public profile. In the video, it becomes apparent that the graffiti drew many passing people’s attention to the issue at stake (the lack of a safe pedestrian crossing). The fact that the zebra graffiti was not authorised by the local council, suddenly appeared overnight and that its creators are unknown also adds a certain sense of mystery. It could also be argued that the fact that its creators stay anonymous means that the focus is shifted away from the artists/activists, which allows greater emphasis to be placed on the aim of the campaign.

The question of whether a ‘good’ cause can justify the breaking of laws (for example, by spraying illicit graffiti onto public road surfaces) and the potential damage graffiti can cause to public or private property cannot be answered here and is highly dependent on specific circumstances and contexts, and on the techniques used. It also raises a range of other questions: What qualifies as a ‘good’ cause? When does graffiti work effectively as a way of articulating popular protest? Also, do local residents (who have to live with the graffiti or bear the cost and/or effort of removing it) agree with this cause? Even if they do agree with the cause or message, do they approve of the way in which this message is communicated?

Given that graffiti artists/activists are keen to protect their anonymity, it is sometimes difficult for them to consult (other) local residents and ask them for their opinions. In the case of MorecambeUnity, the graffiti artists/activists posted leaflets through letterboxes to explain their motives to local residents. Social media and the internet have opened up new opportunities for local residents to express their opinions through websites such as Facebook, blogs or Twitter, or to offer their support by signing online petitions, or for graffiti artists/activists to promote their work or the cause they are campaigning for. Social media played an important role in relation to the ‘Mystery zebras’ in Hackney. The ‘Mystery zebras’ were not only linked to an online petition, but they were also commented on in blogs (for example, click the following link to read the article ‘Mystery zebras earning their stripes at Hackney’s killer crossing’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] on East London Lines (Alderwick, 2010)), and the Video  (which you watched in Activity 4) is widely available on the internet.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), vandalism rates, including reported illicit graffiti, have been decreasing in England and Wales over recent years (ONS, 2013). Some explanations of this decrease have been linked to the impact of social media, which have offered people new opportunities to express themselves, or are simply keeping bored teenagers entertained and off the streets. The fall in vandalism does indeed correlate with a steep rise in the use of social media (Easton, 2013). Another explanation might be that graffiti has become more widely acceptable and is more frequently not regarded as vandalism, and not reported to the police as such.