How are graffiti and especially larger graffiti environments perceived from a cultural heritage perspective? Seemingly abandoned places can be used actively for years by various subcultures, but the value and meaning of these sites are often ignored.

The roots of Kai Ylinen’s interest ingraffiti lie in Tampere, more specifically in Santalahti. The official use of this old industrial area came to end in the 1990s, after which it was discovered by different subcultures, especially graffiti artists. Ylinen knows the place from his youth.

“I tried my hand at graffiti there in my teens, but it wasn’t really my thing. Yet I liked the atmosphere of the place and went there often, since it felt welcoming, like it was my own,” Ylinen says.

The area features industrial buildings from the turn of the 20th century where many layers of graffiti have accumulated for more than twenty years. The place is significant for the history of graffiti culture as well as for the city of Tampere, art history, and communal activity.

“The problem is that the value and significance of the place have not been recognised in city planning,” Ylinen worries. “At the moment the area is being developed into a modern residential area and demolition work is in progress.”

Ylinen noticed, however, that he was not the only one upset by the fate of Santalahti. This is what gave him the impetus for his dissertation research.

Ylinen is now conducting a study using questionnaires and interviews in order to determine the meaning and value of graffiti sites like Santalahti from the viewpoint of the actual users of these areas.

“Besides graffiti artists, these places are important to many young people who spend time there,” Ylinen points out. “These areas are essentially associated with a sense of community. They are places where you can meet people similar to you and find new friends, just like in any other place for leisure activities.”

Style evolves yet the essence remains

Unlike the paintings of Michelangelo, for instance, graffiti is not made to last – and not just because it is soon cleaned off. A short lifespan is a built-in feature of graffiti culture, as previous works are consistently painted over with new ones.

“Art history research into graffiti is very different from that of traditional paintings, for example,” Ylinen explains. “The history of graffiti is locally bound, personal, and fragmented. That history may remain only in the memories of those who have used the place or in private photo galleries. There are no physical collections available.”

So what can we say about changes in the aesthetics or style of graffiti? Is a piece of graffiti made in 2018 the same as if it would have been made in 1988? Yes and no, Ylinen says: “Certain aesthetics and the essence have remained largely the same. But styles are evolving. Nowadays one can see, for example, more experimental and even highly abstract works. The development of techniques and tools also enables new styles.”

Aesthetics, in particular, is what fascinates many graffiti artists. Of course, graffiti is also associated with illegality, and for some – especially young people – graffiti offers the experience of an adrenalin rush.

Because graffiti always communicate more inside a particular community than outside it, this also increases the sense of community. Yet graffiti can say something to outsiders as well.

“Graffiti can also be a statement, especially when it appears in a public space,” Ylinen says. “The message is that this is a place for me, too.”

Graffiti communities should be taken into account in city planning

Graffiti sites are often located in urban areas that are no longer used for their original purpose and are still waiting for new function. This transitional period is often when graffiti starts appearing in these locations.

The longer this period lasts, the more graffiti there will be and the more meanings the graffiti will bear.

“As regards decisions on the future of these areas, the decisions affect not only the place but also people and communities,” Ylinen emphasises. “This should be kept in mind irrespective of what the decision-makers might think about activities and graffiti in the area and what the eventual decisions might be.”

Accordingly, Ylinen finds that it would be ideal for city planning if the earlier activities could continue in some form if such a place proves important for people: “Surely the character of the place would change because it would no longer be a free zone without surveillance. But, at the very least, a wall where graffiti is allowed would be an important gesture.”

In Finland attitudes to graffiti have become more tolerant. In 1998 a campaign called “Stop the smudges” was launched, aiming at removing all kinds of street art from Helsinki. The campaign was ended in 2008 as a result of the public debate it had aroused. People, it seemed, wanted graffiti in the street scene. Indeed, in the 21st century graffiti has made its way from “smudges” into a form of art worthy of exhibition.

“Now there are even graffiti workshops where parents bring their small children. These children learn to make graffiti, with permission, under a graffiti artist’s supervision. For them, it is not an illegal act or a statement. I’m looking forward to how they will change graffiti in the future,” Ylinen says.

The old industrial block of Santalalahti is layered with decades of graffitis.