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Embodied graffiti and street art research


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Graffiti and street art research (GSAR) has become more acknowledged within the academic discourse; however, it has much to gain from theorising its methodological aspects. As a multidisciplinary field, GSAR has mostly used qualitative research methods, exploring urban space through methods that range from visual recordings to ethnography, emphasising the researchers’ reflexivity. This qualitative approach has, however, paid little attention to the role of embodied practices. In this paper we discuss how embodied methodologies provide multisensory research results where the experienced moments, the participant’s and researcher’s senses, cognition and mobility in urban spaces are connected. Our discussion draws on the authors’ fieldwork experiences of walking and edge working, and on the literature concerning embodiment and embodied methodology related to the context of GSAR.
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DOI: 10.1177/14687941211028795
Embodied graffiti and street
art research
Malin Fransberg
Postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University, Finland
Mari Myllylä
PhD candidate at University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Jonna Tolonen
Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland, Finland
Graffiti and street art research (GSAR) has become more acknowledged within the academic
discourse; however, it has much to gain from theorising its methodological aspects. As a
multidisciplinary field, GSAR has mostly used qualitative research methods, exploring urban space
through methods that range from visual recordings to ethnography, emphasising the researchers’
reflexivity. This qualitative approach has, however, paid little attention to the role of embodied
practices. In this paper we discuss how embodied methodologies provide multisensory research
results where the experienced moments, the participant’s and researcher’s senses, cognition
and mobility in urban spaces are connected. Our discussion draws on the authors’ fieldwork
experiences of walking and edge working, and on the literature concerning embodiment and
embodied methodology related to the context of GSAR.
Graffiti, GSAR, street art, embodied methodology, ethnography, senses, cognition, edgework,
walking, gender
Graffiti and street art can be defined as public – and often unauthorised – creative art
pieces in urban spaces that are produced by self-motivated individuals or collectives.
Researching around this issue is a rather new discipline and scholars from the graffiti and
Corresponding author:
Jonna Tolonen D.A. & M.Ed, Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lapland, Yliopistonkatu 8,
Rovaniemi, Lapland 96101, Finland.
1028795QRJ0010.1177/14687941211028795Qualitative ResearchFransberg et al.
Standard Article
2 Qualitative Research 00(0)
street art research (GSAR) arena are part of a diverse interdisciplinary field (see e.g.
Avramidis and Tsilimpounidi, 2017; Ross, 2016a; Ross et al., 2017; Zaimakis et al.,
2021). The diversity of disciplinary traditions, such as visual studies, sociology, crimi-
nology, geography and art history, enriches the research terminology and its methodolo-
gies, which should be realised as one of the GSAR fields’ strongest contributions. On the
other hand, a cross-cutting science challenges the epistemological perspectives in GSAR.
As Ross states, the field ‘lacks a consistent identifiable body of hypotheses/propositions,
theories, and models’ (Ross, 2016b: 8). This intriguing multidisciplinary aspect entails
graffiti and street art to be researched from several different perspectives and yet it com-
plicates the development of one concurrent research language.
One of the challenges within the interdisciplinary field of graffiti and street art stud-
ies could potentially centre around the issue of methodology. There are, however,
exceptionally few writings that attempt to contemplate the methodology of GSAR (see
e.g. Andron, 2017; Ferrell, 2004; Hansen and Flynn, 2015; Lynn and Lea, 2005;
Snyder, 2009). Nevertheless, it is relatively apparent that GSAR’s major method is
approached through qualitative research, ranging from ethnographies, to in-depth
interviews, and to collections of visual data. One way to reflect this robust qualitative
dissemination of graffiti and street art practices is to relate them to embodied practices
that substructures the cultural artefacts in urban space. In particular, an embodied
methodology is useful when the research object is the practitioner in action and in
cases where the aim is to study the interaction between embodied practices, visual
interaction and urban space.
Embodied methodologies are becoming an established research practice among a
wide range of human sciences such as the social sciences, cultural studies and the cogni-
tive sciences. However, it is not constituted as a substantive epistemic field in its own
right among disciplines that relate to this methodology (Spatz, 2017). Nevertheless, a
wide range of different research methods – such as ‘action research’, ‘artistic research’,
‘practice research’ and ‘performance research’ – have all been related to what may now
be distinguished as embodied methodologies, which emphasises the significance of bod-
ily experiences in a multidisciplinary field. This approach puts the focus on the body as
an area of investigation and proposes a specific understanding of knowledge through
embodied practices (Spatz, 2017: 6).
While the embodied methodology is not a novel approach in the social sciences and
humanities, it has been tenaciously neglected through the mind–body dualism, in which
the mind is presenting ‘rationality’, and the body ‘impulsive’ and ‘irrational passions’
(Frank, 1990; Howson and Inglis, 2001; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Shilling, 2001). In socio-
logical thinking, the ‘bringing bodies in’ has stressed the transcendence of the mind–
body dualism, limiting accounts of embodied or ‘carnal’ knowledge as crucial for
understanding social agency in interaction with social order (Howson and Inglis, 2001).
Thus, such as the conceptualisations of ‘habitus’ by Bourdieu have sought to incorporate
fleshly embedded methodologies that recognise reflexivity and bodily actions as ways of
knowing (Wacquant, 2014). Similar challenges have been recognised within the cogni-
tive sciences (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012; Varela et al., 1993), where dualistic thinking
has been criticised for reducing cognition and the mind to ‘a disembodied computer
program’ (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012: 7).
Fransberg et al. 3
Feminist scholars have been at the forefront of developing embodied methodologies
and qualitative enquiries (O’Neill and Roberts, 2020; Young, 1980), and specifically
strengthened the criticisms against the dualistic approach of the body–mind set (Howson
and Inglis, 2001: 303). It refuses to approach the body merely as a static ensemble of a
subject’s actions (Butler, 2010), as well emphasised the relevance of embodied experi-
ence as crucial in producing scientific knowledge (Sinclair, 2019).
In the field of artistic research, the conception of embodied knowledge is also fairly
standard. Mainstream scientific research paradigms are often ill-fitting with artistic and
cultural research that deals with studying performances, emotions and tactile or bodily
experiences in an urban space. The body, in artistic research, is relevant ‘ever-present in
any kind of meaning making’, and therefore it is natural to ‘understand thinking as some-
thing we do with our body as much as our brain’ (Fentz and McGuirk, 2015: 16–17).
A multidisciplinary field such as GSAR may elaborate some of the aspects regarding
methodologies concerning embodiment. This paper puts forward the views and experi-
ences of embodied methodologies from three graffiti and street art researchers with back-
grounds in artistic research, sociology and cognitive science. Such a multidisciplinary
approach may at times challenge a mutual research angle or shared conceptions. On the
other hand, it provides a productive setting in which we can carry out research from a
holistic perspective. Thus, we attempt to demonstrate how embodied methodologies can
be applied and elaborated into GSAR. Here, embodiment emphasises our understanding
of the mind–body as one construct, as a process that experiences and interacts with
objects and other people in changing contexts and times (Clark, 2013a; O’Neill and
Roberts, 2020; Varela et al., 1993).
Our paper considers the following questions: What can be understood as an embodied
methodology in GSAR and what kinds of examples are presented in the current litera-
ture? Moreover, we demonstrate how an embodied methodology, can be exemplified
further by illustrations of case studies that are drawn from research that ranges from
walking (e.g. Ingold, 2007; Pink, 2015) to edge ethnography (e.g. Lyng, 1990). We will
begin by distinguishing the embodied and its methodological aspects as a framework for
conducting multidisciplinary GSAR. The article continues with methodological exam-
ples from the authors’ research. First, we take a closer look at how embodied methodolo-
gies may be illustrated in walking as a multisensory embodied experience in exploring
political street art on foot in Spain (Tolonen, 2021a; 2021b). We analyse Tolonen’s
research situations and draw reflections on field notes that were maintained over four
months of field work between 2017 and 2018. The next section depicts how gender as an
embodied practice becomes relevant in ethnographic edgework related to graffiti writ-
ing. The section draws on examples from Fransberg’s long-term ethnography (2011–
2019) in a Finnish male-dominated graffiti subculture (Fransberg, 2021). The article
concludes with three findings that are proposed for further GSAR field studies.
The embodied as a framework
Graffiti and street art practices may be understood as embodied experiences where both
scholars and research participants are part of the embodied process, accumulating field-
relevant knowledge. Some graffiti and street art researchers have considered how their
4 Qualitative Research 00(0)
creators’ agency, identities, cultures, bodies, thoughts and emotions are embodied in
artefacts (Hannerz, 2017; Schacter, 2014). Other researchers have emphasised the joint
mind–body actions in generating and perceiving graffiti and street art products through
embodied experiences (Myllylä, 2018; Halsey and Young, 2006; Nomeikaite, 2017).
Bengtsen (2014: 48–53) describes the interplay of verbal and nonverbal communication
between a street art researcher and an informant in the different physical and temporal
contexts. As Hansen and Flynn (2015) explain, experiencing street art may be under-
stood as an active conversation between the work, the artist and the viewer, where inter-
pretations are made in people’s sense-making processes and that are affected by physical
contexts as well as viewers’ perceptions and values.
To understand human practices and experiences, humans can be studied as inten-
tional and social agents. We interact with the physical and sociocultural world, making
sense of information from internal and external environments that are embedded in
objects and other agents (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007; Reinhardt and Loke, 2013;
Rowlands, 2010). Receiving and processing information assumedly causes bodily sen-
sations, which lead to cognitive and somatic affects (Noland, 2010: 4; Reinhardt and
Loke, 2013: 137).
Our experiences and embodied actions are thought to be guided by, for example,
thoughts and emotions, past memories and future goals (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012;
Rodaway, 1994). We learn by participating in our culture’s practices and sense-making,
as we engage in our physical and intersubjective mental realities, coordinating and
expressing our actions within the changing life situations (De Jaegher and Di Paolo,
2007; Rodaway, 1994). We may perceive our environments as affordances, as possibili-
ties for our actions by enactive processes (Gibson, 1986; Rowlands, 2010). Through our
actions – actions such as altering our environment and its corresponding objects – we
extend our embodiment outwards towards artefacts (Reinhardt and Loke, 2013;
Rowlands, 2010).
The framework of embodied experiences expounds that we humans are interwoven
mind–body entities; ‘embodied minds’,1 where our bodies and senses shape our cogni-
tion (and vice versa) in thinking, emotions, perceptions, memories, experiences and
social interactions, how we are situated and how we behave and move in the world
(Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012; Ignatow, 2007; Ingold, 2007; Noland, 2010; O’Neill and
Roberts, 2020). Our mental states are expressed, for example, in our physical movements
– such as our gestures and bodily expressions (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012; Ignatow,
2007). According to Noland (2010), intentional or spontaneous gestures can exhibit aes-
thetic and expressive – among other types of – goals. However, our ability to sense quali-
tative differences in gestures’ meanings in terms of shifting social situations is somewhat
of a learned skill (Noland, 2010: 6).
Cultural artefacts and concepts may convey social, symbolic meanings; for example,
expressing one’s membership within a peer group or identity within a subculture
(Macdonald, 2002). Bodies can be perceived as cultural objects, where a person’s sym-
bolic identity is distinguished, evaluated and communicated through bodily practices
(Hannerz, 2017; Ignatow, 2007; Noland, 2010). Within graffiti and street art, cultural
artefacts may embody the creators’ individual and culturally idealised forms (Hannerz,
Fransberg et al. 5
Embodied methodology: Setting up the research,
expanding the analysis
Embodied methodology emphasises the importance of the physical and socio-temporal
contexts and the interactions with all people who are involved in the study. In a research
situation, the researcher, participant(s) and the other involved parties are all engaged in
intersubjective sense-making performances, leading to the construction of socially
shared meanings and embodied experiences (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007; Noland,
2010). When people try to understand each other, they observe and react to their oppo-
nents’ bodily movements, which in turn may create imagined assumptions about others’
experiences and interpersonally shared, similar gestures (Fuchs and De Jaegher, 2009).
This kind of intersubjective functioning may enrich the research analysis. For example,
Chadwick (2017) has described embodied methodologies as the means to record multi-
vocal practices and how female body presences are demonstrated in speech narratives.
Her method primarily focuses on the language used in self-reference, relations to and
memorised topics of one’s own and others’ bodies (Chadwick, 2017).
Embodied methodology has been used also in GSAR. Schacter (2014: 224) reflects:
‘It was by action, by subjective involvement (with all the affective qualities these engen-
dered) that one gained embodied knowledge, a knowledge more important than any
purely cognitive understanding.’ Quotes from Schacter’s (2014) field notes describe the
environmental context, physical spaces and temporality, bodily gestures and interactions
between the informants and the researcher. Such interactions allow to conclude research
findings in ways that concern field activities as bodily engaged, a form of social enact-
ment for relationships, communication and commitments (Schacter, 2014: 226–227).
Similarly, as Ferrell (2004) notes, methodologies that entail engagement with the research
subjects provide an understanding of different cultural nuances and momentary experi-
ences that are related to graffiti.
Nomeikaite (2017) explores the possibilities of researching street art by including
observations and verbal explications of the physical interactions and experiences with
people and artefacts (Nomeikate, 2017). Halsey and Young (2006) suggest that the act of
graffiti writing involves bodily, affective aspects, causing a powerful embodied experi-
ence. Graffiti connects their creators to the world, reflecting their subjective, varying
relationships through the act of writing graffiti. Thus, for a researcher, the point of GSAR
is not only to confirm existing theories, but also to investigate: ‘how do various lived
bodies conceive of and speak about what they do?’ (Halsey and Young, 2006: 294). Ryan
(2017: 133) and Tolonen (2021a) have both reported on graffiti writers and street artists
gaining remedial benefits from the act of painting, reflecting that ‘painting does some-
thing’ to their bodies and acknowledging the intense physical and emotional sensations
that occur during the process of creating.
Graffiti subculture is often described as male-dominated and hence researched
through a masculine lens of thought (Fransberg, 2021; Macdonald, 2002). In ethno-
graphic research the researcher is physically involved in the lives of the study partici-
pants in the observed field. Gendered bodies often create meanings in these research
settings and are crucial in understanding the process of knowledge creation (Naegler and
Salman, 2016). Butler (1988: 520) proposes that gender identity is performed
6 Qualitative Research 00(0)
as a ‘stylized repetition of acts through time’. It is expressed in bodily signs and other
discourses, which construct identities through embodied acts in a social performance
(Butler, 1988; 2010).
Gender may therefore influence how the research is conducted. For some researchers,
when walking alone in urban environments, a feeling of safety might not necessarily be
consistent due to reasons such as their gender, age or the overall context (O’Neill and
Roberts, 2019: 51). According to Tay and Diener (2011), the feeling of safety and security
can be understood as a fundamental need that people usually intend to fulfil foremost.
However, individual psychosocial needs such as feeling respected, being able to master
one’s field of expertise and having a sense of independence might be pursued before basic
or safety needs are fully met (Tay and Diener, 2011). We are also driven by the emotion of
interest (Clark, 2013a; Izard, 2009), which according to Izard (2009: 4) is essential ‘for
engagement in creative and constructive endeavours and for the sense of well-being’, also
impacting upon one’s attention and other mental processes. An individual’s prior knowl-
edge and experiences, emotions, values, needs and interests can affect subjective infer-
ences and behaviour (Ignatow, 2007; Ingold, 2007; Saariluoma et al., 2016). This may
explain that something such as graffiti, tag or street art may seem deviant or insignificant
for one, but it may seem novel, interesting and appealing to the other.
Embodied methodologies can utilise several methods, ranging from first- to third-
person perspectives, and from qualitative to quantitative data. For example, Myllylä (in
press) uses think aloud method, which is common in user psychology, a scientific dis-
course of studying people’s minds and behavior when they interact with technical arte-
facts (Saariluoma et al., 2016), to investigate the research participants’ embodied
experiences of selected graffiti works. Thus, we would argue that different methodolo-
gies should be viewed as complementary and not as exclusive or excluding.
In the following sections we will focus on research cases that perceive urban environ-
ments through walking and edge ethnography. We illustrate that walking can be a usable
means for experiencing and interacting with the environment and is elaborated here upon
as an embodied methodology within GSAR (Tolonen, 2021b; Young, 2016). We also
present that edge ethnography is a methodology that requires deep involvement and
immersion in the physical, social and emotional activities of the subjects, even in the
potential risk and ethical issues that are related work to the engagement for both the
researcher and the subjects (Ferrell, 1998; Lyng, 1990). With these two cases we provide
examples of how embodiment can be depicted and how it can impact upon both research
methods and analysis, in this case, in the examination of street art and graffiti.
Walking as a researcher’s embodied experience
Walking has been theorised in many fields of science, for example, in anthropology,
geology, philosophy and sociology (see e.g. Ingold, 2007; O’Neill and Roberts, 2019;
Pinder, 2008; Pink, 2015). Walking in environments is, in itself, an endeavour that
includes experiential, psychological, social, bodily and physical aspects (O’Neill and
Roberts, 2019). In GSAR, walking has become an increasingly utilised research method.
For example, Phillips (2015), Tolonen (2021a; 2021b) and Young (2016), among many
others, have studied and analysed graffiti and street art by walking around cities and
Fransberg et al. 7
photographing artworks. Walking per se has not yet been the main focus of graffiti and
street art researchers and yet even the researchers themselves tend to acknowledge its
impacts on their perceptions, as Young (2016: 92) here reflects:
Walking on the street puts you in the midst, able to see textures up close, to walk away, turn and
see a work from a distance, to lay your hand upon it and feel the underlying stone through the
paper or paint.
Therefore, it can be argued that walking as a multisensory experience is a methodology,
as opposed to being simply a research method (see also Pink, 2015), as Tolonen
I’m no longer sure if walking for me is just a research method. I see it now more as a bodily and
multisensory state of thinking. A state in which, through my movement and observations in the
city space, I’m testing the empirical data and theoretical frameworks of street art.2
By walking, a graffiti and street art researcher gains an experience of the surroundings of
the artwork as well as of the artwork itself. The researcher is able to see artworks from
different angles and distances, feel the textures underneath, and sometimes later return to
the artwork and observe how the weather conditions or other artists have modified it (see
Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sometimes walking takes a researcher to surprising locations, as happened to
Tolonen during her two-month stay in Las Palmas, Spain, where she encountered a multi-
layered practising place for beginners. 2018. Photograph @Jonna Tolonen.
8 Qualitative Research 00(0)
There might also be moments when the researcher can still smell the freshly sprayed
paint, discuss with other passers-by about the feelings the artwork raises or even witness
the artwork being painted over (see Figure 2).
Therefore, walking is a series of perceptions, thoughts, emotions and experiences that
coincide with graffiti and street art and also with the researchers themselves. Walking
requires one being present with all of one’s senses. The idea of multi-sensoriality – inter-
twining one’s sight with one’s other senses – is a fundamental principle in terms of the
researcher’s walking experiences. Vision is not understood as a primary sense of the
researcher, as the perception of the environment could be characterised as a sensory pro-
cess where seeing works alongside the other senses.
Doing graffiti and street art research on foot
Walking is a form of fieldwork on foot and it generally involves perceiving, routing and
recording. A researcher observes the ever-changing environment and perceives informa-
tion from mutually overlapping sounds and olfactory scenery, landscape views and vari-
ations in the ground surfaces under his or her feet. During the walk, the researcher can
Figure 2. A popular graffiti spot in Madrid, Spain, overpainted by the city’s cleaning crew.
After taking the photo Tolonen had a chat with the cleaners and one of them told he was ‘a
painter myself’. 2015. Photograph @Jonna Tolonen.
Fransberg et al. 9
fall into his or her own thoughts and combine various observations or previous experi-
ences. Therefore, walking can provide for the researcher, as Pink (2015: 55) puts it,
access to a ‘new form of [sensory] knowing’ or as Classen (1993: 9) states, ‘thinking
through senses’. This can also stimulate unexpected ways of thinking and offer new
insights for the researcher, as Tolonen reflects:
I have never been in this place before. I sense everything of it for the first time in my life: the
light, the sounds, the walls, the colours. The odours are peculiar – some kind of mix of sweet,
musty and salty. It all feels familiar but yet at the same time somehow different and new. As if
all my senses were on extra alert to suck everything in, trying to apprehend this.3
Routing can vary from a detailed pre-set walk to anything such as wandering around
the city aimlessly. In Ingold’s (2007) terms, a researcher can be a passive traveller who
is merely transporting from one point to another, or a wayfarer walking through the
world without any final destination by integrating her perception, locomotion and knowl-
edge. The researcher’s gender can affect routing too. For example, some women research-
ers might avoid field work during night-time or in vague areas, as Tolonen demonstrates
in her field notes: ‘I was standing on a crossroads about to enter a narrow alley to photo-
graph, when an old lady yells from the window at me: “Cariño, no vayas allí, es
peligroso!” [Darling, don’t go there, it’s dangerous!]’4 . As the street continues in so
many ways to be ‘a place for maleness’ (Snyder, 2009: 5), women researchers are per-
ceived as more vulnerable to harassment and violence than male investigators.
While walking, the researcher makes decisions on their routing: ‘Shall I take the route
I have decided beforehand or should I just wander around the area? Should I turn left
instead of right from the next corner?’ Even if a graffiti and street art researcher makes
up their mind about the walk route in advance, physical conditions (such as weather or
geography), biological (such as hydration or stamina) or sudden sensory inputs, in addi-
tion to their ability to navigate in space, might change the researcher’s plan and result in
unexpected moments, as Tolonen highlights:
My sense of direction has always been really poor, so it was no surprise I got lost today. I found
myself wandering in some kind of semi-industrial wasteland, and as I was cursing about
wasting my valuable research time by getting lost, I suddenly spotted a piece by artist Art Is
Trash on an abandoned pile of metal stuff.5
The perceptions and (visual) materials that the researcher gathers during field work
reflect many qualities and features of the researcher himself/herself: the researcher’s age,
gender, body type, cultural background, interests, aesthetic understanding and individual
knowledge (Berger, 2015). The most popular way of recording graffiti and street art is
photography, along with video recording and writing. Photographs are mainly used to
make an argument or to support the researcher’s analysis (O’Reilly, 2012). Walking –
versus collecting data from archives or the internet – enables the researcher to observe
the location and materiality of graffiti and street art, as well as the imagined bodily expe-
riences of their makers (Myllylä, in press) in detail, as Phillips’ (2015: 60) description on
two stencils illustrates:
10 Qualitative Research 00(0)
[. . .] stencils are also distinct in the way they are executed. The first [. . .] has an unusual
format. Walking around and using such an extraordinary stencil it would be difficult for the user
to hide and would attract attention. [. . .] the stencil-maker knows of good visible and suitable
locations for spraying, knows material effects of the ground and paint, and has manual abilities
to create an accurate and elaborate stencil graffito. In contrast, the second stencil is irregular,
uneven and produced with a small stencil easy to conceal.
It is not universal as to how people perceive their environment. It is influenced by social
and cultural backgrounds, experiences and memories (Rodaway, 1994: 5). As a conse-
quence, walking cannot be implemented without acknowledging the role of the research-
er’s own embodied self (O’Reilly, 2012: 100). The researcher’s anatomical shape for
standing upright and walking defines what the environment can afford for them and also
affects their relations to other people and things (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2012: 150–151;
Rodaway, 1994: 12). A 19-year-old, 188-centimetre-tall art student who paints graffiti
herself senses the streets and its surroundings differently than a 45-year-old 155-centi-
metre-tall engineer whose passion is science. The researcher learns and knows through
his/her whole experiencing body and the research results should be considered as under-
standings of experiences rather than as objective truths (Pink, 2015: 27, 81).
The value in walking lies in the new levels of awareness about the researchers them-
selves, their experiences and their embodied knowledge (O’Reilly, 2012: 99). By walk-
ing, researchers can get to the phenomena, describe and analyse it. There is no doubt that
‘researchers need to have a clear idea of what sensory and embodied experience involves’
(Pink, 2015: 26), nor does it automatically offer an understanding of things. Sometimes
an embodied methodology may also generate information that is difficult to verbalise, as
Chadwick (2017: 58) points out. However, Chadwick’s (2017) approach does not take
into consideration that research results can be presented as artworks, performances, exhi-
bitions, installations and other artistic practices, instead of or among traditional written
scientific reports. This is a common practice, for example in artistic and cultural research
(Arlander, 2012; Borgdorff, 2011). Overall, it can be argued that walking can provide
multisensory research results that emphasise the experienced moments and connect the
researcher’s senses, thought processes and environments. Walking is a powerful tool for
a graffiti and street art researcher: It can create knowledge that enables new ways of
grasping the ephemeral, dynamic and communicative urban environments.
Embodied experience of the edge
Graffiti and street art are often understood as culturally resistant, rebellious and political
acts in urban spaces that tend to escape notions of the normative (Ferrell, 1996; Hansen
and Flynn, 2015). In GSAR, embodied methodology is particularly relevant among those
scholars who take ethnographic, subcultural or cultural criminologist perspectives into
account (see e.g. Ferrell, 1996; Macdonald, 2002; Snyder, 2009). These perspectives aim
to grasp the experience of resistance, the ‘escape’ from social order, and the rebellious
styles present in the phenomenology of graffiti and street art. As graffiti and street art are
often treated as an illegal endeavour and perceived as a transgression, it may also cause
several embodied experiences of risk for its practitioners and its researchers. Some
Fransberg et al. 11
scholars within the field who abide by an autoethnographic approach have reported the
adrenaline rush, fear and excitement that they experience when confronting ‘police offic-
ers, security guards, huffers (paint sniffers), and various street toughs’, as Ferrell (1998:
22) puts it. One perspective that proposes the element of embodiment within these schol-
arly accounts that are related to deep ethnographic work like Ferrell’s (1996) is the meth-
odology of edgework.
Originating in Lyng’s (1990) social-psychological work on extreme-leisure activities,
edgework analyses the voluntary risk-taking, emotions and sensations that are elicited.
Those that are engaged in ‘deviant’ subcultural practices and enjoy trespassing, breaking
a restriction or a moral code, expose themselves ‘to high risks and therefore develop
skills, or physical and mental abilities, to keep concentration and control in situations
characterised by unpredictability and “chaos”’ (Naegler and Salman, 2016: 360). The
embodied experience of the ‘edge’ is here explored more specifically in the field of graf-
fiti and street art studies, as it may provide a deeper, cognitive, artistic and sociological
understanding of both the individual and of (sub)cultural practices.
Embodied edgework often explores a form of resistance and a type of escape from the
prevailing structures of political and economic power (Lyng, 2004). Risk takers, here as
graffiti writers and street artists who paint illegally on walls and other objects, often
describe the experience of danger as pleasurable and creatively satisfying (Ferrell, 1998;
Macdonald, 2002: 107). This practice is constituted around the game, called by some
scholars the ‘urban warfare’ between graffiti writers and the authorities (Macdonald,
2002). At times, this is presented as the motivation for why they paint; that is, to dare
oneself towards the edge of one’s cultural and social mobility by painting and challeng-
ing the aesthetics of the urban space. This experienced edge cannot be performed without
the prevailing structures that define an act as illicit or norm breaking. It is these dialectics
with the ‘edge’ that drive forth the embodied experiences of pleasures that are expressed
in situations of danger and risk:
So, it’s when I start to run away from cops and guards, that’s when I lose my sense of reality.
I’ll just have one goal, it’s just to run! And I don’t even realize it, my legs just work. It’s like, I
have nothing to lose, I will just let my body do what it can in full force. Afterwards, I don’t
really know what happened, I just realise that I did it again. I ran away from an army of pigs
and I’m just laughing, not relieved, but in a psychotic way, full of endorphins.6
While O’Neill and Roberts (2020: 131–133) theorise walking also as a form of ‘escape’
in regards to transgressing a sense of ‘how to be’, an individual’s running proposes a
speeding up of the process of performing a re-formed identity through movements in
urban space. The excerpt above refers to a study participant’s act that she experienced
repeatedly during graffiti writing at illegal sites – that is, the running and escape from
authoritative control attempting to stop her artistic performing and which is here repre-
sented by police officers and security guards. Through detailing this repeated experience,
she expresses a powerful sense of her own bodily capacities and recognises mobility as
crucial for being able to paint graffiti. Transgressing rules and the conventions of norms
leads to a process of what Lyng (2005: 28) expresses as ‘moral transcendence’, reward-
ing the experiencer emotionally and sensationally.
12 Qualitative Research 00(0)
Here, as the excerpt above interprets, the experience is embodied through an emo-
tional loss of reality when running and resisting normative rules about how city space
should be used. As Naegler and Salman (2016: 361) note, challenging the edge can be
approached as means towards exercising control and autonomy by both symbolically and
physically confronting those sources that apparently deprive the actor to control over his
or her own fate. Here, social interaction is the common medium for the embodiment,
where ‘the body becomes most conscious of itself when it encounters resistance, which
is when it is in use, acting’ (Lyng, 2004: 364).
The methodological approach in graffiti research is suggested to be influenced by a mas-
culine lens, especially in studies that take the subcultural and cultural criminologist approach.
Edgework has been accused of romanticising masculine performativity through narratives of
physical, daring and able male bodies, thus reifying binaries of the active male and the pas-
sive female in the field of cultural criminology (Naegler and Salman, 2016: 361). Likewise,
graffiti subculture has often been described as male-dominated and as emphasising masculine
ideals in its cultural endeavours (Fransberg, 2021; Macdonald, 2002). As such, graffiti is
often distinguished as a masculine and aggressive act constituted by risk; whereas in opposi-
tion, street art is often understood as being softer, less criminal and feminine (Fransberg,
2021). Naegler and Salman (2016: 362) argue that it is not adequate to do analyses of edge-
work in gender-neutral ways, as performances of femininity and masculinity in relation to
risk are culturally defined. Thus, accepting male risk-taking as part of cultural ideals over
masculinity results in viewing female edgeworkers as ‘acting like men’ or even renders them
as an exception from the norm, instead of recognising a diversity within gender theorisation
that extends beyond a binary approach (Naegler and Salman, 2016: 363).
Another perspective, which is underlined by feminist scholars conducting field research
among predominantly male subcultures, is that bodies performing feminine actions may
gain a peculiar positioning as a participant–observant as their embodiment occurs as excep-
tions within the field. Female researchers’ sexual activity has, for example, been subordi-
nated to observation in heteronormative and male-dominated subcultures and this in turn
influences the knowledge production in the field (Lumsden, 2009; Poulton, 2012). Yet, there
are other embodied aspects that may raise specific subject matters in the field work. In
Fransberg’s (2021) ethnographic research among male train graffiti writers, she was found
to be useful as a photographer for graffiti writers, as her female bodily appearance was not
seen as suspicious to the authorities in certain contexts. Fransberg was able, to some extent,
pass through surveillance and more easily photograph graffiti-painted trains in train stations
because of a more ‘feminine’ appearance than that of her male informants – males who
would perhaps have been chased by security guards.
However, the advantages of her female body have over the years been overexposed,
thus resulting in her appearance becoming recognisable to the local authorities, as the
next field note discusses:
Early morning at a train station. I waited for the commuter train to come into the platform, the
one I knew was covered by graffiti pieces. I saw the train arriving from a distance, pointed my
camera towards it and caught a few photos of it. I was happy as I walked along the platform;
the photos were great. Little did I know what was going to happen next. As I walked along the
pedestrian path next to the railway, I was suddenly confronted by a police car. ‘What are you
Fransberg et al. 13
doing here?’ they asked. ‘Taking photos.’ ‘Of what?’ they replied. ‘Of trains,’ I answered. ‘We
have to take you to the police station.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You are suspected of vandalism.’ I knew I was
f*cked. It was not my first time being involved with the police because of studying graffiti. I
was taken into a cell and I was even more f*cked because I could not call my boss to tell him
that I would not go to work that day.7
This ephemerality of graffiti and street art presents some challenges to scholars in the
field, as there is often an urgency to document artefacts before they are whitewashed
(Ross et al., 2017: 415). Graffiti and street art are often produced in an illegal context,
and simply photographing them can become a complex experience of the embodied
edgework, as the field note above demonstrates. Bodily acts are therefore part of what
could be understood as a cultural reading of certain contextual and social settings that are
rarely fixed, but rather compose themselves in the form of a process. This process
becomes reproductive through different embodied practices and at times these practices
manage to challenge normative beliefs such as those that are related to gender.
Butler (2010) underlines that repeated performances may challenge gender norma-
tivities that are related to feminine and masculine embodied practices. Similarly, O’Neill
and Roberts (2020: 133) writes that the repetition of walking or other embodied move-
ments in urban space presents ‘ourselves to others’ and may in return transgress mundane
body imagery and normative identity constructs. However, visible embodied repetition
constitutes a challenge in the case of illegal graffiti and street art, as passers-by rarely
view the actual body in situ, as the actor seeks to hide from the public, partly to avoid
sanctions from authorities, and partly due to the subcultural attractions of concealed
identity and favouring a distance to the ‘mainstream’ (Macdonald, 2002). Thus, the pos-
sible creators are often constructed through assumptions that are built on normative
beliefs; beliefs that are often based upon notions of an able male body and those viewed
as normative bodies in the urban realm (Hannerz, 2017). This underlines the importance
that researchers place upon the need to document and disseminate the diversity of
embodied practices in the GSAR field, and that challenge the binary approach to the
feminine and masculine and other body imagery regimes.
The task of this article has been to look more closely at the ways in which embodied
methodologies can be applied to and elaborated on in terms of GSAR. This article ana-
lysed both the relevant literature and experiences during the fieldwork carried out by the
researchers of graffiti and street art studies. Three specific findings are worth emphasis-
ing. The first is that we recommend that researchers should recognise the role of their
embodied experience as a part of creating knowledge in GSAR. This posits a versatile
understanding of the embodiment, including the researchers’ and research participants’
understanding of positionality and reflexivity in the researched field. Positionality and
reflexivity are already commonly analysed in qualitative research, yet we encourage
researchers to include embodiment in the scientific discussions that surround graffiti and
street art. Embodied reflexivity may intensify the quality of GSAR by allowing research-
ers and participants to reflect their ways of sensing experiences and deepen our overall
14 Qualitative Research 00(0)
understanding of an embodiment that recognises cultural and psychosocial beliefs and
values. This approach to embodiment entails a holistic view, stressing that neither per-
ceptions nor experiences can be detached from our way of being in the world (Clark,
2013b; Ingold, 2007; Merleau-Pounty, 1962; Pink, 2015, Young, 1980).
The second finding relates to the focus of graffiti and street art studies. GSAR tends
to emphasise the refinement of the cultural artefact in urban spaces rather than studying
the embodied practices behind the artefact. There may be several reasons for this, one is
here postulated as relating to ‘disembodiment’ (Hannerz, 2017) as bodies which create
graffiti and street art in urban environments often perform when hidden from spectators.
Therefore, graffiti and street art scholars tend to focus on cultural objects rather than on
the bodily acts done in socially and culturally constructed settings. This has resulted in a
wider neglection or interpretation of embodied methodologies within graffiti and street
art studies. Moreover, a neglection of the embodied methodologies within street art and
graffiti studies may lead us to constructing a set of granted body norms, rather than chal-
lenging graffiti and street art practices as, for example, inherently masculine acts.
Focusing on bodily acts may emphasise our understanding of diverse bodies and disman-
tle the corresponding dualism such as in the case of masculine–feminine bodies.
The third finding is that by elaborating and clarifying embodied methodologies in graffiti
and street art, we are also contemplating the concept of embodied practices. This allows us
to draw on perspectives from different disciplines, working on similar topics that are close
to each other, thus contributing to the multi-disciplinarity that is typical within the GSAR
field. Instead of working within an academic vacuum or drawing on rather narrow perspec-
tives, it may benefit researchers to grasp a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach. As
we have noted, similar concepts that are related to embodiment already exist between differ-
ent disciplines. Different disciplines can all contribute to the refining of what is meant by
embodiment, embodied practices and how they are present in graffiti and street art.
This paper brings forth and clarifies some of the conceptions and practical examples
that are related to embodied methodology within graffiti and street art-related research.
Further discussions on the meaning of embodiment, embodied methodology and practi-
cal applications are still needed to provide valuable research tools, as well to explain
cognitive, cultural and socially constructed settings. Considering that embodiment in
GSAR is a rather complex issue, it is still essential to involve the embodied participation
of both the researcher and the participants in differentiating research contexts, as these
elements could influence the production of knowledge in the future development of
interdisciplinary GSAR.
All field notes in this article are translated from original language to English by the authors.
All authors have contributed to the article equally.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: Research for Mari Myllylä was supported by grants from the Finnish
Cultural Foundation [grant number 00180743] and the University of Jyväskylä, Faculty of
Information Technology.
Fransberg et al. 15
Jonna Tolonen
1. In this paper we condense the concepts of ‘embodied mind’ and embodiment into rather brief
descriptions, though extensive literature exists regarding these concepts. See, for example,
Clark (2013b) for embodiment and cognition, and Scarinzi (2015) for embodied mind in
2. Tolonen’s field note, Valencia, December 2017.
3. Tolonen’s field note, Valencia, November 2017. [some additional information has been
deleted to maintain the integrity of the review process].
4. Tolonen’s field note, Las Palmas, January 2018. [some additional information has been
deleted to maintain the integrity of the review process]
5. Tolonen’s field note, Valencia, November 2017. [some additional information has been
deleted to maintain the integrity of the review process].
6. Fransberg’s field note with female graffiti writer, June 2018.
7. Fransberg’s field note, Helsinki, September 2016. [some additional information has been
deleted to maintain the integrity of the review process].
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Author biographies
Malin Fransberg is a sociologist and specialises in themes of subcultural theories, gender and cul-
tural criminology. Her ethnographic PhD thesis focused on the criminalisation of graffiti in
Helsinki and the affect of zero tolerance policy on the subculture’s gender performativities. She is
currently studying young people’s relationships and perspectives on animals, and its relevance to
pro-environmental behaviour.
Mari Myllylä is a cognitive scientist with previous degrees in design and IT business. She is cur-
rently finishing her PhD thesis about information content of mental representation in experience of
graffiti. Her research interests are in graffiti art experience, representational mental contents and
embodied mind. She currently works in the ETAIROS project that studies ethical assessment and
design frameworks for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and associated technologies.
Jonna Tolonen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of
Lapland, Finland. She has presented and published widely on gentrification and street art. Jonna is
also a member of INDAGUE, the Spanish Association of Researchers of Graffiti and Urban Art.
Her current research interests deal with visual culture, socio-environmental justice and artivism.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Drawing upon visual ethnographic research carried out in two Spanish cities between 2015 and 2018, this visual essay explores the ability of street art to speak about violence against women. Posters, wall writings and stencils represent both visual communication and political expression that can give an insight into this gender-based phenomenon. Street art pieces are linked to broader social contexts. The photographs and discourse analysis of the street art presented in this essay pay attention to the specific contexts of Spanish society and investigate the social spaces in which street art pieces are embedded. The author offers a critical perspective on assumptions regarding the gendered construction of public space and reflections on street-level visual resistance about violence against women in Madrid and Valencia.
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Graffiti can be viewed as stories about embodied identities of the self and others which can be shared in intersubjective discourse, visual communication of varying content and motives, and utilizing specific technology and mediums. Graffiti’s palimpestuous nature, in its physical and symbolic forms of layering information, is present in production and perceiving graffiti. A creator and a reader of graffiti are both palimpsesting the work, acting as narrators of their own mental sheets. The concept of graffiti as a palimpsest can be exemplified for example in graffiti art where the interpretation of a work of art depends on the properties of the work, the perceiver and the social and institutional agreements. How graffiti are interpreted is informed by perceiving individuals’ characters, such as knowledge and skills, as well as the cultural and sociohistorical context where these individuals are immersed and act. Direct link: Cite: Myllylä, M. (2018). Graffiti as a Palimpsest. SAUC - Street Art & Urban Creativity Scientific Journal, 4(2).
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