Be it scribbled, scratched or painted on a surface, graffiti has become a popular mode of artistic expression to a growing population of New Age visual artists worldwide, and has been so since the genesis of modern graffiti art in 1960s America.

Notwithstanding this, a less-accepting and albeit more conservative subsection of society views this mode of expression as simply defacement or sheer vandalism — a punishable crime.

The debate of “vandalism or art?” has been discussed on multiple platforms to the point of exhaustion without any conclusive determination being drawn. In a three-day observatory study in the Kingston Metropolitan Area in Jamaica, I examined and documented the product of Jamaica’s graffiti sub-culture. From the exercise, I deduced that within the context of Kingston, Jamaica graffiti is less concerned with art or aesthetics, and it is not wholly malicious destruction. Instead, it serves more so a simple means of transferring our message to a mass audience – an informal billboard of sorts.

The discoveries showed graffiti used in multiple contexts including personal branding: “One God, One World, One LA Lewis, Love”; expressions of a humanitarian nature: “Want peace? Then work for Justice”; or simple galvanizing support for a political party “JLP Love You”.


Photo by Elton Johnson

The markings also varied in quality and writing implement used, which suggests that the level of care and precision used in each equally varied. The commonality with each image is that all items of graffiti captured had a message, and even multiple messages in some instances.

Societies are predicated on structure, formality and exclusivity. The hypothesis stands that some people, on fear of becoming unimportant and invisible in this structured existence, believe the only way to get their voice heard in some instances is to scribble what they want us to know on the side of an abandoned building, the back of a public transit bus seat, paved sidewalks in New Kingston, or just about anywhere. The bigger, the better.

Think about it, their options are limited. They could write a strongly worded letter to their government representative, but no, they want a response now. They could also block the roads and hope for the media to come, but how open would the media be to giving consequence to angry protesters? The other option is to get some left over paint, spray paint, anything really, and put their message on a wall.

In some ways, it is common sense. What is the best way to get someone to understand your stance against oral sex other than to write in all caps “DON’T BOW!” big and bold at popular bus stops? It becomes even more effective when you attach to that a scare tactic message like “Respect yourself, hormone mix-up cause cancer”. Add a couple of “facts” like a date, some names and a circumstance, say for example “John Browne raped and killed Mary Jane on May 4, 1983” and no one will question its truth.


Photo by Elton Johnson

Much like the internet in the age of social media, the downside to such unregulated communication is that truth and objectivity take the backseat. It is informal media, where nothing has to be verified: all that matters is you’ve written it and someone believes it. Belief is key.

The natural response to this unregulated communication has been, up to this point, control and regulation.

The proper response, however, should be to determine how the masses could use the innate power in this medium of expression to engender good and meaningful change for the population in Jamaica.

[originally written as an artist description for a course module on documentary photography, then repurposed for submission to Antillean Media Group]