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Gergely Fliegauf1:

Analyzing prison graffiti: is it a proper method for a closer examination of

representation of self in incarceration?

1. Introduction: What is prison life?

Several laws and decrees are the main regulations of functioning as a human being in a prison
context in every country of the world. These quite strict regulations are prescriptive
obligations declared in the body of the text either for the prisoners or for the prison service.

Here is an example from the revised European Prison Rules2:

“Communication and visits may be subject to restrictions and

monitoring necessary for the requirements of continuing criminal
investigations, maintenance of good order, safety and security,
prevention of criminal offences and protection of victims of crime, but
such restrictions, including specific restrictions ordered by a judicial
authority, shall nevertheless allow an acceptable minimum level of

These rules are binding for the prison service and for the staff members, however if we visit a
prison we can easily experience that some basic rights of the prisoners are misused or abused.
Here is an example on the nature of the misuse:

“In general, the amount of time permitted for visits and the conditions
in which such visits took place were acceptable in the establishments
visited. However, the exception concerned Coimbra Central Prison
where the large visiting hall, with long tables and benches, was
extremely noisy when crowded.”4

As probably you can see the nature of this paragraph above is more descriptive than

On the other hand prisoners themselves break laws and decrees in the prisons. The very
presence of inter-prisoner violence, bullying, sexual misuse, drug abuse, gang activity,
contrabands etc. in prisons is a full packet of dysfunctions despite the power of law.

MA psychologist and prison drug policy expert, Police College, Budapest, Hungary,
COUNCIL OF EUROPE COMMITTEE OF MINISTERS Recommendation Rec(2006)2 of the Committee of
Ministers to member states on the European Prison Rules
cf. above 24.2.
CPT/Inf (2009) 13 Report to the Portuguese Government on the visit to Portugal carried out by the European
Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 14 to
25 January 2008, 98 p. 2. sp.

Prisons are not isolated from the outside world as Farrington5 writes in his classic article on
the critique of the total institution theory. In this point of view the larger society has a huge
influence on the prison life. These effects can not be ruled by laws. This interaction between
the larger society and the prison life is determined by the economical, architectural, and
environmental challenges in our world. Globalization and international terrorist movements
made the prisons more secure, bigger and also attractive. Financial crisis and the lack of
budget as regards the law enforcement triggered a dramatic change in the way of establishing
and functioning prisons. The number of private prisons is even higher. Trading, cultivating,
producing, exporting and importing illicit drugs have changed the drug consuming habit of
the young people and their prison life as well. Economic alterations of the education in
primary and secondary schools increased the ethnic segregation of minorities and facilitated
the extreme aggressive behavior in campus areas. A third factor behind the last two is the
bullying. Open violence and mobbing against peers results a higher level organization and
preparedness for fights amongst the juveniles, and this last point is the source of the radical
gang activity in some prison cultures.

Which law or decree could describe the above mentioned problems? What are the real
sanctions of having a role in this game, and what are the consequences of being an outsider?
What is the prison life and is there any possibility to know the rules as a staff member or as

The critique of the Goffman’s total institution theory6 of can be true, but there are some basic
points which are closer to the prison reality than legal regulations and inspections:

1. The weakest point of a prisoner is the type of his committed crime or with other words his
deepest secret. The staff and the other prisoners strive to get these intimate details as strong as
they can. After being informed about the story the social environment tries to misuse the
prisoner by attacking through his weakest point. There is no confidentiality in prisons.

2. The system of the prison deconstructs the prisoners’ pre-incarceration personality.

3. There is an organized or spontaneous group oriented or individual reaction to the both

above mentioned prison rule: the captives try to destroy the system. They fight against the
material goods and human values.

4. They feel an enormous solidarity with the presumed victims of the prison system and they
build up an informal structure.
We should add to this point that these structures are not only hierarchical but also network
like. Core points of these networks are the prison gangs. The prison gangs have well
established identity and territorial strategies in openly aggressive setting.

5. There is no mobility between the staff and the inmates in a prison. This means that a prison
can not be compared to a company where a chance of a carrier is given. A short remark could
be to this goffmanian statement that the presence of corruption and prison informers (prison
snitches) can make these boundaries less tight.

Farrington, K. (1992), The Modern Prison as a Total Institution? Public Perception Versus Objective Reality,
Crime and Deliquency; 38;6, 6-23 pp.
Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York:
Anchor Books

As other critique to the theory of the total institutions, Guenther 7 made a classification of
illicit items in prison. These can proof the absence of the total isolation of the prison life from
the outside world.
The typology is the following:
- items which can be use to attack other person in the prison
- items which can be use as a device for escaping from the prison
- items which can cause social disturbances in the prison (i.e. pornographic pictures, cards,
tools meaning risk for the health like plastic bottles for weight lifting or tattooing machines)
- any kind of drugs

2. Doing research in prisons: an almost impossible mission

For the first point we have to declare the person itself who is trying to make a proper research
in a prison. We do not count with experiments like the infamous setting made by Zimbardo 8,
because it was a simulated prison, which means it was not real. We also do not deal with
biological or pharmaceutical experiments made on inmates because these are purely inhumane
in their very nature. Following this two arguments we have to focus on social sciences and on
policy issues.
Scientist can be psychologist, sociologist, linguists, anthropologists etc. They bring into the
prison setting their special point of view and their social roles. Social roles are representations
of a social group in the cognitive constructions of the human brain. These constructions are
regulated by the prison life in a prison and they symbolize the vast majority of the society or
even the power elite of the society as Foucault and Mills stipulated. In the mental construction
of prisoners’ view the main reason to be incarcerated is the state and the larger society. The
scientists are representative of the power elite in this context so the communication coming
from the inmates would be distorted by telling critiques, contesting arguments, self fulfilling
prophecies, general attitudes and attributions, beliefs etc as replies to the scientific questions.
These responses are rather messages than clear answers. After decoding these messages the
scientist are able to lose the content.
We can face the same trap as we try to raise the content of our research. Topics can be for
example drug use, inter-prisoner violence, prison slang, prison gangs etc. If the prisoners tell
some details on this issues they risk their identity in the prison reality, so they will represent
their self. They will build up and alter reality for playing a game with the researcher. This
demand for playing will meet the demand to have a result on the side of the researcher, and
the second will miss the core issues again.
All social sciences have their own proper methodology to combat the above mentioned
disadvantages however the inmates also have a strategy to hide the reality. The motivation
behind this action can be the feeling of shame, pride or simply not to tell any information to
an outsider.
It is clear that psychological tests or sociological questionnaires have embedded validity
scales and the lack of success has also a very comprehensive meaning about pathology or a
There is also an advantage to reach prisoners as contributors for a social researcher namely
that the inmates are present in the prison. For some social researchers the main challenge
could be how to find clients for the questionnaires. This is not a problem in prison, moreover
inmates are very likely to meet someone from the outside because it makes their daily life
better and more colorful in the mostly boring and violence dominated world of incarceration.

Guenther A. L. (1975) Compensations in a Total Institution: The Forms and Functions of Contraband
Haney, C., W.C. Banks and P.G. Zimbardo (1973) ‘Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison’,
International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1: 69–97.

The issue of respect can be also raised. Some researchers try to give paper and pencil test to
the prisoners in a large group setting. Two major problems can contest the success of such
approach. Firstly these questions are focusing on sensitive content like using drugs or the
result of sexual deprivation. The strict intimacy of these topics results that the inmates make
jokes on the research and they try to hide any kind of reaction which could be recognize by
any other peer in the huge room where the examination is going on. The same makes the mass
face to face interviews also troublesome. If inmates can see or hear what the others are doing
they will act like machos and they will play the same roles what they do in cell communities
or at the exercise areas. Showing the power and authority and hiding the deep feelings.
Secondly all researchers have to respect the prisoners’ personality as human beings. To be
together with the peers and the scientist is a good party for the inmates but nothing else if they
can not recognize the positive attitude of the other party. If you are not sure about your own
security in the prison they will have at least jokes on your preoccupations. If you do not like
the smell of the prison they will try to make the environment more disgusting. If you show
that you are sleepy it would mean that you are not motivated and they will be very reluctant to
give the proper response. If someone tries to be more attractive for the prisoners than she or
he really is they will say nasty and quite degrading remarks.

A completely different approach but still social science based methodology could be to
analyze the writings on the walls. These messages are pure statements without hiding the
truth. Sometimes the aim to write on the wall is even to tell the truth for the listeners who are
not present during the communication.
The setting of putting a tag on wall is also intimate because in prisons the places of such
statements are frequently isolation, segregation or transport cells where the inmates use to be
Messages on the wall can target also other inmates. In this case the inmate overestimates
himself and he might say a lie. This is also a self representation: they communicate more, less,
better or worse as they really are. We should not forget about the force and freedom however.
There is a strong motivation to do something and there is no inhibition to tell something if the
prisoner is isolated. What is the source of this motivation? What is the meaning of this
pressure? Why even these contents can appear on the walls? Why others not?

Policy makers do not manage researches in prison to realize the nature of the inner life but
they try to build up a strategy how to deal with the prisoners. The setting is more official and
the approach is less scientific. We should say that these actions have to be based on far
pragmatist and utilitarian grounds. These attitudes reflect frequently to the mandate of the
government and to the general balance of the two basic functions of imprisonment, the
isolation and the rehabilitation. Left wings politics prefer to emphasize the second and
conservatives the first. Policy makers are employees of the government in charge and they
have to consistent with the program of the highest regulatory body.
Policy and politics should be independent from each other but this principle remains enforced
only in dreams. Scientific results should not be used for political statements and at least
should not be forced to meet the government’s view, however in most of the countries it does.

3. Function of graffiti

A good explanation of the function of the graffiti can be the uncovering of hidden issues. As
Christopher Taylor9 says examples of sources of information might include an interview with
Taylor, C. (1999) Organizational Graffiti: A Different Approach To Uncovering Issues, Journal of Management
Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, 290-296 (1999)

a head of an organization or the minutes of an executive meeting or the annual report of the
organization. Lower grade employees relate well to such official sources of information. To
get potentially valuable information is available through unofficial reflections, such as the
state of a work area or the writings on the wall.
However, the social identity and deindividuation (SIDE) model suggests that in the graffiti
reflected conditions, a salient group identity (here gangs) and anonymity, would lead to
behavior polarization. James A. Green10 suggested that people, are more likely to be
influenced by group identity under deindividuating conditions because the visual anonymity
will further reduce perceived intragroup differences, thereby increasing the salience of the
Maurizio Marinelli11 says that graffiti quite seem to be extremely sophisticated and full of
symbolic meaning and implications. To analyze implications and hidden communications is
the field of social psychology and to discover the symbolic meaning is the methodology of the
Chicago School of Criminology founder G.H. Mead12.
Kelling and Coles13 consider graffiti as a destructive act, an act of vandalism or criminal
damage: one that should not be legitimized or encouraged. Along with other ‘anti-social’
behaviors, graffiti is regarded as the herald of more serious criminal activity. At the other end
of this continuum there are scientists who say that graffiti is an art. In contrary Nick Lynn and
Susan J. Lea14 declare that such an ethos has the potential to justify and legitimize the work of
the ‘racist’ graffiti writer. Rather graffiti is a ‘heteroglot’ tangible ‘utterance’: one that is
uniquely visual, lexical, and time, place and space specific.
In a highly conceptualized article Jeff Ferrel, Chris Greer and Yvonne Jewkes 15 the editors of
the journal ‘Crime, Media and Culture’ state that graffiti acts like media forms and cultural
dynamics, including historical, political, situational, spatial, subcultural, and cross-cultural
intersections. They analyze a graffiti which was made in Sadr City by copying and reframing
a photograph taken by US navy soldiers in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq while torturing an
inmate by forcing him to stand on a box, his fingers wired with electric shock and a hood on
his head.
Adrian Parr 16(2005) gave a quite interesting meaning of the graffiti in his article on the child
detainees in Australia. The asylum seeker children in the detention centers suffer from double
silencing, they are traumatized from the pains of incarceration and they are not able to speak
English. They make themselves almost ritual self harms. These acts of the children can be
explained like embodied graffiti.
Parr says:

Embodied graffiti resists being read through hierarchical systems of

signification (‘barbaric’ culture or via the unified notion of ‘the
oppressed’). It needs to be noted that arguing for the ‘oppressed’ could be
tantamount to contributing to the selfsame system of western desire that

Green, G. A. (2003) The Writing on the Stall - Gender and Graffiti Journal of Language and Social
Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 3, 282-296
Marinelli, M. (2004) Walls of Dialogue in the Chinese Space China Information, Vol. 18, No. 3, 429-462
see: Da Silva, F.C. (2007) Re-examining Mead: G.H. Mead on the `Material Reproduction of Society Journal
of Classical Sociology, Nov; vol. 7: pp. 291 - 313.
Kelling, G., Coles, C. (1996) Fixing Broken Windows. New York: Martin Kessler Books.
Lynn, N., Lea, S. J. (2005) ‘Racist’ graffiti: text, context and social comment, Visual Communication, Vol. 4,
No. 1, 39-63
Ferrell, J., Greer, C., Jewkes, Y. (2005) Hip hop graffiti, Mexican murals and the war on terror, Crime Media
Culture 2005; 1; 5
Parr, A. (2005)The Deterritorializing Language of Child Detainees Self-harm or embodied graffiti? Childhood,
Vol. 12, No. 3, 281-299

consumes the life of child detainees in order to gratify its own sense of
privilege (white and civilized).17

Dilapidated prison material conditions, lack of regime and safeguards, superficial medical
care, overmedicalization, reluctance to fight inter-prisoner violence, sexual abuse, forcing etc
can effect in the same way on young or young adult inmates. Foreign nationals or ethnic
minorities are overrepresented in every prison.

A recent gender based approach can be an Australian article on prison graffiti by Jacqueline Z.
Wilson18. She says “while male graffitists were preoccupied chiefly with personal identity,
power and vengeance; the women used graffiti to build networks and alliances in order to
cope with life inside. Their social structure, as expressed in the graffiti, is unusual in that,
unlike the men, virtually all female inmates expected to be sent to one prison upon conviction;
they thus treated the jail as a staging-ground for their arrival and continued survival in the
main prison.”19

4. Methodology

This article is based on social science interrogation of implied narratives or symbolic

language. Over 1500 pictures were taken mainly in Hungarian prisons by me and my students
at the Police College in Budapest.
At 16 Hungarian prisons taken pictures were cropped and optimized by photo editor software.
Secondly I received some pictures from the Vienna Josefstadt Prison after a student of mine
served his summer practice there as an Erasmus Program trainee. I made also few pictures in
Denmark, in Austria, in Germany and in the Czech Republic in places of detention mainly in
After analyzing the pictures regarding the described functions and concepts of prison life
(prison reality) I tried to establish a classification of the content of the prison graffiti which
remains only a hypothesis in the recent state of the research.
At the Corvinus University in Hungary I gave a short lecture to American students on the
topic and we tried to give meanings and functions to the prison graffiti with my own
Hungarian, Latvian and German students.

p. 291
Jacqueline Z. Wilson (2008) Pecking orders Power relationships and gender in Australian prison graffiti
Ethnography, Vol. 9, No. 1, 99-121
p. 99

5. Some examples of classification

Figure 1. Art

This picture was taken in the Bochum Prison in the summer of 2008. The inner side of the
prison perimeter wall was decorated by street artist. Barbed wire can be seen also on this
picture. The main message of this picture can be that the in the mind of the artists the prison
itself is not separated from the outside world and there is always a chance to free and get a
parole after serving the sentence. Subcultural and American patters can be seen as well: the
NY style letters on the back of the main figure, the baseball hat and the hooded jumper.
Here the graffiti acts like a trampoline to the freedom.

Figure 2. Counting days

This is an entrance of a high security cell in Germany. The prisoner used his permanent
marker to count days. Concerning the staff members the prisoner was very agitated and
vigilant; he made always exercises, did not sleep well and ate also standing. He was allegedly
a former soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

Figure 3. Message

In consistency of the findings made by J. Z. Wilson (2008) here is a statement made by an

Turkish origin inmate in a German prison. Personal identity and power: “Hassan Dirawi is
the best.”

Figure 4. Gang activity (Persence)

This picture was taken in Denmark. The biker gang Bandidos is presented in the prison, in a
segregation cell where the inmate scratched the tag with a sharpened nail on the inner side of
the cell door.

Figure 5. Statement

This picture was taken in an admission cell is a central located Hungarian prison. “You can
kill me but never break me.”

Figure 6. Gang activity (location)

A picture from the same place as above. Lauonda might mean a misinterpretation of the
Mexican La Onda movement begun in 1968 or the gang name “La Onda” fiction movie
“Vatos Locos”, but in the mythology of the Romani originated Hungarian prison brotherhood
(gang) “Laounda”, the name comes from a Hungarian Romani fortune teller lady who was an

iconic member of the most infamous Romani “criminal” clan20 (gang) in the VIII. district of
Budapest. This could be consonant with the definition made by Ferrel, Greer and Jewkes.

The author of this article abolishes any improper view and belief of ethnic based criminality theories which are
widespreading recently (2009) in Hungary and therefore and for ethical reasons he denies to name the family in
this context.