Graffiti, Street Art and the Right to the Surface: For a Semiotic, Cultural and Legal Approach to Urban Surfaces and Inscriptions

Sabina completed her PhD in December 2018 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (with supervisors Prof Iain Borden and Prof Ben Campkin). Her thesis was titled “Graffiti, Street Art and the Right to the Surface: For a Semiotic, Cultural and Legal Approach to Urban Surfaces and Inscriptions.”

The vertical surfaces of cities are archives of urban identities, and contested terrains of occupation and visibility. They provide a location for numerous signs, markings and inscriptions, whose visual, material and territorial dynamic is under permanent negotiation. Sabina’s thesis takes as its subject this dynamic between urban surfaces and inscriptions, to understand their spatial politics and their impact on urban cultures.

Her thesis focuses particularly on graffiti and street art as forms of surface inscriptions, and analyses their cultural, legal and spatial development from New York in the 1970s to contemporary London. Graffiti and street art are discussed in relation to neoliberal urban governance agendas, between criminalisation, eradication, and commodification as part of the creative cities paradigm.

Methodologically, Sabina’s thesis engages with close readings of urban surfaces, as well as the discourses that manage them. Sabina proposes surface semiotics as an original method to interpret visual inscriptions in situ, which she uses as an analytical visual method throughout the thesis. Approaches from art, sociology, visual culture and legal geography are also used to address concepts such as the image of the city, urban property regimes, and issues of access and control of urban spaces.

Sabina’s thesis represents a noteworthy contribution to visual sociology, urban studies, and street art and graffiti studies – and a foundational step towards establishing a new field of surface studies. Based on a close visual analysis of city surfaces and inscriptions, the main argument of her project is that urban surfaces are spaces of collective political production and agency, and are key sites for the exploration of urgent notions such as the right to the city and the urban commons.

Project website

 

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  • Before I became a film major, I was very heavily into social science, I had done a lot of sociology, anthropology, and I was playing in what I call social psychology, which is sort of an offshoot of anthropology/sociology – looking at a culture as a living organism, why it does what it does.

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