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  • Helsinki Winter Graffiti 2013 competition at Kalasatama. Photo: Tia Mellberg.

Quarterly 3/2013 |  12/05/2013Mika Helin

Legal graffiti in Helsinki

In May 2009, Helsinki opened its first authorised graffiti wall at Suvilahti. The opportunity to use graffiti walls was extended to Kalasatama in summer 2010 and 2011. This article presents the results of an ethnographic survey on the users and usage of the graffiti walls at Suvilahti and Kalasatama. The subject has never been previously researched. The results open up new perspectives on both the present state of the Helsinki graffiti phenomenon and on the opportunity to create an urban space by means of legal graffiti.

In May 2009, Helsinki opened its first authorised graffiti wall at Suvilahti. The opportunity to use graffiti walls was extended to Kalasatama in summer 2010 and 2011. This article presents the results of an ethnographic survey on the users and usage of the graffiti walls at Suvilahti and Kalasatama. The subject has never been previously researched. The results open up new perspectives on both the present state of the Helsinki graffiti phenomenon and on the opportunity to create an urban space by means of legal graffiti.

From the margins to producers of urban space

In Finland, illegal graffiti painting is considered malicious damage under criminal law, if the person destroys or damages the property of another. Legal graffiti means producing graffiti in a public space open to all and in constant use without risk of legal consequences. Typically legal graffiti sites are built and authorised by a department of the city administration or a private owner. Legal graffiti aims not only at enabling graffiti as a hobby and making public spaces more pleasant, but also at reducing the creation of illegal graffiti. Legal graffiti is done on fences, walls, transport containers, cellophane or other wall-like surfaces, whose purpose has been agreed in advance.

In the cases of Suvilahti and Kalasatama, the use of the word ‘graffiti’ instead of the term ‘street art’ to describe the painting is justified, because almost all the painted works are methodologically and stylistically based on New York graffiti. A graffitist (graffiti enthusiast or artist) is someone who, in his/her legal painting activity from a local graffiti tradition, relies on the graffiti culture phenomenon created in New York in the late 1960s, which spread worldwide in the early 1980s. (Fleisher & Lovino 2012, Gastman & Neelon 2011, Felisbret 2009, Stewart 2009; Cooper & Chalfant 1984.)

Practising legal graffiti in a public space has been only scarcely researched in Finland (Malinen 2011) and globally (McAuliffe 2012 & 2013, Kramer 2010, Snyder 2009, 97–103, D’Amico & Block 2007, ECPN 2001, Cooper & Sciorra 1996). There has been a need to study local authorised graffiti painting because, as a result of establishing the Suvilahti graffiti wall, an example of new graffiti policy and it possibilities has been created. The establishment of Helsinki’s first graffiti walls has been an event of national importance: other places in Finland have been following the policy of the capital and many cities have recently begun discussions on setting up sites for graffiti. (Vantola 16 Jun. 2013, 10.)

The introduction of the Suvilahti graffiti wall was based on a change of graffiti-related policy that took place in the Helsinki City Council on 26 November 2008. At the same time, the ‘Stop töhryille’ (Stop the Scrawls) project of the City of Helsinki that ran from 1 January 1998 – 31 December 2008 was coming to an end, and this project did not permit the city to establish legal sites for graffiti. In Helsinki, the first authorised place for graffiti was Lepakko in Ruoholahti from 1986 to 1999. Lepakko was a former warehouse building, which had already become notorious in the 1970s as a venue for subcultures.

Between 2009 and 2013, the graffiti walls available in Suvilahti and Kalasatama have concentrated the painting activity of graffitists in one place. The architect who participated in planning the temporary functions of the Kalasatama building site reckoned that the need for a place to paint was great and that repressed subcultures such as graffiti would be channelled to the area (Siitonen 18 Sep 2013). Because of the unrestricted use of the public space, the exact number of users of the area’s graffiti walls is not known, but the total number of graffitists there is estimated to be about 400-500. All in all, it is thought that 800–1,000 people go to the graffiti walls to paint every year. At its greatest, the total length of graffiti walls has been almost one kilometre.

In summer 2013, a change to the operating model of temporarily concentrating graffiti in Kalasatama was initiated, looking towards a more decentralised model. This change has meant a decrease in the painting surface area in Kalasatama and the opening of new graffiti sites in different districts of the city. By autumn 2013, four new graffiti sites open to all and in constant use had been opened, as well as two temporary projects. (See City of Helsinki 9 May 2012 and 16 May 2013).

Field work and tortuous negotiations

In Suvilahti and Kalasatama, summer 2012 was the right moment to focus on graffitists in many different ways. An ethnographic survey based on field work suits the research task, the purpose of which is to find targeted quantitative information about a certain place or situation and about the community that uses it (Schensul et al. 1999, xxii). The research method is unusual as, typically with graffitists, either a small group study is done by interviewing or visual mappings of the graffiti paintings are made (Isomursu & Jääskeläinen 1998, Komonen 2012, Moisio 2013).

The study of the users and use of graffiti walls required field work, as information was not otherwise available. Field work has meant meetings with the graffitists at the graffiti walls, filling in questionnaires and collecting conversational and photographic material. In addition to filling in the questionnaires, notes were made of discussions and six semi-structured interviews were recorded. Often, the target group of an ethnographic survey may be difficult to reach in terms of physical or social location. In that case, producing information together requires throwing oneself into tortuous negotiations about filling in the questionnaire. The ethnographic survey was based on a sample.

The field work with the graffitists produced a total of 186 filled-in questionnaires. Of the persons approached, only seven refused to take part. The ethnographic questionnaire contained 21 questions about the users of the graffiti walls and their use. The main questions were outlined as follows: Who are the users of authorised graffiti walls? How are authorised graffiti walls used? What kind of sociality manifests itself in the practice of authorised graffiti art? What sort of opinions do graffitists have about the effects of authorised graffiti walls?

‘Middle ageing’ is a fact

Place of residence

The use of graffiti walls at Suvilahti and Kalasatama can be considered as a phenomenon of Helsinki, as 74% of the respondents to the questionnaire said that they live in Helsinki. Almost 10% of the respondents were from Espoo and slightly fewer (7%) from Vantaa. The proportion of graffitists who had come from other cities was about 10%. At the walls, there was also a certain amount of ‘graffiti tourism’ from abroad.

Age and gender

The age range of the graffitists was wide, all the way from minors to middle-aged people. The average age of respondents was a little under 30. The proportion of under-30 year-olds was 65% and almost 60% of the respondents were over 26. Of all respondents, the share of 18-35 year-olds was 80%. At the extremes of the age range were the age groups under 18 and over 36, each of which had a share of about 10%. The lion’s share of the respondents using the graffiti walls were men (95%). An artist who had held graffiti training workshops said:

‘Middle ageing’ is a fact. It is now the largest actively operating group, but new eager talents are emerging. Of the young people who try it out, about ten percent may like it and so carry on. (Graffitist A)

‘Getting up’ time

As regards the length of time grafftists have been creating graffiti (the ‘getting up’, to use the term favoured by graffiti writers), respondents can be divided into groups that represent a cross-section of the history of Helsinki graffiti. This also indicates the effect of the authorised graffiti walls in concentrating the activity spatially. Firstly, the respondents who have been practising the art for 21–30 years are the 1980s graffiti pioneers who represent about 15% of the respondents. These pioneers started painting graffiti between 1984 and 1991. Secondly comes the generation that sprouted at the beginning of the 1990s when graffiti became a mass craze. This generation started painting graffiti between 1992 and 1996, and represents a little over 20% of respondents. The third group took up the pastime during the ‘Stop töhryille’ project in 1997–2006. This group’s share of all respondents was over 30%.

The fourth group of respondents can be seen as representing the advent of legal graffiti. The group that started between 2007 and 2012 is the largest single group using the graffiti walls. Of all respondents, their share was more than 30%. Typically, respondents started to paint graffiti between the ages of 10 and 20. An exception to this was the group of people in the 36–40 age group, 12% of the respondents, who started their activity during the time of the authorised graffiti walls at more than 30 years of age. An experienced graffitist described the change in graffiti policy as follows:

For me, the graffiti walls have meant that zero tolerance has ended, that we have been given the chance to create graffiti. This is the most important thing for me. In some way, graffiti has deservedly become more acceptable. I think it’s great that people have been able to see how wonderful it can be in a public space. (Graffitist B)

Main occupation

A little over 50% of respondents were in paid employment. A few percent were entrepreneurs. The second largest user group was students, who constituted 25% of respondents. About 3% said that they were studying while working. The unemployed and pensioners formed about 18% of respondents. In the view of one graffitist:

In my opinion, for years the media and others have smeared the graffiti culture, saying they’re just junkies down by the railway doing criminal stuff although it’s not like that. We’re ordinary people who go to work. (Graffitist C)

Now we can focus on painting

Finding a place

More than half (55%) of the respondents started using the Suvilahti graffiti walls in 2009 when the walls were opened. Altogether 75% of the respondents had started using them during the first two years. In 2011, the opportunity to create graffiti was extended to the Kalasatama area. After that happened, 90% of respondents were practising graffiti in the area. The remaining 10% started to paint on the area’s graffiti walls in 2012. As regards the adoption of the walls by age group, it seems that the older the respondent was, the earlier he/she adopted the place. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the first year of operation, 2009, when about 75% of the older age group (36–40) adopted the place, whilst only about 20% of the minors did. The primary source of information on the existence of the graffiti fences at Suvilahti and Kalasatama has been friends, and 80% of the respondents said that they had received the information from friends. 9% said that they had read about the walls in a newspaper, and more than 11% mentioned other sources, such as online discussion forums, a local painting accessory store or just stumbling across the sites by chance.

Reasons for using the walls

The most popular reasons for using graffiti walls were as a hobby (70%) and a way of spending free time (63%). It is quite natural for the themes of free time and hobby to be linked and appear together, but in this case the different responses can be interpreted as indicating differences of emphasis in devoting oneself to the graffiti pastime: creating graffiti can be viewed seriously as a hobby that takes a great deal of time or more lightly as just a way of spending time. According to an enthusiast, it is a question of spending time or practising a hobby, all the way to a life style. In terms of legal graffiti, the motives of enthusiasts identified by Moisio (2013, 81) can be interpreted in the content of the responses ‘free time’ and ‘hobby’ – namely the need for self-expression, self-development and a feeling of freedom. A feeling of freedom is expressed, as experiences in escaping the daily grind, finding peace and having your own time to spend. One graffitist said that graffiti is a hobby just like any other.

Almost half the respondents gave the atmosphere of the place as their reason for painting on the graffiti walls and 40% said that it was because of friends. In discussions, atmosphere and friends as a reason for using the place could be summed up as a milieu that seems special – a place where you can just be in peace. It’s nice to gather here with friends, joke around, listen to music and paint. Somewhat surprisingly, the traditional quest for respect in the graffiti culture was not high on the list of reasons for using the graffiti walls (15%). Neither did professional reasons (10%) figure highly as a reason for painting. 8% of respondents gave other reasons for using the place such as a empowering form of expression or a life style.

Painting activity

Based on the level of painting activity, three distinct user groups are evident: major users who paint four to eight times a month or even more (21%), basic enthusiasts who paint once or twice a month (47%), and those occasional experimenters who paint one to four times a year or just come to soak in the atmosphere (32%). This last group also includes people from out of town: I come here once every three months, but I paint once a week on a wall near where I live. Of all the paintings done in the area, about 60% were done by major users. With regard to major users, it can be generally said that the more often a person paints on the walls, the older he/she is.

Painting times

Almost all the respondents (98%) said that they paint in the warm season between May and August. It is significant that about 40% of respondents said that they paint all year round. About 75% paint every day of the week, 20% only at weekends and 5% only on weekdays. Approximately 85% of respondents mainly paint on the walls when it is light, i.e. during the time between midday and 6 pm. 60% also paint in the evenings between 6 pm and midnight, and 30% paint at night. According to one active graffitist:

I paint on the walls at all times of the year and at any time of the day or night. Because of my work, I paint more at the weekends, when I can see more of my friends too. During the week, work and other hobbies get in the way of this one. Some people also come to the walls during working days. Usually I set off for the walls first thing in the morning. Now that you can really focus on painting there, you can go there late at night. (Graffitist D)

A typical painting session lasts from two to four hours for half of the respondents (50%). More than one-third (34%) paint from four to six hours. 74% of respondents said that, even when they are not painting, they still spend time in the areas of Suvilahti and Kalasatama.

Costs of use

When they paint, almost half (46%) of respondents use six to ten different colours, i.e. spray cans. Since the price of one can is about €4, the costs of an individual painting session can vary between €24 and €40. This gives an average cost of €32 for one session. For the group using the least number of colours, the cost of a single session is less than €20 and the costs for those using the most colours can be anything from €60 to €100.

A social thing

The use of the graffiti walls is a social thing (Felisbret 2009, 180–182). Almost all the respondents (99%) said that they paint graffiti with friends. The respondents are divided into two groups of almost the same size. The smaller half (45%) said that they paint only with friends and the larger half (55%) paint sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. More than 70% of respondents said that they have made new friends from painting graffiti. An experienced graffitist said:

Painting graffiti is a social event and for me those afternoons are definitely a social thing; music, a couple of beers and friends. On the other hand, at the same time there are many guys at the wall scratching and painting and they don’t say much to each other. But that’s because it’s been planned in advance: what to do, coordinated colours and perhaps a uniform background. Then we spend hours there together. It’s a bit like a picnic. Then we’ve been able to do stuff like going to sauna together. (Graffitist E)

Target groups

On the graffiti walls, people do paintings mainly for themselves (72%) and for everyone in the city (46%). Creating graffiti for oneself indicates the competitive development of the aesthetic arts and the personal reputations of the artists. The graffitist wants to do good work, improving all the time. At the Suvilahti and Kalasatama graffiti walls one of the key audiences of the artists appears to be everyone in the city, that is, total strangers (Macdonald 2001, 64–65), people whom the artist is not necessarily ever going to meet personally. As one enthusiast reflected: Graffiti is communication with the rest of the world. (cf. Gastman & Neelon 2011, 31; Stewart 2009, 151). On the other hand, at the graffiti walls the idea of a complete stranger is diluted in places as a face-to-face meeting. According to one graffitist, sure, at the wall there’s always someone coming to ask about graffiti painting, and I always try to answer. About 15% of respondents take notice of random passers-by in the area as they do their paintings.

Graffiti is also done for friends (34%) and other graffitists (28%). Graffiti targeted at friends and other graffiti artists can be seen as a situation in which the artists are communicating with each other, for example by challenging each other in terms of skill or by surprising each other visually (Ferrell 2009, 23–24). At the same time, the graffitists articulate the inner order of the graffiti community. In the view of one graffitist:

I paint graffiti for myself and for my mates. Not necessarily for your average man on the street. They don’t necessarily understand these letters. They just see some nice colours. Graffiti can be done for everyone if you do different things, things that make a statement about something. You get feedback from your mates; we think about how we’ve developed, be it good or bad. (Graffitist D)

Somewhat surprisingly, in this survey only about 10% of respondents said that they paint graffiti to be photographed for online communities, even though the rapid turnover of paintings on the graffiti walls and their documentation might actually require the recording of the works and their distribution in photographic form. 5% of respondents also mentioned other target groups. They specifically mentioned all citizens or just ‘everyone’. More individualised work was shown to role models or to close friends.

Opinions on legal graffiti

Almost 80% of respondents engaged in legal graffiti reckoned – given the two answer options of yes or no – that authorised graffiti prevents vandalism. The pro and con arguments about the effect of legal graffiti sites can be presented as follows:

1. Legal graffiti sites strengthen the graffiti culture centred on illegal work because, at authorised walls, you can practise creating graffiti for illegal places:

You can think that people’s enthusiasm isn’t limited just to painting on those legal walls, so it might increase the amount of graffiti. On the other hand, I believe that when there are such walls, they offer more people opportunities to create for themselves. It might be that legal walls become a totally normal way to paint graffiti. (Graffitist E)

2. Legal graffiti sites change the traditional graffiti culture centred around illegal work, because each can of spray paint used on authorised graffiti walls is then not available for illegal places:

A legal graffiti site doesn’t increase the amount of illegal graffiti. On the contrary, it reduces it. Even those for whom illegal graffiti is important go there to do their stuff. Then the need to do something elsewhere declines. (Graffitist F)

To the second question on opinions – should the City of Helsinki continue to organise authorised graffiti wall activity? – respondents stated almost unanimously (99%) that authorised graffiti activity should continue to be organised. One artist evaluated the change in culture caused by the graffiti walls as follows:

Because of the graffiti walls, graffiti is no longer a subculture. You can say that hardcore illegal graffiti is a subculture, but this graffiti done in Suvilahti is not like that, although it is not any mainstream thing either. (Graffitist B)

Graffiti in the light of day

Helsinki’s first authorised graffiti walls are based on a change that took place in the city’s graffiti policy. The graffiti walls located in the Suvilahti and Kalasatama areas can be called an operating model focused on the large-scale and temporary painting of graffiti, as a result of which graffiti artists have become a significant part of the area’s users. The operating model focused on graffiti painting created opportunities for the creation of an ethnographic survey. The key results of the survey are as follows:

The practising of graffiti can no longer unequivocally be considered a phenomenon of youth culture, as the average age of enthusiasts is about 30, and the wide age range means that graffiti painting is not something people do when they are young (cf. Kramer 2010, 245). Secondly, the graffiti walls have artists from every decade of the graffiti history of Helsinki. This result indicates that graffiti walls have concentrated the practice of the pastime, and they have also been used by graffitists who had previously done illegal graffiti. Moreover, the effect of the ‘Stop töhryille’ project on preventing people from starting to create graffiti has been slight. Thirdly, according to their main occupation, more than 80% of respondents are engaged in paid employment, are students or entrepreneurs. Based on this result, simplified images of characterising graffitists as people on the margin of society can be considered questionable. Furthermore, ‘hobby’ or ‘free time’ were the main reasons given for using the graffiti walls, and the main target groups were the graffitists themselves and everyone in the city. This indicates that creating authorised graffiti in a public place has changed the orientation of the subculture of graffiti artists (cf. Macdonald 2001, 90; Kramer 2010, 243). Graffitists almost unanimously want authorised graffiti sites to be continued.

The results of the ethnographic questionnaire confirm the idea that the authorised graffiti walls at Suvilahti and Kalasatama and their users and use are part of the local continuum of the New York graffiti-based phenomenon that has existed in Helsinki for 30 years. The present graffiti phenomenon has socially diversified so that, as an overall group, placing graffitists in the categories of crime or youth culture is no longer possible (cf. McAuliffe 2013, 522). In the present situation, high-quality authorised graffiti work can be called an artistic hobby which, as a means of producing urban space, can create for a place new levels of meaning and improve its atmosphere and attractiveness. (cf. Wacławek 2011, 114; Zukin & Braslow 2011, 133–138; Jacobs 1992/1961, 34–37). In Suvilahti and Kalasatama, the use of legal graffiti sites has woven together into a social relationship urban space planning, graffiti performance and the experience of art.

Mika Helin is Project Researcher at the City of Helsinki Urban Facts. His research focuses on issues of urban culture.

Authorised graffiti fences and walls have been located at the Suvilahti Cultural Centre and Kalasatama building site since May 2009.

Figure 1. Number of years since the respondent started doing graffiti (N=166).

Figure 2. Main type of activity of respondents by age group (N=184).

Figure 3. Reasons given by respondents for painting on legal graffiti walls (N=184).

Figure 4. Target groups for graffiti paintings done by respondents (N=185).


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