Insta-Graff: How the rich kids of Instagram killed the graffiti writer. By Nicola Harding

This week I will be explaining to delegates at the British Sociological Association conference in Manchester ‘how the rich kids of Instagram killed the graffiti writer’. This presentation brings together three separate research projects that focus upon contemporary graffiti writing; a visual ethnography and interviews with graffiti writers in Stoke-on-Trent, a research fellowship in Valparaiso, Chile, and a visual digital ethnography of Instagram and YouTube. Inspired by wall-side discussions with graffiti writers in both S-O-T and Valparaiso, the paper argues that the increasing use of social media has impacted graffiti culture to such an extent that, despite its subcultural origins, a mainstream form of graffiti culture has developed on social media. I argue that in order for urban graffiti artists to re-assert their dominance over their own subculture, a new form of graffiti has been developed that straddles both real and virtual worlds.
Contemporary graffiti writing is changing. It is no longer an activity that is played out in urban environments, but also on the internet. Jeff Ferrell stated that ‘contemporary graffiti writing occurs in an urban environment increasingly defined by the segregation and control of social space’ Whilst this is mostly still the case for graffiti artists who are committed to the deviant aspects of graffiti subculture within their locality, over time different forms and spaces for graffiti have been produced. Web 2.0 and social media platforms offer a liminal space for people to try out different identities, including the graffiti writer. Social media is ‘architected by design to readily support participation, peer-to-peer conversation, collaboration, and community’ . It has given people from all walks of life the opportunity to practise enhanced self-presentation techniques, ‘with the ability to engage in impression management virtually, without an audience being physically present to counteract self-presentation claims’ . In this way, social media and web 2.0 enable the internet to become a liminal space within which young people can try out different identities traditionally unavailable to them in real life .
YouTube offers a space for young people to learn graffiti practices, while both Instagram and YouTube are used to display photographs and video of themselves as graffiti writers. The creativity shown in this process is understood as vernacular creativity. Vernacular creativity is the term used by Jean Burgess as a ‘way of describing and surfacing creative practices that emerge from non-elite, specific everyday contexts’ . Young people can make creative images and share them without portraying a graffiti writer identity. However, there are incentives to try out this identity in the form of subcultural rewards. By spending time learning and working your way up there are rewards to be gained, such as recognition, respect, status and prestige as an artist . Subcultural capital is the ‘characteristics, styles, knowledge and forms of practice that are rewarded with recognition, admiration, status or prestige within a subculture’ . By displaying vernacular creativity through graffiti online, young people can enjoy subcultural rewards or ‘props’ more efficiently than writing graffiti in urban environments due to the receiving of likes, comments, and through the building of networks.
The sharing of self-made graffiti images creates replication, as others seek to reap the same subcultural rewards by replicating similar images. This creates a stereotype of graffiti culture that is removed from its subcultural origins. Similar images are then shared over and over, as they become an easily to replicate symbol of graffiti writing and subculture. This process flattens the original meaning of the image into a procession of simulacra . The use of social media by young would-be graffiti artists is often viewed critically by those already engaged in the subculture as social media facilitates those with economic capital to easily exchange this for subcultural capital.
‘Expanding access to cyberspace has the potential of empowering new segments of the public to become fuller participants in cultural and civic life, yet we can be concerned by the ability of these electronic technologies to render invisible anyone who is not able to participate’ .
Individuals with the economic capital to buy the technology and subcultural artefacts, such as large selections of paint, are able to bypass the truly deviant risky activities traditionally associated with graffiti subculture, whilst still earning subcultural capital. Those without economic capital take risks to earn subcultural capital through deviant activities. Those of lower economic status are denied the benefits of social media graffiti (Insta-graff), whilst more affluent youths are able to access subcultural capital without risking their status within ‘mainstream society’. However, with important subcultural understandings of graffiti now flattened into a stereotype of who or what a graffiti writer is assumed to be, Insta-graff artists are not only shaping their own identities as graffiti writers, they are also shaping our understandings of graffiti and its more mainstream role in contemporary society.
Within this new digital graffiti culture, the graffiti writer identity becomes commercialised with the subcultural capital gained by Insta-Graff writers becoming exchanged for economic capital. Instagram and other social media platforms help writers build a ‘brand’ from which businesses can be built based upon the graffiti writer identity. Social media has not only facilitated this in graffiti but across a whole range of genres such as ‘mummy’ bloggers, lifestyle and fitness personalities and YouTube Vloggers who have broken achieved minor celebrity status. However, becoming an Insta-Graff artist requires economic capital to begin with (for equipment, Wi-Fi connection, editing software, etc.). So whilst it appears that Insta-Graff writing is more inclusive, the economic cost of technology, resources and time can exclude those who are traditionally involved in urban graffiti writing.
In order to compete, those crews and individuals that aspire to traditional graffiti writing have to not only produce graffiti in urban space, but also display this on social media in a way that emphasises the key difference between Insta-Graff and urban graffiti: deviance. As the video of the 21 PLUS CREW from Valparaiso, Chile, shows graffiti crews are becoming more and more creative in the ways within which they rise to this challenge. The 21 PLUS CREW are a graffiti crew in Valpariso. The video shows them stopping a train at the station, where the driver then locks the door to protect the public on the metro train. They proceed to paint their crew mark in a chrome on the side of the train. The video has been filmed on multiple body work cameras, with artistic shots hiding identity and creating an interesting aesthetic. The video has been edited to include music and show the aftermath of the event; including police arriving and the train being cleaned at the end of the day. Graffiti and Street art are not generally considered deviant in Chile due to the role that writing on the walls played in resisting the Pinochet regime . However, the graffiti on the public transport system will always be viewed as vandalism and is illegal. The only way this crew could emphasize deviant graffiti in Valparaiso is through performing it in this way and in this space.
This video forms part of a wider response to Insta-graff, with other crews around the world creating similar videos and sharing them online. Other videos from countries where graffiti is illegal are not only filming graffiti as an illegal act, but are performing additional risk taking; such as graffiti writing at great height, emphasising the risk of injury or death. The introduction of graffiti on social media has had a profound effect upon the way graffiti is perceived and performed. With Insta-graff making graffiti accessible and more mainstream, urban graffiti writers have to perform the deviant and risk taking aspects of their activities in order to reclaim their position, and reassert graffiti as a subculture.

The British Sociological Association conference 2017 is being held at the University of Manchester.
I am speaking on Wednesday 5th April.
Ferrell, J. (1995). Urban Graffiti: Crime, Control, and Resistance. Youth & Society.
Meraz, S. (2009). Is there an elite hold? traditional media to social media agenda setting influence in blog networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14(3), 682–707. Page 682.
Smith, L. R., & Sanderson, J. (2015). I’m Going to Instagram It! An Analysis of Athlete Self-Presentation on Instagram. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(2), 342–358. Page 344.
Madge, C., & Connor, H. O. (2014). Mothers in the making ?
Exploring in cyber / space liminality, 30(1), 83–97.
Burgess, J. (2007). Vernacular Creativity and new media. Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Retrieved from
Griffiths, M., Light, B., & Lincoln, S. (2012). “Connect and create”: Young people, YouTube and graffiti communities, (July 2015). Page 343.
Jensen, S. Q. (2006). Rethinking subcultural capital. Young, 14(3), 257–276.
Thornton, S. (1995). Club cultures. Cambridge: Polity Press.
See Jensen (2006) page 263.
Baudrillard, J. (1988). Simulacra and Simulation. In M. Poster (Ed.), Jean Baudrillard, Selected
writings (pp. 166–184). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Cited in Burgess, J., & Green, J. (2009). YouTube: Online video and participatory culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.
21 PLUS Crew Video – Chilecomparte (2014)[Online] Published 28th Feb 2014 original at .
More information about the role of art during Pinochet’s regime can be found at and here