Can Graffiti in Conflict Zones Tell Us More than What Meets the Eye?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Can Graffiti in Conflict Zones Tell Us More than What Meets the Eye?

Photo credit: Billy Tusker Haworth - 2019
Photo of the UN Buffer Zone - Nicosia, CyprusImage of graffiti on wall that reads "your wall cannot divide us"

In the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at Conrad Grebel University College and the University of Waterloo, Visiting Assitant Professor Eric Lepp is finding the deeper meaning behind graffiti, specifically in places affected by conflict. Lepp, along with his international co-researchers, Birte Vogel, Catherine Arthur, Dylan O’Driscoll, and Billy Tusker Haworth analyze the relationships between graffiti and socio-political commentary at a local level.

When they previously worked together at the University of Manchester, these researchers found that their interests aligned, and they were able to form a shared research agenda through the International Consortium for Conflict Graffiti (ICCG). This research continues to grow and has so far produced several media-focused articles, an online gallery, along with their most recent agenda-setting publication, Reading socio-political and spatial dynamics through graffiti in conflict-affected societies published in Third World Quarterly.

Lepp, along with his colleagues - which now include research assistants and Master of Peace and Conflict Studies students at the University of Waterloo, Sherwin Lau and Braiden Preece - focus their research in several conflict zones. Based in Colombia, Cyprus, Iraq, Timor-Leste, and Hong Kong, their research analyzes what graffiti means within the communities in which it is found. What their research reveals are local stories and histories embedded in graffiti, and that there’s a lot to be learned about a community and its struggles through the uncensored art that is painted on walls.

Lepp views the medium of graffiti as one way that individuals can be present and exercise their voices in the public sphere, where they might normally be silenced. “Even when you cover it [graffiti] up,” Lepp explains, “mismatched paint is often used, and there’s still evidence that your voice was there.”

When asked which piece was a favourite amongst the researchers, Vogel mentioned a mural of an old woman driving a motorbike waving a white flag painted on a wall in Medellín, Colombia. At first glance, one sees beautifully presented street art; however, someone passing through might not grasp the deeper meaning. Locals are using this wall to tell the story of a woman who walked into a situation of active violence with a white bedsheet and demanded that the fighting stop. The story spread through the community, and the image of the elderly woman with the white flag has become a symbol of strength throughout the area.

In the future, Lepp hopes that this research will continue to expand and develop deeper understanding of the power in local voices that are often overlooked by both the academic and international community in peacebuilding initiatives. The data-gathering aspect of this research is currently on pause due to COVID-19, but  more of the pieces that ICCG has used in their research, can be viewed in their online gallery.