Graffiti crimes

Headlines, Research — By on May 25, 2017 4:06 pm

Ron Kramer speaks to Julianne Evans.

Splashing a dark alley with colour, turning a blank wall into a talking point; street art is everywhere when you start looking for it.

And Ron Kramer does a lot of looking, and painting.

A senior lecturer in criminology and sociology at the University of Auckland where he’s on a fast-rising career trajectory, he has an unconventional weekend side-line in commissioned graffiti, writing under a pseudonym or “moniker”.

His work – colourful, confident abstract versions of interconnected 3D letters and shapes, overlaid with trademark features like oversized drops of water – decorates public and private space around Auckland and elsewhere.

Australian-born, Ron spent some of his teenage years on the illegal side of the fence, “bombing” the insides of Melbourne trains and working at speed to get his piece done before the police turned up.

A risky business, as in those days Melbourne had a dedicated graffiti squad.

It doesn’t sound like the kind of evening hobby parents would approve of. “Not really no; they didn’t know about it until a policeman knocked at the door one night.”

Parental and police disapproval aside, he says the main thing he felt about getting caught was frustrated that he didn’t get to finish the piece.

He became interested in graffiti in 1989, aged 11, and some of the skills he learnt on the job have been transferable to academia.

“Writing graffiti is a creative process you can compare with a piece of academic writing, in that it has composition, style and involves planning towards a cohesive whole. You’re working fast and under pressure and it pays not to have a fixed mind set.”

The art form has also been central to his research interests.

The son of working class Croatian immigrants, he was the second in his family to go to university. Completing his PhD on the rise of legal graffiti in New York city at Yale in New Haven (where he was based from 2005-2012), he has focused on how power imbalances impact society’s thinking about crime and deviance, and how they shape everyday practices within criminal justice systems.

At Auckland, he teaches critical and cultural criminology, subcultures, criminalisation and street art, and he’s just published a book; The Rise of Legal Graffiti Writing in New York and Beyond, an expansion of his doctoral dissertation.

“I was interested in how and why legal graffiti now exists and the policies that repressed subway graffiti in New York. It was kept out of trains and train yards and that eventually led to a lot of graffiti writers asking for permission, often saying, ‘If you let us paint, we’ll do it for free’.”

His field research took him all over New York – considered graffiti mecca – through all kinds of neighbourhoods where he did interviews with graffiti writers and took photos of their work.

“What I saw was often colourful, elaborate and sophisticated; visually striking.”

Talking to the writers (a term they prefer to artist), he says many of his own assumptions turned out to be wrong.

“I was expecting my interviewees to be more political, to be making some sort of statement, but in fact that wasn’t often the case. They were graffiti writers because they enjoyed it as a creative expression, and just wanted to be left alone to get on with it.”

In common with all subcultures, graffiti has its own hierarchy and codes of behaviour. It’s strongly linked with the rise of hip hop in boroughs of New York

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