‘Instagram killed the graffiti star’ as rich kids take their art online

Graffiti is gradually disappearing from Britain's city streets as young men switch to using the internet to make a name for themselves as sub-cultural artists, new research says.

The British Sociological Association's annual conference in Manchester heard today [Wednesday 5 April] that as a result of the move to sharing work on social media, "the rich kids of Instagram have killed the graffiti writer".

Nicola Harding, of Manchester Metropolitan University, spoke to graffiti writers and viewed hundreds of images and videos online.

She told the conference that graffiti artists were increasingly writing on council-run 'legal walls' where street art was allowed and then getting interest by sharing this work on social media.  

In this way they avoided the risk of arrest or injury that writing graffiti near train lines or other off-limits places could bring. It also meant that they had no need to write their 'tags' frequently in the street in order to build up a reputation, as this could be done online.

"Contemporary graffiti writing is changing – it is no longer an activity that is played out in urban environments, but also on the internet," she said. "Social media platforms offer a space for people to try out different identities – Instagram and YouTube are used to display photographs and video of their work as graffiti writers."

However, only better-off graffiti writers could afford the tools to create a large effective online presence, she said.

“It’s more likely that middle-class graffiti writers will have the money for things like laptops, editing software and cameras to create more interesting and artistic shots of their street graffiti and get more attention online,” she said. “Middle-class youths are able to do this without risking their status within mainstream society.

"By displaying creativity through graffiti online, young people can enjoy sub-cultural rewards more efficiently than by repeatedly writing graffiti in urban environments. This is due to the receiving of likes, comments, and through the building of networks.

"Graffiti artists who share their work online rather than reproducing often it on the street are reshaping graffiti culture online so that it is mainstream, unlike the sub-cultural deviant origins of urban graffiti.

"Graffiti has been a way for young men of low socio-economic status to take risks to achieve sub-cultural kudos. But now better-off artists are able to achieve this reputation more quickly by using their higher economic status to bypass the risk associated with urban graffiti writing. In this way the rich kids of Instagram have killed the graffiti writer."

Although some graffiti writers, particularly those with less money, continued to try to make their reputations by street art alone, graffiti overall was falling, she said.  

"The use of graffiti on social media gives the impression of an increase in the prevalence of graffiti. However, illegal graffiti in urban environments has been declining since the early 2000s."

Traditional graffiti writers looked down on those who used 'legal walls' provided by councils and the internet, she said.

One writer said online that: "There are guys that only do legal walls and contracts, but for me that's not graffiti. Graffiti is part of street culture."

Another said: "When I first started, there was no internet, but now you can pull styles off the internet. I'm not too crazy about all that graffiti-on-the-web stuff."

Another said that graffiti artists should learn the ropes by writing on the street. "Basically learn your history, pay your dues, and respect those that came before you."

Ms Harding told the conference that "the notion of paying their dues before being considered a part of graffiti sub-culture and respected writer is a strong one within graffiti subculture. For graffiti writers who paid their dues before the birth of social media, cyberspace graffiti is too mainstream for them to want to be identified with."

For more information, please contact: 

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392 


1. Ms Harding carried out the research for her undergraduate and masters degrees at Keele University and is now studying for a PhD in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. She interviewed graffiti artists in Stoke-on-Trent and studied video and images postings online from artists in Britain and across the world. 

2. The British Sociological Association's annual conference takes place at the University of Manchester from 4 to 6 April 2017. Around 700 research presentations are given. The British Sociological Association's charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235 www.britsoc.co.uk 

3. Manchester Metropolitan University is one of the most extensive higher education centres in Europe with 37,000 students and more than 1,000 undergraduate, postgraduate and professional courses. The University educates and trains large numbers of legal and business professionals, scientists, engineers, teachers, health workers and creative professionals. The University is in the top three nationally for environmental sustainability, in the top 3% of global universities as ranked by the Times Higher Education and has an 85% research impact rated world-leading and internationally excellent.