This study examines a content analysis of physical traces (graffiti) from college
desk tops in order to analyze the frequency of certain categorized subjects of content.
The researchers of this study hypothesized that students’ graffiti would show clues about
the student culture and their preoccupations. It was further hypothesized that from six
relevant descriptive categories, graffiti would most frequently be related to altered states
of consciousness. The other five categories were: (1) music, (2) sports, (3) people, (4)
sex, or (5) doodles.
Results after collecting the data caused the researchers to reject their hypothesis
of altered states of consciousness as being the most frequently encountered category. In
fact, this category was lower than four other categories; music, sports, people, and
doodles. Doodles were the most frequently found graffiti which suggested to the
researchers that their own biases about college students could have been partially
responsible for their faulty prediction.
Cultural Windows 3.
Graffiti: The Window to a Culture and its Individuals
This study of graffiti was chosen for several rather obvious reasons; it’s fun to
read, can be very educational, and it also provides important clues about the
characteristics or identity of the individuals and their environmental and emotional
conditions. These physical traces provide researchers with valuable nonreactive
measures of behavior. This eliminates any problems of response bias from the
participants since physical traces are products, remnants, and fragments of some past
behavior. This method however, does not eliminate researcher bias, as we know, from
this very experiment.
Graffiti is the physical trace of products or creations that have been left behind to
be read, pondered upon, amused by, or disgusted by others. These traces can sometimes
point to patterns of thought or behavior that once were present at a particular site.
Graffiti is a trace measure of accretion (it builds up over time). It is based on
accumulated scratchings of previous occupants of the area. It can also be classified as a
natural use trace because the researchers do not intervene while the graffiti is being
Most of recorded history is written. “Graffiti, then, are little insights, little
peepholes into the minds of individuals who are spokesmen not only for themselves but
for others like them” (Reisner, 1971, 1).
Graffiti from prehistoric France depicts drawings of weather, nature, and societal
dwellings. Eighteenth century England depicts graffiti of the Pox, and sexually
transmitted diseases. The early twentieth century graffiti in Germany depicts racial
prejudices between Catholics and Jews. This is a case where graffiti actually predicted
the future of that culture. Graffiti has been noted by Reisner (1971) to follow certain
patterns that intrigue us. One such pattern is that of the nature of the content of graffiti
tends to become more visceral the more private the writing place.
Cultural Windows 4.
Graffiti reflects our lives, our educational backgrounds, our ideas, thoughts,
feelings, and frustrations. Acheologists have known this for years, and psychologists are
studying the behaviors that graffiti content suggests. The nature of the writer is revealed
in three main variables; the spirit of the times, the location of the graffiti, and the nature
of the content. The majority of writings do however appear to be cynical in nature
(Reisner, 1971). It has been further suggested that graffiti of a hostile nature could
possibly be the frustrations of people feeling impotent to change their governmental
controls or environmental controls that repress their class. Boredom, gossip, rumor,
slander, brag, accusation, and insult are all found in the contents of graffiti. There seems
to be no limit of people’s imaginations or of where one might encounter a writing.
The focus of this current study has been to determine which, if any, categories of
content appear most often on college desk tops. This should give us a glimpse of college
life in the 90s, and an indication of attention of students or preoccupations.
Content Analysis ; Operational Definition.
Seven researchers collected physical traces (graffiti) from twenty-eight desk tops
in pre-selected rooms on one floor of the college. Each researcher was assigned four
desks to examine using the random numbers table for the order of the desks they were
assigned. An 18x18cm clear overlay was used in the data collection process to assure the
areas covered to be equal among researchers. The 18x18cm square was divided into four
equal 9x9cm windows labeled (1) A, (2) B, (3) C, (4) D from the top left-hand corner to
the bottom right-
Cultural Windows 5.
hand corner respectively. Totals from six categories being: (1)music, (2) altered states
of consciousness, (3) sports, (4) people, (5) sex, and (6) doodles, were compiled from
each of the researcher’s collection in the six specified categories.
Operational definitions used in the study were as follows: (1) Music; any word
depicting the name of a band, band member, song, or lyric from song, (2) Altered states
of consciousness; any word depicting a state of consciousness that can be obtained by any
form of natural or chemical substance that cannot otherwise be acquired without such
mentioned assistance, names of drugs–legal or illegal, or slang for drug substances, (3)
Sports; any word depicting an organized sport , sport’s event, sport’s person, team, or
logo, (4) People; any proper personal name or fictitious character, (5) Sex; any word
depicting a sexual act, slang or clinical, natural or unnatural, (6) Doodles; any marking
that was not a true word, all art forms. These guidelines helped to give this study its
internal validity through researcher agreement of the categories and when the pre-test
was administered before collection of data.
The 18x18cm clear square grid overlay was used in data collection to give
uniform consistency between researchers. Wooden desk tops were the collection sites,
and the order of collection was pre-determined as specified earlier, in the order of A, B,
C, and D of the 9x9cm windows within the grid.
Researchers agreed upon their six categories of graffiti and then were given a
pre-test for agreement among themselves as to interpretation of the graffiti to establish a
standard reliability. The grid was placed on the upper left-hand corner of each desk top
researcher was randomly assigned. Collection began with the upper left-hand quadrant
Cultural Windows 6.
for all researchers. Alphabetical collection was followed by all the researchers. Each
researcher had four desks to collect from, giving a total sample of twenty-eight college
desk tops in this study. All scribbles within each alphabetized 9x9cm window was
analyzed and placed within one or more of the six categories. One window was used for
each desk top for the sampling.
The results that the researchers received were different than that expected. A
quasi-experimental strategy of qualitative measures was used because of the separate
categories involved in this study. The categories are the quasi-independent variables, and
the totals in each category are the dependent variables. With a grand total of 249 items
collected, proportions were as follows: Music 8%, Altered states of consciousness
3.21%, Sports 5.22%, People 36.14%, Sex 2%, and Doodles 45.38%. Totals in each of
the categories were as follows: Music 20, Altered states of consciousness 8, Sports 13,
People 90, Sex 5, and Doodles 113. Chi square test results with the mean of column
totals divided by the number of categories (13/6) showed the expected values to be 2.17
with varying critical regions depending on the category. Chi squares for the different
categories were as follows: Music, (10, N = 249) = 162, p > .05; Altered states of
consciousness, (6, N = 249) = 18, p > .05; Sports, (10, N = 249) = 61, p > .05; People,
(25, N = 249) = 3872, p > .05; Sex, (3, N = 249) = 5, p < .05; Doodles, (23, N = 249) =
6161, p > .05. Therefore, the only non-significant category that this study achieved was
in that of Sex. All other categories showed significant levels of graffiti, and there was
no evidence to support the hypothesis of Altered states of consciousness as being the
most significant category.
Cultural Windows 7.
Several graphs were plotted depicting the results that clearly show the most
frequency was found in the category of Doodles followed by People, Music, Sports,
Altered states of consciousness, and last, Sex.
Frequency Distribution Polygon of Graffiti Categories
Frequency Distribution Bar Graph of Graffiti Categories
Cultural Windows 8.
The researchers in this study had to reject their hypothesis of finding mostly
Altered states of consciousness in the content of their analysis. This however does not
say that the study was insignificant in other ways. “Sometimes the most important clues
to study of a culture are found in its humblest and most pervasive activities” (Deuilo,
1978, 517). What was found in this study was that the writers of the graffiti were not
orienting in one particular direction or another. There were no racial slurs, political
statements, territorial markings, or underlying sentiments that resounded a theme among
these writers. The findings tell a story of the writers that suggests boredom and rather
Something can certainly be learned from the wanderings of a cultures’ minds. For
this study, one could propose that perhaps the methods of the teacher were found to be
uninteresting or the course unwanted. The writings, even if through boredom, orient to
specific categories. These writers are motivated in some areas. Perhaps the areas of
most motivation as seen by the most frequently encountered content could enable new
teaching methods to incorporate some of the most prevalent themes. “Through the study
of the graffiti in our classrooms we can listen to the unheard voices of disappointed
students and draw some implications for new curricular concerns…” (Deiulio, 1973, 100).
Leonard Kriegel proposed in “The American Scholar” that it isn’t so much what
the graffiti says in its content , but the style in which one has chosen to express
themselves. Kriegel views graffiti as a kind of pollution and destruction that is growing
with intense enormity and costing millions of dollars in clean-up efforts. He appears to
be saying that there lies within the graffiti artist a disrespectfulness that infects others,
especially its readers.
Cultural Windows 9.
“Graffitism is a form of expression…” (Bonuso, 1976, 90) and people will always
find ways in which to express themselves. From the beginnings of time until now, we
scratch out our inner feelings and thoughts. This is the one area of consistency that
researchers seem to universally agree upon.
“For a new civilization may be stirring in its roots. Perhaps that is the unheard
echo of graffiti; the vibration of that profound discomfort it arouses, as if unheard music
of its proclamation and/or its mess, the rapt intent seething of its foliage, is the herald of
some oncoming apocalypse less and less far away” (Mailer, 1978, 517). Some say it’s the
curse of the times, all this vandalism. Some call it street art. Artist or vandal, these
scrawlers are leaving a trail of evidence of their personal times and struggles. They may
even be predicting a future time as was evident in the twentieth century German
writings.Content analysis of graffiti will always offer to researchers, a window to the
culture of the author of graffiti. It is costly to property. It is a record of the society. It
does not show a gender preference. It is universal and timeless. “It is hailed as one of
the few successful attempts the voiceless in our nation’s cities made to impose their
presence on urban culture”(Kriegel, 1977, 432). College students to homeless men and
women, expression is a basic need and a giant clue to the behaviors of humans.
Cultural Windows 10.
Bonuso, C. A. (1976). Today’s Education; Graffiti Vol. 65 (3) New York
Deiulio, A. M. (1973). Journal of Research and Development in Education;
Desk Top Graffiti: Scratching beneath the surface Vol. 7 (1) (100-104). New York
Deiulio, A. M. (1978). Educational Leadership; Of Adolescent Cultures and
Subcultures Vol. 35 (7) (517-520). New York
Kriegel, L. (1977). The American Scholar: Tunnel notes of a New Yorker New
Mailer, N. (1978). The Faith os Graffiti, (Quoted in Educational Leadership: Of
Adolescent Cultures and Subcultures, Anthony M. Deiulio (1978). New York
Reisner, R. G. (1971). Graffiti: Two thousand years of wall writing Cowles Book
Company, Inc.: New York