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Evaluating the cultural significance of historic graffiti

Forster, Alan M.; Vettese?Forster, Samantha; Borland, John


Alan M. Forster

John Borland


Graffiti, both ancient and contemporary, could be argued to be significant and therefore worthy of protection. Attaching value is, however, subjective with no specific method being solely utilised for evaluating these items. The purpose of this paper to help those who are attempting to evaluate the merit of graffiti to do so, by determining “cultural significance”, which is a widely adopted concept for attaching value to the historic built environment. The current Scottish system utilised to assess “cultural significance” is the Scottish Historic Environment Policy (SHEP) which shares many common features with other determinants of cultural significance in different countries. The SHEP document, as with other systems, could however be criticised for being insufficiently sensitive to enable the evaluation of historic graffiti due, in part, to the subjective nature of determination of aesthetic value.
A review of literature is followed by consideration of case studies taken from a variety of historical and geographical contexts. The majority of examples of graffiti included in this paper have been selected for their relative high profile, previous academic study, and breadth of geographic spread. This selection will hopefully enable a relatively comprehensive, rational assessment to be undertaken. That being said, one example has been integrated to reflect commonly occurring graffiti that is typical to all of the built environment.
The determination of aesthetic value is particularly problematic for the evaluator and the use of additional art‐based mechanisms such as “significant form”, “self expression” and “meaning” may aid this process. Regrettably, these determinants are also in themselves subjective, enhancing complexity of evaluation. Almost all graffiti could be said to have artistic merit, using the aforementioned determinants. However, whether it is “good” art is an all together different question. The evaluation of “good” art and graffiti would have traditionally been evaluated by experts. Today, determination of graffiti should be evaluated and value attached by broader society, community groups, and experts alike.
This research will assist those responsible for historic building conservation with the evaluation of whether graffiti is worthy of conservation.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Mar 30, 2012
Deposit Date May 29, 2016
Journal Structural Survey
Print ISSN 0263-080X
Publisher Emerald
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 30
Issue 1
Pages 43-64
Keywords Conservation; buildings; cultural significance; graffiti; historic buildings;
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information The authors would like to express their gratitude to Fosters & Partners, Ashwell Educational Services and finally, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), for allowing reproduction of images within this paper