Examining Conotations

Recently, I began pursuing an understanding of the social construction of disorder, and in so doing I have reviewed two main streams of scholarly discourse. The first has much to do with urban semiotics, while the second one has to do with environmental cues in criminological research. I’ve chosen these two streams because I believe it’s important to consider the cues that exist in the environment not as simply physical manifestations, but rather as cultural manifestations. The omission of culture in much of the criminological research in urban environments is quite apparent, and admittedly culture is difficult to operationalize in methodological studies. However, culture is the template by which we judge our world, and as such, it presents a regulatory mechanism by which people may choose to behave. As I examine the world, I am constantly thinking about what codes are embedded within it, and what codes were emplaced by whom.

In examining these scholarly discourses, a couple of thoughts have emerged. The first thought that I have concerns the denotative-connotative counterpoints and their implications to society. The second is what I call fractal connotative elements; that is, the myriad social meanings of various groups imbued upon social and physical space. I shall cover my first thought in this blog, and will follow up my second thought in a later blog. As you may see (eventually), both of these ideas are very much related, in my opinion.

Denotations and Connotations

Robert Sampson (2009) in a recent article commented:

“At one level disorder theory is on the right track by emphasizing the salience of visual cues. Isn’t it obvious that graffiti or drunken revelers are a problem? But imagine a situation where these same cues are not evaluated negatively. Perhaps the revelers are bankers on a bender, or the graffiti is on a street in Soho. Or perhaps signs of disorder creep in Chelsea…Does this still cause crime or urban decline? Or might it be perceived instead as ‘edgy’? Walking along the south side of the Seine in Paris one observes a long stretch of graffiti against the backdrop of couples strolling. Why is this ‘disorder’ not seen as problematic and why is Paris thriving? Despite the largely taken-for-granted notion of disorder, there remains a first-order question about what triggers our shared perceptions of it in the first place”. (p. 5)

Remarkably, Sampson’s description raises an interesting and perplexing question: when do visual cues suggest disorder? There’s no easy way to answer this question when you begin considering the role of culture. Visual cues have salience based on one’s own culture. However, as one may be quick to ponder, this is not always the case in practice…or is it? Municipal ordinances across the country have various ways of addressing issues of graffiti, abandoned buildings, and some communities even regulate construction regarding the style of buildings, all under the assumption that there is some universal agreement on what signals disorder. Yet, some communities embrace cues which are interpreted by others as disorderly. There are communities, for example, that have “free walls” in which graffiti is permitted. The wanton destruction of a car is sometimes permitted in raising money for a high school football team in some communities. When the Auburn University football team achieves victory, Toomer’s Corner is covered in toilet paper…an act that in other circumstances would be viewed as vandalism. So again, when do visual cues suggest disorder?

What I’ve learned from examining urban semiotics is that you can begin addressing the question by considering the denotation and connotations of the visual cues (in semiotic language cues would be signs, and hereafter in this essay I shall address cues as signs). In the background of denotation, there is an issue of power; that is, what is the intention of the sign and who placed the sign in the first place. Consider members of a neighborhood association that want to slow down vehicle traffic in their neighborhood. After several meeting, the neighborhood association decides to petition for a plethora of stop signs to be placed at all intersections in the neighborhood. The city government approves the request and emplaces the stop signs. Thus, the denotation of these stop signs would equal, in simplistic terms, devices to slow down vehicle traffic for the safety of the residents. The members have thus imposed their norm upon the physical environment to slow down traffic. However, the connotation of those stop signs might be contrary to the denotative. That is, connotations are the socially constructed meanings of the sign (or stop signs in this case). Not everyone in a neighborhood may be in a neighborhood association; some people may not be able to afford fees or time to be members. Thus, some people may argue that the stop signs are manifestations of a power struggle over those who live in the neighborhood and who are trying to control it. The stop signs may represent to residents that they are not empowered to participate in a democratic process to control public space; they may not see the stop signs as a safety device, but rather a power struggle.

Signs also have codes embedded within them. For example, typically when I see a stop sign I stop at the intersection and go once the intersection is clear. Thus, I’ve learned that I have to perform several actions at a stop sign as a result of my culture: 1) I have to stop my vehicle; 2) I have to check for oncoming traffic from both directions; 3) I have to allow a car that is moving forward from the other direction the right of way if I am signaling to turn. These are all rules that I must abide by based on my culture, which of course is also codified by traffic law. But what if I am driving at 5:30 am and I can easily see that there is no oncoming traffic? This moral dilemma is again tempered by culture. In one family, it may be learned that you can “roll” through the stop sign in this case, whereas in another, you may still come to a complete stop. Codes, thus, are culturally variable, and examining them can lead to a better understanding of why people view their environments the way that they do.

Scholars examining disorder have spent a lot of time identifying signs (often categorized as variables of disorder) and examining their presence against other variables (such as crime) in attempting to identify the relationship between disorder and crime. I don’t disagree that signs can indeed suggest a great deal about the environment; I suggest, however, that sometimes these signs are not fully understood by scholars because they are not considering some important minutiae that are culturally embedded within the environment. This is especially the case regarding who uses these signs, creates the signs, and lives in the environment with the signs. This misunderstanding has serious consequences, as we have seen with various interpretations of the Broken Windows thesis. More recently, one Milwaukee alderman suggested that murals were not murals at all, but instead graffiti. And of course, graffiti is cited as a sign of disorder. Let me briefly discuss the recent Milwaukee Graffiti War and explore what is going on regarding the denotative-connotative of the signs at issue.

The Milwaukee Graffiti War

Graffiti is a contentious issue among various groups of people because graffiti is frequently found in public space. The main issue with the presence of graffiti is that it antagonizes power struggles among claimants of public space.  Gendelman (2004) notes, “Public space has long been an important arena for democracy. It is a place where citizen representation is possible, and where the normal and the marginal can be defined.” History is replete with examples of citizens protesting and using graffiti as a means to popularize their message. Of course, the question begs whether graffiti represents a universal sign that suggests disorder is rampant in the environment.

In much of the social disorder literature that I have reviewed, I have found three main forms of graffiti that have been operationalized in several studies: 1) Tagging Graffiti; 2) Gang Graffiti; and 3) Political Graffiti. However, the recent Milwaukee Graffiti War suggests that there are other forms. A paper by Irina Gendelman presented in 2004 suggested that there are legitimate and illegitimate forms of graffiti. On one end, graffiti can be a form of expression, and on the other end an expression and manifestation of anti-social behavior. In 1999, a debate arose in the city of Olympia, Washington over permitting “free walls” where graffiti was allowed to be placed. The Olympia Downtown Association (ODA), however, raised the specter of disorder by expressing concern that free-to-paint zones only encouraged further illegal activity.

Does graffiti, thus, promote crime? In a paper that was published by Keizer, Lindenberg and Steg (2008), graffiti could possibly promote other norm violations. The authors suggest that a mechanism they called the cross-norm inhibition effect, where one norm violation fosters violations of other norms (p. 1683), may contribute largely to the spread of disorder. The authors conducted a series of studies in which specific cues that had previously been identified by previous authors to suggest disorder were emplaced. Each study found significant diffusion of disorderly conduct. Overall, they concluded, “…as a certain norm-violating behavior becomes more common, it will negatively influence conformity to other norms and rules” (p. 1684). Also, “The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing” pp. 1684-1685). Interestingly, the authors suggest that once norm inhibition becomes common, it may be more difficult to apply broken windows policies because a new descriptive norm emerges which allows for violations of other norms: a kind of dissonance between the mainstream norms and the local norms.

In the summer of 2010, Milwaukee Alderman Robert Donovan went on record and stated that graffiti is a rampant issue on Milwaukee’s South Side and that the presence of graffiti denotes disorder. In a story that ran on June 10, 2010 on WITI Fox 6, he suggested that he was losing the “war” on graffiti. And since there was a noticeable upsurge in graffiti, he argued that a greater police presence was necessary to abate it. Interestingly, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn suggested that the graffiti did not have a bearing on the safety of the environment: “Two years ago that community was beside itself with problems of robberies, burglaries, aggravated assaults, and drug dealing. Now understandably they’re concerned about graffiti. That’s real progress.” Oddly, it seems Chief Flynn attenuated the role of graffiti with its relationship to more serious crimes.

In Alderman Donovan’s fight against graffiti, he seemed to have broadened the definition a bit. In a story that was broadcast on WISN-12 on July 10, 2010, Donavan was outraged by the presence of a mural that was painted on a donated building between Walker Street and Mineral Street in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Walker’s Point. Children from True Skool – a private school – painted the mural as an art project under the direction of a local artist. Donovan did not define the mural as an art project; to him it was a blatant form of graffiti and he immediately demanded the mural be painted over. In fact, Donovan was so outraged that he commented, “As far as I’m concerned, these jokers ought to be hung by their Buster Browns by the nearest light pole for the damage that they are causing to this community.” In other words, he implied that these students were among vandals who were applying graffiti in other areas of the neighborhood.

The mural, titled “Raw Love”, was viewed by the alderman as only encouraging further destructive forms of graffiti. In a story written by H. Nelson Goodson on the Hispanic News Network, Donovan was quoted, “…when I see stuff like this, these [True Skool officials] are doing a disservice to the young people in this community by creating this aura that if you get involved in this illegal activity, somehow you’ll become a leader.” Donovan even suggested that public money was being misused to propagate and endorse graffiti by educating young people on how to apply graffiti (True Skool, however, insists that it does not receive public money, but rather is privately funded). Donovan also reported that 56 new graffiti tags appeared in the block surrounding the block party location, commenting thus, “The spike in tags in the area is not a coincidence, folks” (Donovan Statement published July 22, 2010).

Donovan’s vitriolic attack against the virtues of True Skool seemed to rewrite the history of the organization. He suggested in his context that leaders of the organization assist youth in learning how to spread graffiti. What he seemed to ignore, however, is that a majority of the youth involved are actually referred from the courts system (True Skool reports that 85% of its youth are from the courts system). The organization also adopts neighborhoods helps clean up graffiti, and also paints murals. True Skool reported that they saved businesses money by removing graffiti for free in the Cesar Chavez BID during their adoption in 2009 (True Skool Fact Sheet). So, the functions of the organization seem to be in concert with Alderman Donovan’s war against graffiti. Yet, Donovan’s definition of graffiti and True Skool’s and other locals seem to differ.

The mural was created during a block party sponsored by True Skool on a wall of the building (located at 934 S. Barclay St. and E. Mineral St), an event in which approximately 750 people attended. This mural was thus not at all the kind of destructive form of graffiti that Donovan comments about; this was not an anonymous application of spray paint like much graffiti tagging is. Donovan contended that the owner of the building did not authorize the mural, and as such, the action of painting the mural is a direct violation of Milwaukee’s graffiti ordinance. However, it seems unlikely that the owner of the building would not have at least been aware of the block party, much less the plan to paint the mural, and True Skool officials insist that the owner – Robert Davis – donated the space.

What prompted Alderman Donovan’s attack on True Skool? After all, on True Skool’s website, there is a picture of Alderman Donovan and members of the Milwaukee Police Department at an event in 2009 where students were creating a mural. Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel (see below for more on her stance) reported that a police captain notified the alderman about the mural and told him that it would “give him a stroke” were the alderman to view it.  Could it be that Donovan was merely supporting the police captain or was there something else? Perhaps an answer lies in a failed piece of legislation in which the definition of graffiti would have been expanded, and murals would have been greatly regulated. It appears that Donovan may have applying some vestiges of that failed piece of city legislation. In January of 2009, Common Council File 081236 was considered by Milwaukee’s Zoning Code Technical Committee. The committee recommended striking two whereas clauses, the most significant of which read: “Whereas, The Common Council finds that some murals contain graffiti-like symbols which encourages vandalism of structures in the vicinity of those murals; and Whereas, The Common Council therefore finds that some murals are undesirable to the neighborhood and may lead to decreased property values…” Thus, the Common Council was considering a link between murals and graffiti over a year before Donovan ensued his battle against True Skool. The Whereas clause was omitted by the committee, though definitions and the ability to regulate murals were codified in the ordinance. The ordinance came under direct fire, particularly by the local arts community, and the ordinance was eventually removed from a February 2009 agenda of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee (Bay View Compass, February 26, 2009). The failure of the ordinance thus allowed murals to continue to be created in the city.

Resolution for this incident is still playing out, although the immediate aftermath certainly gave pause for some people in the community. In an article written by Mary Louise Schumacher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 28, 2010, she argued that Donovan owed True Skool an apology. Regarding his “grandstanding” on the issue, she commented: “I have no doubt that behind Donovan’s everyman political bluster there is an earnest desire to do right by his constituents. And raising the issue probably earned him political points. But at what price? What does Donovan know about the development of young, would-be artists? What price did his careless comments exact on the spirit and sense of self-respect of those who painted the mural?” True Skool’s president of the Board of Directors, Daana Townsend suggested that a major factor in Donovan’s action had more to do with a generation gap: “Though generational differences may result in differences of opinion about the merit of hip-hop culture; the aesthetic of legal, graffiti-inspired art; and proper ways of engaging youth, we are all in agreement that vandalism in Milwaukee is a problem. TRUE Skool believes in the potential of our young people to be part of the solution, rather than being seen as simply part of the problem.”

The graffiti issue arose again in August 2010 in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Riverwest. This time, taggers vandalized several businesses, including Alterra Coffee’s production center. This incident, however, contrasts sharply with the True Skool mural: residents were united in identifying the culprits who applied these tags. Lincoln Fowler, owner of Alterra Coffee, stated, “You see graffiti in a neighborhood and you begin to think it’s unsafe, that you may not want to conduct business there, you may not want to live there, you may not want to go there.” Business leaders identified the taggers known as “East Side Skinz” and “Smerk” and were using video surveillance techniques to catch them. Ultimately, here is a perfect example of a norm violation and a reaction to enforce proper behavior; the neighborhood does not encourage graffiti as art nor as a means of expression. Instead, the neighborhood connotes that graffiti is a violation which promotes norm inhibition. Eradicating the source of graffiti enforces proper normative behavior.

A Brief Semiotic Analysis

I provide here some examples of murals and graffiti which I have seen in the Walker’s Point neighborhood. The murals were painted by artists on an abandoned gas station on 1st street near Pittsburgh Avenue. Admittedly, I know very little about the origins of the murals. Yet, I suggest that these murals – which also have the names of the artists – were placed for aesthetic and cultural purposes. There was no intent to vandalize this building, and a political commentary is made by Zach Schitzler regarding Milwaukee’s censorship of murals. Juxtaposed against these murals are two obvious forms of graffiti. In these examples, the person(s) who applied the graffiti maintained anonymity and arguable the application of graffiti seems more about who controls that space than any mainstream aesthetic or cultural presentation.

What I’ve done here is simply provided some contrast between murals and graffiti. In my opinion, murals tell a story that can be interpreted by an outsider; you don’t have to be a graffiti aficionado to at least appreciate the work. More importantly, the artists in these murals placed their names on their work. The murals are also placed conspicuously so that people can appreciate them or at least consider their messages. Tagging graffiti, on the other hand, differs largely in this way: tagging artists tend to remain anonymous (except for their “tagging” moniker) and their purpose is the prestige of claiming space. It’s very difficult to comprehend the message of the graffiti if you are outside the graffiti artist community.

In the graffiti war context, several things can be considered with regard to a semiotic analysis. First, let’s consider the denotations of the mural. From the True Skool perspective, the creation of the mural was a community service project, therefore its functional purpose was to present a story of redemption of the artists, while at the same time the presence of the True Skool mural suggested that the artists had fully adopted the Walker’s Point neighborhood. Therefore, a denotative interpretation by the True Skool artists is that the mural represents that the public space was being controlled by persons who care about the aesthetics of the neighborhood. On the other hand, Alderman Donovan suggested that the mural was anathema to destructive forms of graffiti and therefore it denoted social disorganization. Both are very contrasting denotations which played out in the public.

The connotations, on the other hand, can very complicated and difficult to parse at first. True Skool’s Daana Townsend suggested that Donovan’s issues were tied to a misunderstanding due to generational differences, especially regarding hip hop culture. The style of the mural was hip hop, and if Donovan’s cultural background was not open to consider this a form of culture, then of course he might be prone to consider the art anything but art. So here, in my opinion, is the crux of the problem: True Skool’s connotations (mural as art) versus Alderman Donovan’s connotations (mural as disorder). That is there are several clashes of connotative codes: 1) hip hop symbols; 2) middle class standards of art; and 3) definitions of murals as art or graffiti.

Herein lies what I call the “Insider-Outsider” problematic. If you are inside – a member of True Skool or an ally – you interpret the mural as something positive. If you are outside – a policeman not of the neighborhood or Alderman Donovan – you interpret the mural as grotesque and akin to graffiti; it is a sign of disorder. These visions are so contrasting that they lead to myriad negative outcomes, yet all along the sign itself was not denoting disorder at all. In a sense, the interpretation is a matter of the eye of the beholder. Both sides interpret this reality subjectively, therefore it is a salient issue for each. It’s also difficult to bring about consensus without consider each sign and how the sign is interpreted by whom.

Final Word

Perhaps after reading this, you may ask yourself, “so what?” Hopefully you did not get too lost in the details!

The main point that I am trying to convey – and perhaps I’ll be more successful later – is that the way we see the world can differ based on our cultural background (some might say “cultural template” or cultural “schemata”). Culture ultimately is a lens by which we see and interpret our environment. With that in mind, clashes over the meanings of the things we see can lead to some startling revelations.

But why do these cultural differences become so contentious between insiders and outsiders? Public bureaucrats are dealing with a difficult dilemma: the infinite demands and finite resources. So, public bureaucrats are often looking for the biggest bang for the buck. Thus, the allure of applying a Broken Windows style of policing is that it provides a simple means to examine the environment for possible high crime areas; it thus serves the public good by allocating resources optimally.

But, using signs is a difficult way of interpreting the world, because signs can have different connotations for insiders and outsiders. Consider another contentious event which occurred September 16 and 17, 2000 on South Cesar Chavez Drive in Milwaukee. An impromptu Mexican Independence Day celebration ensued. Outsiders to the area – most notably Police Chief Arthur Jones – interpreted the celebration as a disorderly event. Police responded to reports of excessive noise and large Mexican flags flying from car windows. The police action resulted in nine arrests – including the honorable Lutecia  Gonzalez, an administrative judge for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – and 191 citations. Place the actions of the celebrants in another context – say, in 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series – and these same actions are overlooked by the social control agents. So, these visual signs fail to really explain disorder if the context varies. By the way, there were no citations nor arrests in the 1957 celebration.

Ultimately, I think we need to examine these cultural clashes when we are considering environmental signs. That is, who is interpreting the sign, what does the sign mean, and why are there varied interpretations?


Note: I hyperlinked to original sources where possible

Gendelman, I. (2004). Communication and Broken Windows: Graffiti debates. Unpublished paper presented at the International Communication Association 2004 Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., and Steg, L. (2008). The spreading of disorder. Science, 322(5908), pp. 1681-1685.

Sampson, R. J. (2009). Disparity and diversity in the contemporary city: Social (dis)order revisted. British Journal of Sociology, 60(1), pp. 1-38.


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

2 responses to “Examining Conotations

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