Graffiti as Interface Objects

Kent L. Norman
Laboratory for Automation Psychology and Decision Processes
Department of Psychology
Human/Computer Interaction Laboratory
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland

Graffiti, (n. pl.: sing. graffito [It], a scribbling, from graffiare, to scratch, to scribble, from LL. graphiare, to write, from L. graphium; Gr. grapheion, a style for writing, from graphein to write), inscriptions and drawings found on rock or on the walls of ancient ruins. Webster's New Unabridged Dictionary

Interface Object, in object oriented programming, an interface object is a set of code that pertains to the interface and typically involves a display of graphics and/or text presented to the user.

Graffiti has significance to the artist and to the community in both positive (expression) and negative ways (defacing).

Interface Objects: Why am I interested in graffiti? It is a message of a sort that has been placed on an interface. To me graffiti is an "interface object." It can be thought of as a sort of software on hardware. Here are some aspects that I find interesting.

Graffiti is Freeware: Graffiti artists generally do not charge for their work. They bear the cost of their labor and the materials. The public benefits when it is appreciated and suffers when it is not. A lot of freeware is really good; and a lot of freeware is very bad and can do nasty things to your operating system, files, and level of user frustration.

Graffiti as a Screen Saver: Graffiti can be thought of as a wall or a building "screen saver" or a "screen background." Often graffiti is found in a bounded space, framed as a window or door.

Most walls are boring, one color, and are begging for expression. Graffiti artists can be thought of as personalizing the interface. But wait, it is not their interface, it is a public space! Yet, their personalization is foisted on the public.

Consequently, the community is usually opposed to graffiti. It is against the law and usually steps are taken to remove or paint over the graffiti. The community pays the cost of these remedies.

But once erased, a clean surface invites new graffiti.

Iterative Work: The most interesting form of graffiti is the defacing of existing graffiti. If the graffiti artist is willing to deface a public space with his or her work, then he or she must also be open to having his or her work be defaced by another.

Repeating Graffiti: Interface objects are often repeated in lists and loops. Graffiti artists do the same. If there is more wall space, the graffiti is repeated.

Some artists increase their efficiency by using stencils of their images.

Intellectual Property Rights: Graffiti artists have a sense of ownership of their work, though they rarely receive recognition or royalties for their work. However, there is no doubt a sense of pride and limited appreciation from a small group of friends who know the artist. Most graffiti, in fact, focuses on the artists unique signature.

Graffiti with a Message: Most graffiti is purely art, but some attempts to convey a message. Interestingly, the content is usually political and negative.

Graffiti as Login: When people visit famous sites, there is an overwhelming urge to leave a record that they have been there. It is almost as if people need to log in to the site! The most famous graffiti of this type was "Gilroy was here!" But there is a tradeoff between secrecy and exposure. The compromise is to use first names only or "screen" names. Identification numbers are never used. A time stamp is often a part of the graffiti. Here is a panel from a high atop the cupola of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Click for detail.

Graffiti and Rules of Location: Rome, Italy is a city that has hosted a tremendous amount of graffiti in the last ten years. Rome has many new and ancient surfaces, public, private, religious, and commercial. The unwritten rule is that government and commercial spaces are free game, but religious and historical spaces are not. Consequently, schools and hospitals are OK.

However, even some monuments are targets, especially on their back sides.

Graffiti Attached to Other Interface Objects: Interface objects are often coupled with other interface objects or one object is placed on top of another objects. It is the same with graffiti but in very humorous ways. For example, graffiti on a street cleaner seems a bit ironic and graffiti on trash cans seems humorously appropriate.

Graffiti Websites

For more examples of graffiti and discussion of other graffiti issues, a number of graffiti websites are listed below:


In the spirit of graffiti, this work was supported by the author alone and spray painted onto a university web server, All images were photographed by the author while on sabbatical from the University of Maryland and visiting the University of Rome, "La Sapienza," Italy, Department of Computer Science, January through May, 2004.

I would like to thank Karen Norman for her input and editing of the material.