Masters Thesis

Illicit literacy and legitimate learning: examining the situated learning experiences of graffiti writers in a small, northern California town

This thesis examines the informal learning experiences of proficient graffiti writers living in a rural northern California community. It examines the learning pathways graffiti writers follow as they progress from a basic understanding of graffiti practices to proficiency at the craft. It utilizes a phenomenological, qualitative research approach guided by a New Literacy Studies framework. Semi-structured interviews were carried out in order to gather data from five active and expert writers. The interviews allowed the writers to describe what initially drew them to graffiti, what motivated them to continue practicing graffiti in the face of cultural barriers, and the learning strategies they engaged in to develop their graffiti writing skills. Most graffiti writers participated in social groups that grounded their practice. The writers’ artistic roots, their countercultural outlooks, and their desire to have the identity of graffiti writers allowed them to attain proficiency through such means as analytical practice, participation in crews, and the use of sketch books. Barriers to proficiency included growing up in rural locales, lack of access to other proficient writers, and graffiti’s illegal status. By understanding the informal learning experiences of graffiti writers, educators and policy makers can better understand the socially-negotiated learning strategies of graffiti writers as well as other out-of-school educational endeavors.