Radical Communications: Rebellious Expressions on Urban Walls

Radical Communications: Rebellious Expressions on Urban Walls


Reviewed by Christophe Davis

First Published:

20 Jan 2023, 9:36 am


Radical Communications: Rebellious Expressions on Urban Walls

Michael Tsangaris, Radical Communications: Rebellious Expressions on Urban Walls, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022; 165 pp.: ISBN: 9781793608567, £73.00 (hbk); £35.00 (eBook)


In Radical Communications: Rebellious Expressions on Urban Walls, Michael Tsangaris brings theoretical depth and a critical scope to wall writings, a media too often categorised as mundane, irrelevant or, as the author rightfully shows, straightforward theft. With this book, Tsangaris aims to deconstruct these assumptions. In an overall convincing analysis, he shows how unauthorised urban graphics are much more than drawings, doodles or squiggles: they are radical discourses on political and social issues that mark the everyday life of their intended audience. Tsangaris’ argument stems from the advent of social media, which transformed the ways we consume and produce media content. While they aimed at challenging mainstream media, social media rapidly converted into empires of their own, relaying the consumerist imperatives of capitalism. From this starting point, the author claims that unauthorised urban graphics are one of the rare instances of discourse that is still dedicated to challenging capitalism and highlight its failures.

In Chapters 1–3, Tsangaris provides a clear overview of the relevant debates and theories that shape his analysis. The theoretical framework, presented in Chapter 1, raises some key questions about the relation of unauthorised urban graphics with the state, with art and with capitalism, topics that are all assessed in the following chapters. In Chapter 2, his genealogy of wall writings, from cavemen to our days, provides a clear overview of that practice through time. It presents a necessary historical contextualisation and helps put the analysis in perspective. In Chapter 3, Tsangaris deepens his understanding of unauthorised urban graphics, and shows their complexity and numerous possible understandings: Are they personal expressions? Artistic expressions? Political activism? Through a meticulous analysis, filled with examples and clever discussions of some graphics, Tsangaris concludes, in accordance with Mouffe et al. (2001), that ‘all art is political’ (p. 75). Whatever the intention of its producers, by their status of illegality and since they are posted onto public spaces, unauthorised urban graphics are carrying a message of contestation of the structure in place: ‘unauthorized urban graphics […] can influence the behaviour of individuals and should therefore be studied as a social action’ (p. 77). While this finding is not new per se, the examples and the analysis that accompany it are truly interesting, and are able to shed new lights on Athens, a city that remains on the periphery of urban studies.

Tsangaris, indeed, chose the Greek capital as his main research site, which is obviously a city that he knows well, based on the numerous examples and very convincing details that are presented throughout the book. The analysis also brings the reader to other cities such as Dublin and Rome, which allows the author to export his findings beyond the main research site. These visits to other places demonstrate a certain desire to generalise the conclusions of the book, which can have several benefits. However, it seems that, at times, some of these international examples undermine one of Tsangaris’ fundamental proposals, namely the importance of understanding the context of production of unauthorised urban graphics (pp. 21, 123–124). For instance, Tsangaris presents an interesting and compelling overview of the Greek response to the 2008 economic crisis and shows how some wall writings are a direct consequence of or act as a political response to this event and its management. However, we are not introduced to Ireland’s or Italy’s experiences of the economic crisis. While there are some overlaps between how Ireland, Italy and Greece were impacted, some of the elements analysed might create a false sense of equivalence between different contexts that remain distinct in many aspects, with artistic codes that are specific to each case.

Regarding the methodology, Tsangaris used a noteworthy mix of different qualitative methods. As mentioned above, he presents numerous photographs of unauthorised urban graphics, which are the most prevalent data throughout the book. These photographs were either taken by the author, provided by the creators themselves or found in secondary literature, like history books or official city publications (p. 23). Given the relative ephemeral nature of wall writings, we are presented with a snapshot of what Athens looked like before and at the time of research which is a truly interesting exercise. The author did a great job of capturing the general atmosphere of the city and conveying it to the reader. Through the dérive method, which consists of drifting the streets free from the routine of the everyday (see Chapter 6), Tsangaris is able to feel the city, to detect its general ambiance. Through careful observation during his dérives he examines the differences between various neighbourhoods of Athens and shows how they affect the types of unauthorised urban graphics that are produced (p. 118). However, this reliance on his interpretations raises some important questions about Tsangaris’ own positionality, which is never addressed in the book. Without discrediting the relevance or the accuracy of his interpretations of the various unauthorised urban graphics he presents, I believe that a recognition of the biases intrinsic to any observation would have greatly enriched the analysis. The author has also endeavoured to give a voice to those who created these works, which is a good way to compensate for certain inherent biases. However, the use of interview data remains secondary, and a lot of information about artists, activists, and their processes unfortunately ended up in the endnotes of each chapter.

With regards to the more empirical chapters, the questions addressed by Tsangaris are, again, not necessarily novel. Questions of wall writings’ recuperation by the elites (Dickens, 2010; McAuliffe, 2012) and questions of wall writings and gender (Arluke et al., 1987; Bruner and Kelso, 1980) are already present in the literature. However, the originality comes through the treatment of these questions and by the peculiarities of Athens, which inform new aspects of these otherwise well researched topics. Chapter 4, for instance, presents a very good overview of Debord’s (1970 [1967]) Society of Spectacles, which allows Tsangaris to brilliantly demonstrate how the commodification of wall writings operates as a way to protect capital from discourses dedicated to its defeat. Through recuperation, ‘the system recovers something that has escaped or revolted, and in this way avoids a possible overthrow’ (p. 88). The rebellious symbol of unauthorised urban graphics is manipulated by the logic of late capitalism, which transforms its discourses into cashable spectacles, a process theorised and denounced by Tsangaris. Chapter 5 presents an interesting overview of the problematic relation that wall writing has with regards to gender. As mentioned, Tsangaris sees unauthorised urban graphics as, above all, a radical and critical discourses towards capitalism and patriarchy. However, he acknowledges that such a monolithic view presents some flaws, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. Indeed, women artists and activists are underrepresented in this sphere of media production (p. 106). Moreover, he demonstrates how some wall writings remain explicitly sexist and reconvey gender stereotypes. Yet, Tsangaris problematically attributes these hateful graphics to hooligans and other groups of ultras. According to him, these groups, while affected by toxic masculinity, use these derogatory terms mostly to insult other football teams (p. 110). This attempt to simplify the situation, by blaming one specific group for this hateful speech, is a good example of the main problematic element with Tsangaris’ argument throughout the book. He constantly reminds the readers of the inclusionary and rebellious nature of unauthorised urban graphics. I agree with the author that wall writings might have historically projected such a narrative and that it remains predominant to this day. However, there is a need to assess the increasing number of racist, homophobic, far-right populist and even neo-Nazi graphics that we see on our city’s walls. It is necessary to acknowledge their existence and show how they are not the product of isolated groups, like hooligans, but a representation of an increasingly dangerous movement, one that is recuperating and manipulating the original meanings and tactics of wall writings.

I think that despite some omissions, Tsangaris’ book provides a great introduction to the topic of wall writings which would be of interest for undergraduate students, in communication, media studies and urban studies. It reviews the relevant literature and provides a great overview of some key debates in the field. His analysis also has the merit of reintroducing Athens as a prime site of study, which is refreshing. The author knows his research site extremely well and this leads to some truly compelling findings.



Arluke A, Kutakoff L, Levin J (1987) Are the times changing? An analysis of gender differences in sexual graffiti. Sex Roles 16(1): 1–7. Crossref Google Scholar

Bruner EM, Kelso JP (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: A semiotic perspective. Women’s Studies International Quarterly 3(2): 239–252. Crossref Google Scholar

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Dickens L (2010) Pictures on walls? Producing, pricing and collecting the street art screen print. City 14(1–2): 63–81. Crossref Google Scholar

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