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May 10, 2010

Colorful Pursuit

Undergrad research uncovers dual nature of Rochester’s graffiti scene

Dan Brooks and graffiti
Dan Brooks ’10 used funds from the Anthropology
Research Grant to study the city of Rochester’s
graffiti culture, including the work seen here at
the water towers at Cobbs Hill Park.

Conducting research is part of the fabric of the University’s undergraduate experience. For some students, projects take them into laboratories and libraries, but for Dan Brooks ’10, anthropology research took him out into the city of Rochester to uncover the full landscape of the city’s graffiti scene. He explored the vibrant murals in urban neighborhoods like North Clinton Avenue as well as the not often seen pieces in abandoned subways and street alleys.

A double major in anthropology and philosophy, Brooks followed his interest in different cultures to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, for a semester in spring 2008. There, he learned of the city’s “graffiti gardens,” legal spaces designated for aerosol art. The spaces have become tourist attractions and breeding grounds for talent as graffiti artists or writers fight for the best, most visible spaces to showcase their skills.

Brooks, a native of Tabernacle, N.J., returned to Rochester with a deepened interest in graffiti culture. That’s when an opportunity for research presented itself. The anthropology department, through a gift from alumnus Louis Samuels and Fania Leiderman-Samuels, created the Anthropology Undergraduate Research Grant, which provides a student with up to $1,000 per year to cover research-related expenses. Brooks submitted a proposal and was awarded the grant.

“This grant presents students with the opportunity to put into practice what they learn in the classroom,” says Robert Foster, professor and chair of the anthropology department. “It allows students to do original research of their own design that has an afterlife; it will take them someplace else.”

While exploring their interests, Foster says students develop several important skills.

“For anthropologists, data is something you generate through fieldwork—observing, participating, and interviewing people,” Foster explains. “The research process is teaching Dan to ask questions, consult records and archives, and redevelop his point of view.”

Brooks explains that graffiti is steeped in the tension between those who view it as a legitimate form of art—a type of messaging that empowers a writer—and those who view it as vandalism and a representation of urban decay.

He set out to research how the City of Rochester creates laws and guidelines to deal with graffiti and how that compares to Prague. Looking at newspaper archives, he found that in 2007, a task force was convened in Rochester to look at the issue, bringing together city officials, law enforcement officers, and members of FUA, Rochester’s most established graffiti crew. Brooks says that while the art form is being included in public art programs and the creation of legal walls has been discussed, the city is still grappling with how to curtail the more illicit side of graffiti and create mutual agreements between neighborhood business owners and graffiti artists.


After interviewing some of the artists, his project changed, becoming an ethnography of FUA, looking at how the crew has evolved. FUA, found on the Web at, is known as “Fierce Urban Assault” and “Forever Using Aerosol,” and has been central to the Rochester graffiti scene for more than 20 years. In addition to painting subways and water towers, FUA has created partnerships with business owners on North Clinton Avenue, who often let them paint pieces on their buildings. Several members have turned their craft into viable businesses, working at tattoo shops, teaching art classes, or designing sneakers and clothing items.

“What makes the graffiti evolution more interesting is the mainstream acceptance of designers like Ed Hardy, who is popular worldwide,” says Brooks. “In this way, artists are stepping out of the subculture, and graffiti is becoming more legitimate.”

Brooks presented his final paper, “Canned Style: The Evolution of FUA and Graffiti in Rochester, N.Y.,” during the anthropology department’s annual undergraduate research forum. To complement his description of the crew was a PowerPoint presentation with dozens of murals and pieces created by FUA artists.

“You could stare at if for hours,” Brooks concludes. “At least I could.”


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