George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason student pursues research on political graffiti

August 15, 2019   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Example of graffiti found in the residential area of Columbia Heights in D.C.

Have you ever stopped to notice the stickers that are stuck behind a stop sign on the street? Or what the words are sprayed on a brick wall down a side street? George Mason University student Levi Mitzen doesn't just stop and look—he spends hours collecting and analyzing that information.

Mitzen recently graduated with a double major in anthropology and sociology and is starting his master’s degree in sociology at Mason this fall. During his undergraduate studies, Mitzen conducted research on political graffiti in the Washington, D.C., area and produced a thorough 120-page report, from which he is writing smaller papers. 

"This research really put my academic career in full force,” said Mitzen. 

Mitzen believes his study provides evidence that the social role of graffiti extends beyond criminality and offers a look at a social phenomenon that is often overlooked. 

“This work has significant implications for public officials who seek opportunities to interface with graffiti writers,” said Mason sociology professor Shannon Davis, who advised Mitzen’s senior thesis, “calling into question the need to focus on the production of graffiti as a criminal act but instead an act of individuals exercising free speech who want to be engaged in dialogue.”

Mitzen received support from the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research(OSCAR) to conduct his research. He was awarded the Odum Award for best undergraduate paper when he presented his work at the Southern Sociological Society’s conference in Atlanta in April.

“Levi's scholarship exemplifies the tenets of our sociology program and our discipline by so deftly connecting empirical rigor, conceptual curiosity, and the desire to use scholarship for the public good,” said Davis. 

His research focus goes back to a high school project he did on urban decay, or how urban areas fall into disrepair, where he used graffiti as an indicator. He said he then became interested in graffiti in a different way and wanted to explore its deeper meanings, looking at how graffiti is used politically, rather than just as a criminal act, in D.C. 

His report comes in two parts—interviews and on-the-ground data collection. For the data collection, Mitzen randomly chose neighborhoods in three sections of D.C. to provide a wide, diverse sample and took pictures of anything he considered graffiti, which he defines as visual symbolic artifacts, particularly in the form of stickers or spray paint. 

He also interviewed D.C. council members, activists, graffiti writers and a criminology professor.

Mitzen said the 2016 election likely had an effect on political graffiti in the D.C. area, which overwhelmingly voted Democratic, and he wants to continue his research to compare different times and cities. 

"I'm really interested in seeing what the 2020 election does to political graffiti in D.C," said Mitzen.