Graffiti analysis part 1: Arizona State University

This is the first in a five-part series of posts describing the results of my analysis of my graffiti corpora. I strongly recommend you read “Prelude to a graffiti analysis” first to understand the methodology, data, and sampling.

Frats for the playas and/or gaysLocated in a college town that seems to have neither a coffee house nor a bookstore (and I don’t mean stores that sell textbooks along with school paraphernalia), Arizona State University is a rather bizarre place. The U.S. News & World Report* states their 6-year graduation rate is 56%, and their students’ incoming SAT scores, 25th-75th percentile, are 950 – 1210.

My visit to their library last summer was the most depressing graffiti trip I’ve made.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Arizona State didn’t fare too well on interestingness, with an unweighted score of 1.23 and a weighted score of 1.25.

Most interesting categories


Category Score
Reference 1.95
Quotes 1.8
Religion 1.63
Meta 1.57
Sex 1.4

It’s worth noting that reference and quotes are the easiest categories for getting higher scores: quoting/referencing song lyrics gets you a 1, TV/movies/pop lit gets you a 2, and literature/theater gets you a 3.

Most common categories


Category % of graffiti
Greek 11.4%
Sex 9.1%
Reference 7.9%
Presence 6.6%
Love 4.6%

Quotes and references

Based on my long-term exposure to the University of Chicago graffiti corpus, I went into the analysis looking down on the practice of quoting sources directly, given how common it is at UChicago. Remarkably, when looking across all five corpora, it seems that quoting sources is a phenomenon found mostly at the better schools (UChicago and Brown), whereas making references– without quoting– is more common at less good schools. Arizona State is the clearest example: there are over 8 references for every quote. At UChicago, the numbers are about equal; at Brown, there’s about 2 quotes for every reference.

Given how few quotes there are at ASU (a grand total of 5, and only 2 are song lyrics), looking at music genres is uninteresting. For the record, both quotes are from rap songs. The 41 references point to a variety of sources:

Here’s the genre breakdown for the 9 references to bands and/or songs:

Love vs. hate

There is far more love (25 pieces) than hate (3 pieces) at Arizona State, with names referenced as objects of affection 10 times, and school mentioned twice for love, and once for hate.


Arizona State has the most homophobic corpus, with 4.2% of the graffiti (22 pieces) making some reference to “gay” or “fag[got]“, not in a positive light. Both words are used equally often:


Sexual vs. non-sexual

The final metric I looked at was sexual vs. non-sexual use of words that could have either reading, e.g. “fuck me” (sexual) vs. “fuck finals” (non-sexual); “suck my cock” vs. “this sucks”; “fuck me in the ass” vs. “what an asshole”. Out of 25 examples of “fuck”, and 11 examples of “suck”, non-sexual uses were more common. There were only two examples of “ass” (“fat ass” and “hot asses”).

See for yourself

The spreadsheets I used to compile the data are available as a Google Doc. If you want to download the data for yourself, just go to File > Download and choose your favorite format. If you do something interesting with the data, I’d love to hear about it (quinn – at – crescatgraffiti – dot – com). You can also browse the photo set on Flickr.

Next up

Part 2 in the series of graffiti analysis results is University of Colorado — Boulder. It’s a significant step up from Arizona State.

* I hate the US News & World Report rankings, particularly the way the admissions office at UChicago has been eager to bend over backwards to improve their score, to the detriment of the school’s unique “personality”. But in case you’re curious, ASU is ranked at #143.

Prelude to a graffiti analysis: data, methodology, sampling

Over the next six weeks, I’ll be posting a set of results from my recent graffiti analysis, done with some degree of seriousness this time. The last time I put together a (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the data, it was a smash hit that got the attention of Slashdot, the Wall Street Journal tech blog, and elsewhere. Fuck stats, Regenstein Library, March 2010What amused and disturbed me was how seriously people took this pseudo-scientific analysis, and how no one seemed inclined to point out the many obvious flaws that I myself described on the blog. Pie charts and graphs seem to have the ability to short-circuit people’s critical thinking skills*.

As usual, the results of a serious analysis are less clear-cut, and less flashy. That said, I think the results might be legitimately insightful this time. With the goal of being as transparent as possible about how I came to my conclusions, here’s how I went about the task:

The data

I chose the five schools where I had the biggest transcribed graffiti corpora. This included UChicago (1455 pieces of graffiti), Brown (930), Berkeley (142), University of Colorado – Boulder (262), and Arizona State University (507). I have an enormous corpus from McGill, but I haven’t transcribed any of it and that part takes to long for me to have it ready in time. It is also Canadian, an Anglophone school in an otherwise Francophone environment, and culturally set apart from my other schools. I have a large untranscribed corpus from University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, but when I was taking pictures there, I was only looking for interesting graffiti, which would throw off all my metrics.

My original transcriptions were based on the unit of the photograph, and often combined multiple pieces of graffiti in different hands in a single spreadsheet cell. For this analysis, I broke the pieces apart, linking connected pieces with an identifying number and a unique letter that indicated its known (in the case of the UChicago graffiti) or hypothesized place in the conversation (e.g. AS-20B is the presumed second piece of graffiti in a conversation numbered 20 at Arizona State; the numbers are based on the conversation’s position in the original transcription, and don’t actually mean anything.)

I only counted the graffiti in English– I didn’t want to privilege languages I could read/easily get translations for.

Almost all of the graffiti is from public study areas in the main library of the university. The exception is the graffiti from the Regenstein men’s bathrooms at UChicago. After a long debate with my husband (him pro, me anti) I decided to include them, even though I didn’t check out the men’s bathrooms at the other schools. For the sake of full disclosure, including them did raise UofC’s overall interestingness by more than .1 (which, as you’ll see with the results, is a non-trivial amount.)

The methodology

There were multiple things I looked at, including sources quoted and referenced, sexual use of words, and things loved and hated, but the main focus of the analysis was the topics discussed in graffiti and overall interestingness. Each piece of graffiti was classified and ranked for interestingness within one or more of the following 22 categories:

  • Advice
  • Classes
  • [Intellectual] Commentary
  • Despair
  • Drugs
  • Greek [fraternity]
  • Insults
  • Love
  • Meta [about graffiti, the surface it's written on, etc]
  • Misc
  • Orthography [spelling and/or grammar corrections]
  • Politics
  • Presence [variations on "X was here"]
  • Quotes [quoting things directly from other sources]
  • Reference [making reference to another source]
  • Religion
  • Reply
  • School
  • Self
  • Sex
  • Social [social issues]
  • Time

“Interestingness” sounds subjective, and while there’s plenty of room to nitpick on individual pieces, I’ve found that people tend to largely agree with the assessment I’ve made. (Perhaps it would’ve been better to make up an abbreviation, like GIR — Graffiti Interestingness Ranking– because nobody argues with a number associated with an abbreviation. But I’m trying to be transparent here.)

In general, I used the following guidelines for rankings:

  • 1: there are one or more words written, but there’s not much more you can say for it. It may a single, disconnected word without any context. It may be an obvious reply (“me too”), it may be someone’s initials, it may be a simple declaration of love (“I love X”).
  • 2: there’s a little more substance there– a complete thought, a non-obvious reply, use of non-obvious phrasing (“Physics wants me dead” rather than “I hate physics”).
  • 3: the piece has some real substance or a spark to it– wordplay, a complete thought that really says something or elicits a response from the reader.

There were ten pieces in the UChicago corpus that received a 4 in their categories– a mark of distinction, something truly clever or memorable, a step above the 3′s.

The ranking worked slightly differently for a couple of categories:

  • Quotes and References: the ranking was based on the source referenced or quoted, where songs or bands received a 1, TV/movies/pop literature received a 2, and literature/plays received a 3
  • Greek: frat letters alone (the most common manifestation) got a 1, saying something about the frat got a 2

Working with the idea that rare genres are interesting, I looked at how frequently each genre occurs in each corpus. To do this, some of the pieces of graffiti were double-counted (e.g. a single piece of graffiti could be both “Reply” and “Greek”). For calculating the final interestingness score for each corpus, I eliminated duplicate entries for pieces of graffiti. I chose their final classification based on whatever would give them the highest interestingness score, or if the scores were equal, using the less common classification.

I decided to give a .5 bonus to scores in the genres that occur with <2% frequency across all five corpora, as a way to mark the interestingness of rare genres. Intellectual Commentary (1.5%), Drugs (1.32%), Orthography (.53%), Politics (1.53%), School (1.94%), Self (1.58%), Social (1.85%), and Time (1.2%) occur less in less than <2% of graffiti each, but I threw out Drugs and Politics after reviewing the individual pieces of graffiti and concluding they were not actually interesting. It's great to base decisions off of numbers when you can, but even though I can't in this case, I feel no regret in not providing an interestingness bonus to things like "Smoke that KUSH" or "Bush knocked down the towers".

You could argue that my choice of categories influences the scores, and you wouldn't be wrong. That said, I think all the categories are valid on the basis of the UChicago data, and all but one occur in at least 3 of the 5 corpora. The exception is Time, which I only have data for from Brown and UChicago. Still, there are 9 examples from Brown (more than Intellectual Commentary, or Orthography, or Greek), so maybe it's just a concern for the higher-ranked schools.

The addition of the bonus .5 point did raise scores overall, but didn't result in any changes to the schools' rankings relative to each other.


One of the questions people should ask about is the effect of sampling. The data from UChicago was collected over more than three years, whereas the data from the other schools was collected on a single visit, at different times of year: February for Berkeley, June for Brown and Arizona State, and July for University of Colorado. What about the effect of wall cleaning? How can I assert that the graffiti that happened to be there on that particular day is representative?

The answer: I can’t be certain, but I do have an interesting bit of data from a time-based study of UChicago graffiti. Convinced that the graffiti here is getting less interesting over time, I calculated the interestingness score for every quarter that I’ve been working on this project, and it didn’t vary by more than maybe .15– details coming in the post on UChicago.

That said, when the results from Berkeley (check back the week of 12/17) came in, they seemed to be skewed by the contents of a single, extended conversation, leading me to think that 142 isn’t a big enough corpus for the results to be entirely valid. I didn’t have that problem with the University of Colorado data, so maybe 250 would be a better cut-off in the future.

Next up: Arizona State

I’m publishing the data from least interesting to most interesting, to end the year on a good note. For a preview of the upcoming horror that is the graffiti at the Arizona State University library, check out the blog post from earlier this year.

12/4/10: Addendum on quotes and genres

As I’ve been doing the write-ups for each corpus, I realized I didn’t describe my method for identifying quotes, or the genres of the music referenced or quoted. I Googled every piece of graffiti that went beyond a simple, predictable statement– there were definitely some things that I thought were just creative that ended up being song lyrics. I marked every quote or reference with a classification (“music”, “TV”, “literature”, etc.) and then went back to identify the name of the source work and the author/artist (if relevant). For music reference/quote genres, I used the information provided by Wikipedia.

* To the extent that there was a negative response, it was almost always along the lines of “Why would anyone waste their time doing an analysis of graffiti?”, to which I’d be inclined to answer that it’s a fascinating look into the lives of college students, and I’ve found that inquiry into the small, everyday things that often get overlooked is a more fulfilling use of time than watching TV, playing computer games, or posting trollish comments on-line.

Plagiarism in Ivy League graffiti: what are Brown University students ripping off?

Sources of quotes in Brown University graffitiI’ve started slogging through all the graffiti transcriptions for my next analysis (see previous post for details), and as a teaser I’m posting the data about quotes found in the Brown University corpus.

Perhaps “plagiarism” is unnecessarily accusatory. Many of the pieces pull from popular culture, a frame of reference ideally shared by writer and reader, such that the reader would likely recognize the source without written attribution, rather than assume that the source of the quote was the writer. That said, I’ve been fooled before by quotes that seemed profound until I Googled them, and there was one example from Brown where a reader expressed interest in marrying the writer of a piece of graffiti, perhaps not realizing the author was W.H. Auden.

A cursory glance at the other data sets shows that music is the most common source of quotes. I’d guess that at Brown, music is referred to less often than average.Music genres represented in Brown University graffiti With only one data point, it’s hard to determine what does (or doesn’t) make the genre results interesting, but I was surprised to see the strong showing by indie rock, as well as the fact that the three varieties of rock music together make up almost half of the data. Meanwhile, rap and R&B only make up 22% of the data– much lower than I expected.

Another preview: the preliminary average “interestingness” score (out of 3, before I implement category-based weighting) for the Brown graffiti is 1.56. The “Quotes” category described above makes up 14% of the pieces of graffiti that fall in a specific category (i.e. excluding the generic “misc” and “reply” categories). The most common category at Brown? Sex, at 20%.

Fall graffiti and preview of coming analysis

It’s taken some time, but graffiti is creeping back onto the bookstack walls in the Regenstein Library.

Most notable is the wall of poetry, where “To Delmore Schwartz” by Robert Lowell has been joined by an anonymous quote:
Rejoice! O Man For your achievements
are great
and number as the stars
(read both full size)
and then subsequently, by Jabberwocky in its entirety.

While one student recommends appreciating the joy of being YOUNG and ALIVE, another laments the temporary nature of graffiti, and a third dismisses the entire conversation with “Quit being gay, study!”. (See full size.) Meanwhile, someone else is just kidding.

In the 5th floor women’s bathroom, I discovered “I’m pregnant” in Arabic, translated by Lauren Osborne who wonders if the writer just took a pregnancy test, and the wall was the first “person” she told. I’ve also discovered that Barbie studies in Crerar science library. There’s some elaborate gremlin heads in the Reg study carrels, not far from some ruthless copyediting of another student’s “hip” graffiti (see full size).

Perhaps my favorite so far from this fall is a serious response to what was probably just a whiny Why is Latin so hard?: “b/c they don’t print it with diacritical marks. (it really would be much easier if they did”. Lamenting the absence of macrons in Latin texts not written for learners: I’ve never seen the likes of it elsewhere.

Speaking of the uniqueness of UChicago graffiti, I’m putting together another “analysis” of my enormous corpus of graffiti data, now including material from a variety of universities. Ever since I started examining graffiti from outside the University of Chicago, I’ve had the sense that there’s something unique about the graffiti we have here, but I’ve never tried to quantify it. So now I’m going through each piece of graffiti from each university, classifying it (and weighting certain classes differently depending on their frequency across the entire corpus– orthographic corrections and intellectual commentary count for more than sex or complaining about classes), and assigning a score of 1-3 (1 is for a single word or expected phrase, 2 is for a more fleshed-out thought, 3 is for something with a twist– be it insight, wordplay, or something that makes it memorable). The plan is then to divide the total score by the number of pieces of graffiti, to determine the “interestingness” of each university’s graffiti corpus. One could argue that my metric privileges the UChicago graffiti, but I really am trying to be objective, and I’d like to hope that we can all agree that there really is something more interesting about “Holbach your marks, you’re going to ruin the Staël” than “Fuck you”.

Tangentially (and without having any sense of what the outcome will look like), I’m also working on determining the source of the various music, movie, TV and literature quotes found in the graffiti corpus, to see the differences in genre and media distribution on different campuses.

I’m hoping to have both done by the end of this month, so stay tuned.

On smoking, sperm, and spray paint: a mural behind the Reg

Life goes onI’ve got to hand it to Facilities: painting over the graffiti in the Regenstein Library at the end of last school year has done wonders for keeping the stacks pristine all summer and into the start of this school year. In fact, even now there seems to be only one piece of new graffiti on the 5th floor; if anyone has an idea of what it’s supposed to be, I’d love to hear it.

Meanwhile this summer, I’ve tracked down graffiti at Brown, Arizona State, University of Colorado, and McGill (where they love to deface the “don’t eat or drink in the library” signs– photos still pending.) I’ve seen cows offering themselves up as meals in Lithuania, a disturbing conflation of Internet Explorer with the internet in Albania, and graffiti ranging from your standard-issue penis to political commentary in a verb conjugation chart in Kosovo.

Graffiti wallBut the Reg– the library that started this whole project– has remained devoid of graffiti… until last week, when it cropped up somewhere I’ve never seen it before.

I received an anonymous tip that someone had spray-painted something of a mural on one of the concrete walls between the Reg and the Max Palevsky dorm. Spray paint? A whole mural? This I had to see.

It’s in a hidden-away corner that could have perhaps escaped notice for quite some time, were it not for the fact that it’s partly visible from the north-facing windows of the Reg.

Smoke between his lipsMotifs of smoking and sperm with faces seem to join the scenes on the north and east concrete walls; between the two stands a Triforce. The north wall begins with JWOWW, before moving to a sperm-with-face that looks like he’s been staying up too late studying or something. The major work on the north wall is some kind of genie (or perhaps Nietzschean superman) with smoke pouring out from between his lips.

On the other side of the triforce on the east wall, the mural picks up with three sperm-with-faces: one in a baseball cap, one confused and badly in need of a dentist, and one that appears to have picked up the cold that’s going around.

Overenthusiastic alienFrom there, the mural gets increasingly bizarre, featuring an overenthusiastic smoking alien that appears to be falling in love with a human with an early 90′s haircut, who can only think of “Yo” to say in response. It’s a little hard to tell where the mural goes from there, beyond some bright, colorful shapes reminiscent of 70′s cartoons, but there’s plenty of hearts so maybe things end well for the alien-human couple.

I’m no art history scholar, nor particularly literate in pop culture, so I welcome any explanation of what Jersey Shore, sperm-with-faces, smoking, aliens, 90′s hairstyles, 70′s cartoons, and the Legend of Zelda have to do with each other. If you want to see the full mural, you can check it out behind the Reg while it lasts, or in the photo set.


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