Graffiti: A New Dimension in School Discipline in Secondary Schools in Kenya

This is an extracted version of the research paper presented by Dr Luvaso in 2020 during the annual international education conference in Machakos University.



Graffiti is writing or drawings made on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view. Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and it has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.

In modern times, paint and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s permission is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime.

Many students in our public secondary schools have embraced the use of graffiti in books, buildings and even on their bodies which is also done by our various worldly sports-people, heroes and heroines in various fields. The kind of graffiti the youth draw is a replica of who they are.

Dr Aliva Luvaso Elphas, PhD

This literary paper investigates the various types of graffiti drawn by our secondary school students, interpret their meanings and determine their effects on students’performance and discipline.

This paper is guided by Behaviour Modification theory by B.F.Skinner on “how our voluntary actions are influenced by what happens to us immediately after we perform a given act”.

Controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement amongst city officials, law enforcement, school administrators and writers who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations.

This paper finds that many students enjoy the use of graffiti but they are not so specific about the meaning they are portraying. The paper concludes that there is need to develop guidelines especially on the use of graffiti in our schools.

Interventions are needed which include all stake holders to ensure change is effected and lastly sensitization programs need to be put in place to help the youth understand the effects of graffiti.

Background to the Study

Graffiti started in the early 1960’s but can be argued that the first ever pieces of artwork located in the caves, where our ancient ancestors resided, were graffiti.

These cave drawings were how the people of that time would express themselves by telling a special story correlated to their lives, and the style the cave men used is pretty similar to the same principles used in graffiti today, (Watson T,1996).

The media used obviously has progressed from berries and dirt, to the modern aerosol spray paint can, marker pen but it is still just art on a wall.

Rolling through the dusty roads of Nairobi capital city, you see wild, fanciful vehicles zipping by, their sides daubed with vibrant messages of graffiti; this is “Matatu” culture in Kenya, the practice of pimped-out, colour-exploding, happy-tatted local transit buses and matatus.

Statement of the problem

School administrators have the responsibility of maintaining discipline and high academic performance as one of their most important areas of emphasis.

Currently, schools are faced with modern acts of indiscipline including fighting, bullying, and insubordination and of recent graffiti drawings which summarily results in poor academic results.

Graffiti drawings can form just one tool in an array of resistance techniques. It’s often a subculture that rebels against authority, although the considerations of the practitioners often diverge and can relate to a wide range of attitudes. Many students in our public secondary schools have embraced the use of graffiti in books, buildings and even their bodies.

Purpose of the Study

This research paper examined emergence of graffiti in our secondary schools and its effects on discipline and academic performance. Not considered here is graffiti which is legal and commissioned by property owners for example matatu and buses.

Literature Review

Most studies in graffiti to date have used either content analysis to determine the reasons behind graffiti behavior, (Norlander, T .1996). There are no studies to date that use a school sample to examine the prevalence of ‘tagging’ in adolescents and its indiscipline and psychological covariates.

However, studies on general antisocial behavior including vandalism provide some insight into the possible covariates of graffiti behavior (Marcus, R,F .1999).

Antisocial behaviors including vandalism have been associated with family and parental factors, drug and alcohol use, self-esteem, and locus of control.

A study of girls referred for out-of-home placement because of repeated and chronic juvenile indiscipline, (Chamberlain and Moore, 2002) noted several risk factors including family fragmentation, physical and sexual trauma, mental health problems, official arrest and self report offending histories.

In addition, apart from sexual trauma histories, these sample characteristics were similar to those found in a sample of chronically offending boys.

Another study (Vermeiren, Deboutte, Ruchkin and Schwab-Stone,2002) assessing 955 students in Belgium, 1,026 in Russia, and 1,391 in the United States, all aged between 14 and 17 years adolescents were assigned antisocial group status according to the nature of their reported indiscipline behavior.

A non-antisocial group, a moderate antisocial group (non aggressive behavior) and a severe antisocial group (mainly aggressive behavior) were identified.

Results show that in both genders and in all three countries, depression,somatization, negative expectations for the future and sensation seeking gradually increased from the non-antisocial group to the moderate antisocial group, and finally to the severe antisocial group.

Levels of anxiety were insignificant across most groups. The study concluded that although cross-national differences exist, the variables of interest showed markedly similar trends between antisocial groups across countries.

Despite some work in these areas there is still much to understand about indiscipline behaviors in our schools this forms the basis of this study.

Research Objectives

The current study investigated possible co-variants of graffiti drawings in relation to behavioral characteristics that affect discipline and academic performance.

This is because graffiti is used almost everywhere now and is really starting to adapt more to our schools’ culture, and it’s on high spread.

To some it is seen as a form of indiscipline and measures are being taken to discourage it but the more it’s discouraged the more it spreads.

Research Design

This study adopts cross-sectional survey research design recommended in collecting data from a sub-set of cognitive constructs.


Participants in the study were 3603 (n = 1942 males; n = 1654 females; n = 17 undefined)secondary form three students (aged 15-19 years) from 28 public and 28 private schools.

Participating schools were from both rural and suburban areas and in low to middle and high socioeconomic status in fourteen counties.

Administration of Instruments

Teachers supervised the administration of questionnaires, informed students their participation was voluntary, and that non-participation would have no adverse consequences.

A teacher counselor was made available to talk with any student showing distress and a group debriefing session followed the completion of the questionnaire. Students placed their responses in a sealed container to maintain confidentiality.

Research Results Findings

Those in the graffiti group are more likely to report serious or extreme drug use, perceived academic failure, physical and sexual abuse, suicide thoughts and behaviours, and are more likely to indicate higher family pathology, parental over protection and criticism, depression,hopelessness, anxiety, external locus of control and risk-taking behaviours, and lower parental care and self-esteem.

Graffiti is also significantly related to low, serious and extreme antisocial behaviour. Given this strong association, the sample was grouped to aid elucidation of effects uniquely associated with graffiti.

Thus, low antisocial behaviour (Low ASB) with graffiti was compared to Low ASB without graffiti, serious antisocial behaviour (SASB) with graffiti was compared to SASB without graffiti and extreme antisocial behaviour (EASB) with graffiti was compared to EASB without graffiti.

Low Antisocial Behaviour With or Without Graffiti

For boys, there are significant differences between the Low ASB plus graffiti group and the Low ASB minus graffiti group, including for suicide thoughts, deliberate self-injury, drug use,family functioning, locus of control and risk-taking with those in the Low ASB and graffiti.

Serious Antisocial Behaviour With or Without Graffiti

For boys, there are several significant differences between the serious antisocial behavior (SASB) plus graffiti and the SASB minus graffiti, including with deliberate self-injury, drug use, mother criticism, depression, anxiety and risk-taking.

For girls, there are several significant differences between the SASB plus graffiti group and the SASB minus graffiti group including on suicide plans, serious drug use, self-esteem and anxiety.

For boys there are several significant differences between the extreme antisocial behavior (EASB) plus graffiti group and the EASB minus graffiti including suicide thoughts, deliberate self-injury, suicide attempts, drug use, mother care, mother over protection, mother criticism,and depression.

For girls, there were no significant differences between these same groups on any of the variables measured in this study.


The results of this study suggest that adolescent who graffiti (‘tag’) are significantly different to those who do not graffiti on all of the factors measured in this study.

Although this is the first population-based study to date comparing these groups, the result is similar to the differences found with general indiscipline and antisocial behaviour groups.

Adolescents who graffiti show higher reported drug use, perceived academic failure, physical and sexual abuse,suicide thoughts and behaviours, and are more likely to indicate higher family pathology,parental over-protection and criticism, depression, hopelessness, anxiety, external locus of control and risk-taking behaviours, and lower parental care and self-esteem.

Results also suggest that antisocial behaviour (low, serious and extreme) with graffiti is significantly different from antisocial behaviour without graffiti.

Adolescent who graffiti in addition to various levels of antisocial behaviour show higher reported perceived academic failure, physical abuse, suicidal thoughts and behaviours, drug use, family pathology, parental over protection and criticism, depression, hopelessness, external locus of control, anxiety, risk taking and lower self-esteem and parental care.

One limitation of this study was the one-item measure of graffiti behaviour. Our focus in this study was ‘tagging’ but there are several other forms of vandalism that may be defined as graffiti.

In addition, we did not measure the severity of the problem behaviour. The number of graffiti acts may have been an important factor to include in the analysis.

Our measure ofgraffiti may have captured wrongly, graffiti art and other forms of doodling, which would notbe considered vandalism.

Graffiti is not only a significant community problem but should be considered a serious action,which may have many other coexisting family, parental, behavioural and psychological problems.

Clinicians may need to ask about graffiti even when an adolescent present with low levels of antisocial behaviour.


There is need to develop guidelines especially on use of graffiti in our schools and sensitization programs need to be put in place to help the youth understand the effects of graffiti on discipline and academic performance to avoid falling prey.

Dr Luvaso is the Chief Principal of Tarang’anya Boys’ High School in Migori County. He can be contacted via:

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Dr. Luvaso is the Chief Principal of Tarangaya Boys' High School in Migori County.



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