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University News

Bloch’s graffiti research inspired by childhood

Urban studies professor examines subcultural identities, gang-enhancement legislation

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Where Postdoctoral Senior Research Associate in Urban Studies Stefano Bloch comes from, a Brown University sweatshirt means something else. It doesn’t mean the university where Bloch does groundbreaking urban studies research on subcultural identities, crime legislation or the lives of graffiti writers.

Growing up in the gang-ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a Brown sweatshirt was a commodity, an emblem of “Rasa,” or pride in one’s Latino ethnicity. It was the sweatshirt that Bloch’s best friend and co-graffiti writer, Efren Barbosa, wore before being murdered by rival gang members. Now, it’s a sweatshirt he sees on the almost 400 students taking his course URBN 1230: “Crime and the City.”

Bloch is full of surprises. You wouldn’t expect that his blue eyes had seen bullets whiz past him to take the lives of his friends. You wouldn’t expect a prolific graffiti writer, known all throughout L.A. for his work, to be sitting in front of you — wearing khaki slacks and a button-up shirt with a Brown University faculty badge, no less.

You wouldn’t expect that by the age of 11, three separate fathers had come and gone from his life­— one stabbed 18 times by a rival gang, one an Italian rock musician who died of AIDS and one in and out of prison, “the most wonderful man you could ever meet.”

You wouldn’t expect that the man living with his partner and three children in a Pawtucket home had spent his childhood being evicted every four months with his undocumented and heroine-addicted mother, cycling through homelessness and the toughest neighborhoods of L.A.

And yet, he’s a self-declared optimist. He’s an empathizer with the oppressed. He’s a researcher, an author and, foremost, a student.

Ever since the day he wandered onto the Los Angeles Valley College campus, he’s felt safe from the childhood that follows him around on his sleeve, inspires his research and shapes his ethnographic composition of the world.

“Where I come from, nobody went to college. (College) was a place where you went to become doctors, lawyers and football players,” Bloch said. But he went anyway, first to LAVC for his associate’s degree, then to the University of California at Santa Cruz for his bachelor’s in literature.

It was in Santa Cruz where Bloch had his first mattress all to himself. It was there that he first told someone — Professor Christopher Connery, he recalls — about his background and identity in the “cryptic and guarded subculture” of graffiti writing. He walked into the professor’s office hours with shaking hands and revealed his secret: that the work of graffiti writers in urban spaces and theories of spatial consciousness taught in class were describing his lived reality, he said.

“Great. Write about that,” the professor said. And Bloch did.

“I felt like my experience and identity mattered. And that validates you as a human being,” Bloch said.

Bloch entered a University of California undergraduate research contest and won. With that validation, he found the self-belief necessary to apply to the University of California at Los Angeles Department of Urban Planning to receive his master’s and eventually the University of Minnesota for his PhD in cultural geography.

A year after completing his PhD, Bloch ended up on a plane to Providence, Rhode Island, where the first thing he did was buy a Brown University sweatshirt.

Informed by his personal experiences with identity, Bloch’s research in Providence answers the question, “Why don’t I speak to that which I know? Why don’t we all?”

As a former graffiti writer, Bloch’s biggest research project centers on the possible correlation between violent crime and graffiti in Providence. With the help of over 100 undergraduate students and an app developed by fellow researcher, Yesim Sungu-Eryilmaz, visiting lecturer of urban studies, Bloch has documented graffiti all over the city to understand the relationship between violent crime and graffiti. If his theories prove to be true, graffiti and disorder would no longer be linked to violent crime but rather factors such as lack of educational funding and proper housing as well as economic disenfranchisement.

Bloch cites his insider status within this “cryptic, illicitly elusive subculture” as what has afforded him the trust and respect of the communities he studies, allowing him better access to their lives and communities. Graffiti writing, for Bloch, was an “opportunity to fight against those who were otherwise already challenging my belonging, my ethnicity (and) my intersectional identity,” likening his reasoning to what he believes attracts others to the subculture.

Two of Bloch’s newest research projects investigate the ways anti-gang legislation disproportionately affects people of color. For example, civil gang injunctions, or orders that aim to prevent those who are identified as members of gangs from sitting, standing, walking or gathering in public spaces of neighborhoods, largely exclude people of color from their right to the city, because they are more likely to be identified as gang members.

Similarly, Bloch studies gang-enhancement legislation, or laws that add 10 years to felony convictions for people who are believed to be gang members whether or not the crime was at all related to gang activity. His research shows that this legislation disproportionately affects people of color due to databases that largely identify people of color as gang members.

Like everything else for Bloch, this research is personal. “Gang members are complex. They are not 24-hours-of-the-day unholy gang members,” but can be friends, brothers, adoptive fathers, neighbors and genuinely good people, Bloch said.

Now, Bloch has finished a book, “Going All City,” which is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press. Using methods such as auto-ethnography to investigate identity and belonging, the book explores “the ways in which members of transgressive subcultures navigate the city,” Bloch said.

From graffiti writer with a troubled past to researcher, professor, presidential diversity postdoctoral fellow, husband and father, Bloch has always maintained two constants.

Perhaps the more important of the two is his optimism, something that defines his personal life as well as his research.

“I have a hard time seeing the bad in things — it’s a problem. I want to talk about how I’ve had my face slammed to the ground by cops, had my fingers crushed, been taken to jail and brutally beaten by gang members, been dragged from my house and seen my friends and acquaintances and neighbors shot in the face in front of me,” Bloch said.

“But one of the ways to survive an environment like the one I come from is you have to be ridiculously optimistic,” he added.

The other constant? The Brown University sweatshirt.

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