The vertical surfaces of cities are archives of urban identities, and contested terrains of occupation and visibility. They provide a location for numerous signs, markings and inscriptions, whose visual, material and territorial dynamic is under permanent negotiation. My thesis takes as its subject this dynamic between urban surfaces and inscriptions, to understand their spatial politics and their impact on urban cultures.

This thesis contributes to a critical understanding of urban culture and creative spatial production in the city, with a particular focus on the surfaces of the built environment. The thesis furthers academic scholarship on street art, graffiti and the right to the city by engaging with legal and semiotic methodologies to understand urban surfaces and inscriptions.

To begin with, this thesis includes detailed studies of graffiti, street art and other forms of surface inscriptions in London, based on a developing scholarship of graffiti and street art studies. The thesis advances this research field through three original directions of study: a detailed historical interpretation of the naming and management strategies of graffiti and street art; an ethnographic study of street art walking tours and their role in creative urban economies; and a comprehensive critical analysis of UK anti-graffiti legislation. This thesis is the latest addition in a series of studies which use graffiti to interpret contemporary urban identities and politics.

Furthermore, the thesis puts forward surface studies as a new field of urban spatial exploration, which could be developed beyond the geographic and conceptual scope of the present study. Surface studies could be used to examine a variety of urban communications in multiple geographic settings, and to further account for the visual, material and political dimensions of city surfaces and inscriptions.

Finally, this thesis has consolidated some methodological approaches which will be useful for the production of urban scholarship in a number of other disciplines, among which visual culture, legal geography, urban semiotics and heritage studies. Specifically, the methods of repeat photography and surface semiotics could be applied to various built environment research at an international scale, including practice-led projects by architects, artists, planners and activists working on urban territories and patterns of spatial production and occupation.

The thesis is a contribution to urban studies, street art and graffiti studies, and a foundational step towards establishing a field of surface studies. Based on a close analysis of city surfaces and inscriptions, the main argument of the project is that urban surfaces are spaces of collective political production and agency, and are key sites for the exploration of urgent notions such as the right to the city and the urban commons.

Overall, I envision the project as a contribution to further research into the visual, material and political dimensions of urban surfaces and inscriptions, and a reassessment of surface spaces as radically political loci where a communally debated urban model can be pursued.