Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Does graffiti art belong in the art curriculum?

I've thought about writing this post for a long time, but have put it off for fear of offending someone or having some readers take my opinions personally.  But, readers, this isn't personal, and I don't expect you all to agree.  It's simply my opinion, and nothing more, and this post is written to spark discussion and give you something to think about.

OK, disclaimer done.  Here I go:  

Why did I decide to write a post about graffiti tonight?  Well, earlier today I took my camera for a walk on the bike path that runs between the Hudson River and the Feeder Canal.  It was sunny and I had a lovely walk, between a parking area by a dam, down to a bridge near a public beach, and back again.  When I got to the bridge, I thought I'd look under it for a photo of the water and reflections, but instead I saw offensive graffiti.  I took a photo, but I will not post it here, because, well, it consisted of several swastikas and a pro-Hitler statement, and I'm just not comfortable posting it on a blog that is a reflection of me.  (So the other photos I took today will have to suffice for this post.)  This piece of graffiti disturbed me and suddenly I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable walking alone.  I walked quickly and didn't take another photo for the rest of my way back to my car.  I'm hoping if I call the city tomorrow that someone will be able to remove this graffiti.
So I have often seen blog posts or posts in the Facebook Art Teachers group about graffiti projects being done in the art classroom. Some of them are from elementary art programs, others are secondary.  Often they have been lessons in 'graffiti-style lettering', or designing your own 'tag'.  But when I think of actual graffiti 'tags' I have seen, they have often been on the walls of urban buildings, on the side of train cars, or on the walls of the subway tunnels.  These are frequently representative of gang symbols.  They are not something I want my students to replicate or emulate.

I am not unaware of graffiti/street artists artists that have become well-known and respected, such as the most obvious ones: Keith Haring, (who may have begun as a graffiti artist, but actually also produced street art by commission and sold work in galleries) or Banksy; nor am I unaware of the many graffiti artists making beautiful works of art on the sides of otherwise uninteresting urban buildings, or provocative political or social statements through their street art.  But still, the bulk of graffiti I have seen is 'tagging', or offensive vandalism such as that I saw today.
 So my question is this: Do graffiti art projects belong in the art curriculum?  Is it appropriate to be teaching kids the art of graffiti-style lettering or 'tagging'? 

I looked up the definition of graffiti, came up with many versions, but basically the idea was the same: Graffiti is any writing or drawing on a surface in a public place, placed there without authorization of the owner or the object on which it is written.  Such graffiti are usually unwelcome, and are considered a form of vandalism.
 I can certainly understand a high school art teacher showing the movie Enter Through the Gift Shop, and discussing Banksy, political art and social activism, just as I can understand showing How to Draw a Bunny and discussing the rather peculiar mail art of Ray Johnson.  But I absolutely cannot understand the purpose for, or curricular appropriateness of teaching elementary, middle, or high school kids how to do graffiti-style lettering.
In this day and age, when art programs are being slashed and positions are being cut, as art educators we have the responsibility to advocate for our programs.  We use art shows as a way to bring the art of our students to our communities, and gather public support.  We send home artwork with our students so that parents can see what their children are doing.  We seek to convince our school communities that art education is a valuable and essential link in the education of our nation's children.  How many community members, parents, and administrators would see the teaching of graffiti as positive PR for your art program? 
 If you teach graffiti art in your classroom, what is its significance in your curriculum, your justification for its inclusion?  I'd love your responses!

I'll leave you with a link to a short article, Graffiti is Always Vandalism I found while researching information for this post.   Thank you for reading, and for your opinions!


  1. I think there is certainly a time and a place for it. First, it’s important to properly define street art. When discussing with students I break it down into two categories: Public Art and Graffiti. Public Art=Permission, Graffiti=no permission. I live in such a community where students are exposed to street art all the time whether it be a commissioned mural, street performance, or tags defacing spaces under bridges. It’s part of their culture, so why not talk about it? Let them know the rights and wrongs, what’s okay what isn’t. I’m currently doing a letter design name with my students--I’m using it as an opportunity to discuss font design, color, and art in motion. Some of the discussions I’ve had with my 6th graders in regards to street art have been very insightful, sometimes heated, but overall engagement is happening.

  2. I'll share my opinion here. I teach it in middle school and here's why. Our students need to learn how graffiti was created. You can relate graffiti back to the stone age with cave paintings. They also need to understand what is acceptable and what is not. There are several graffiti artists today that get paid to create amazing graffiti art. Students can learn about commissioned graffiti vs illegal graffiti. There are also places all over the world where graffiti is allowed and anyone can come paint without penalty. An example you can look up is graffiti park in Austin TX. Basically it is adding an educational background to something that people do for kicks. It could help them to make smarter choices before defacing public property. Not to mention the boys LOVE this project.

  3. This is a tough one, because there is usually so much negativity tied to graffiti art, as you pointed out. I don’t teach any graffiti lessons, personally, but our Graphic Design teacher has a whole unit on it. He loves Banksy and goes into the history of graffiti and the idea of political and grassroots art movements and things like that. I think it has a place in the classroom as long as it’s taught responsibly, like Abby said. My biggest problem with teaching graffiti lessons is that it often ends the same way a lesson involving glitter does: Everyone becomes completely obsessed and wants to include it in EVERYTHING they do.

  4. I don't recall that graffiti was ever considered an art form. Tagging is not street art, it is graffiti and illegal. Teachers that teach kids how to perfect their tags are trying too hard to be "cool" with the kids. You are encouraging a behavior that could cause them legal problems should they try to use the skill you taught them. The kids you are teaching are not Bansky or Haring. If you want to help them, teach cursive writing. It comes in handy when signing legal documents in the adult world.
    I am sorry for ranting on this, but it really bothers me.

    1. Marilyn, no need to apologize, since I am pretty much 100% in agreement with you! But sadly we seem to be in the minority. Thanks for leaving your comment!

  5. "The kids you are teaching are not Banksy or Haring." I doubt that you would have approved of Banksy or Haring in your classroom or recognized them for who they were. Judgmental attitudes like this predated every art movement. You don't have the open, experimental artist soul that spearheads new art and change. There is beautiful street art being done by thousands of people who are unknown. Does this mean all unknown artists are not real artists? Shame on you. Of course it should be taught. All art should be taught, if you are a true art teacher, and a true artist.

    1. I certainly always welcome discussion and dissenting opinions on my blog, and I thank you for stopping by and expressing your opinion, but honestly, your comment takes the cake. You don't know me, and certainly don't know my soul, so to tell me that I do not have an artist soul is more than a little offensive. Criticize the opinion, not the character of the person expressing that opinion. That said, I am able to but will not delete your comment.

      I should also point out that I did NOT say that unknown artists or street artists are not 'real artists'. You have grossly misinterpreted my words. I was simply questioning whether, in a public school environment, where our programs are iuncer distant scrutiny and often in peril of being eliminated, whether engaging students in projects where they mimic art that can sometimes be gang related and that can be considered unwelcome vandalism by property owners is an appropriate venue.

      Thank you for stopping by.