Teaching with Contemporary Art

Graffiti in the Classroom

The Witness AWR NASA, photo by Jaime Rojo

Students often have lots of interest and questions about graffiti, graffiti art and street art. My response usually includes the fact that I love graffiti art and street art, especially if the artist takes their time to make something that’s really well designed (and in some cases has permission to create it). From my perspective, you can’t make a quality work of art in a few seconds while simultaneously looking over your shoulder for the cops. That’s where I draw the line between art and vandalism. Vandalism includes tagging/defacing a space that the artist knows will have to be washed off immediately (store windows, front doors of businesses, subway token booths, etc.). Fortunately, most graffiti artists create works in spots that can linger for a while. And some linger for a long, long time, which is great if they are well done, whether they exist as an artist’s tag or as a painting that includes the artist’s tag.

Wrinkles in the City by JR in downtown L.A., image: The Dirt Floor

Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen are featured in season 1 and address the idea of graffiti as an art form- an art form where you see the artist’s hand in the work vs. things like billboards, which Margaret Kilgallen calls “mind garbage”. Barry McGee goes on to make the point that graffiti can simply be painted over with a roller- something you cannot do with a really bad commercial jingle that stays in your head.

Billboard street art by LebA, image: The Dirt Floor

There are literally tons of books and sites that help us teach about graffiti as an art form, even Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop has been nominated for an Oscar at this point, but three resources I want to point out this week include two websites- The Dirt Floor and Brooklyn Street Art– and the film Bomb It.

The Dirt Floor gives you a rolling update on street art in and around Los Angeles. The creators of the site describe it this way:

The Dirt Floor is a leading contemporary and underground arts and culture magazine dedicated to surfacing the best of street, underground art, and pop culture in its many forms.  We believe that art is a lifestyle and the solution to all problems. We are low value with high purpose.  We are dedicated to non-educational activities, self indulgent thoughts, unfinished and incomplete actions. Our work is not easily classified or marketable. This protects us from analysis, judgment or criticism. We have no direction, motivation other than a cursed reflex to purge our anonymous mental overflows in a public forum and then run away from it and hide behind our cloak of digital anonymity.

Brooklyn Street Art is described as:

…the new creative spirit that runs in the streets, the artist studios, and galleries of New York and beyond. New hybrids, new techniques, and new mediums are expanding the definition of public art, street art, graffiti, and urban art; each vying for the attention of passers-by. As trends develop in the street, we watch to see how they affect popular culture and the rest of the art world.

Jon Reiss’s Bomb It is over 90 minutes of graffiti art education that features dozens of characters who give the inside, outside and upside-down scoop on what makes graffiti art in the first place. Viewers will be introduced to Cornbread, Tracy 168, Revs and others. While it has its share of profanity laced throughout the commentary and may not be suitable for the classroom in some cases, there is plenty of history and BEAUTIFUL shots that make this a worthwhile film to see.

URnewyork, photo by Jaime Rojo

Teaching with contemporary art involves acknowledging that students have an interest in what pushes the boundaries of art and even of what’s legal. Bringing the subject of graffiti into the classroom allows for not only some beautiful work, it also allows for deep conversation about what art can be, how some artists choose to make their work, and even whether graffiti artists would consider themselves artists in the first place. But I would encourage a combination of layered discussion that teaches about and fuels graffiti art vs. simply working in a style that looks like graffiti. For starters, weren’t cave painters the first graffiti artists??


  1. Nettrice says:

    Great post! For years, when teaching visual language, I’ve had students explore Guerilla Art, i.e. the exercises from Keri Smith’s Guerilla Art Kit. Many of these exercises are non-destructive and encourage artists to think about the environment where they place their work. I usually show Barry M. and Margaret K. as a motivating activity.

    When I was in high school modern graffiti pioneer Futura (formerly Futura 2000) paid my class a visit as part of a community service project to work on a mural for city transit. He taught me how to use a spray can (changing cap sixes, making straight lines, etc.) and even remarked that I had some potential. From that point on I was bitten by the graff/street/guerilla art bug!

    Currently, my research is in graffiti and math, or “street math” and there are some great articles/papers about it such as http://www.hiphop-network.com/articles/graffitiarticles/streetmathwildstyle.asp and Ron Eglash from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has uncovered mathematics embedded graffiti: http://csdt.rpi.edu/subcult/grafitti/index.html. I’m working with Ron to bring some of this (i.e. African fractals) into virtual 3D and Augmented Reality game platforms for mobile devices.

    It’s not that we’re forcing graffiti art into mathematics – graffiti and other aspects of hip-hop are already inherently mathematical and metaphysical. I can’t wait to work with high school students next year to see how far they take it!

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Love the idea of working with Guerilla Art and having students really think about context. Will definitely check out the Ron Eglash link. Thanks, Nettrice!

  3. Ben Street says:

    Hi Joe –

    How do you square the inherent illegality of graffiti with its worth or otherwise as an art form? I always thought that, before the days that galleries started sniffing around and the whole thing became “street art” (ie, became a sellable commodity – Banksy etc), the whole point of graffiti was that it was an illegal practice whose energy (Lady Pink, Futura, etc) came from the fact it wouldn’t last – in other words, that it wouldn’t be “preserved”, as the money-minded are desperately trying to do with Banksys in the UK. What do you think?

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Hi Ben-
    I think the thrill of creating street art, graffiti, Guerilla Art- whatever one chooses to call it- is making something personal that can be seen in public. In the film Bomb It, there’s a great part where they are discussing the way the MTA wound up squashing the graffiti artists who were bombing the subways by not letting trains roll out of the yard until they were clean, thus cutting off the audience for anyone who was tagging up the cars (the practice still exists today). While it’s illegal I think lots of graffiti artists are more creative about where they place the work and have a better handle on how long it will linger and how many people may see it. This isn’t much different from artists who create public works, especially public works that are sanctioned but not necessarily appreciated by a majority of the public. I think street artists using stickers feel the same way- let’s keep it out there as long as possible. It being illegal may be part of the thrill, but I’m not sure it’s the whole point… at this point.
    As for galleries trying to sell the stuff, well, Barry McGee seems to keep his street cred and still finds time to work on gallery and museum shows, right?

  5. Nettrice Gaskins says:

    No problem! Context and connections to other parts of students’ lives are important. I dislike math as a kid but if I had learned how to merge my love of art and math (as a visual-spatial learner) I might have had a different experience in my math classes.

  6. Ben Street says:

    Fair enough and good point about public art. I guess I’d rather see a Banksy than a Gormley, and nobody has a lower opinion of Banksy than me. It’s just hard to see the culture of the mid-to-late 70s that you see in films like Wild Style being in any way equivalent to today’s culture of career street artists selling work in auction houses and swish galleries. The question, I guess, is: why was the transition into commerce so easy? What is it about graffiti that made its transition into mainstream culture so quick and painless? Maybe that’s a different discussion!

  7. Nettrice Gaskins says:

    Hi Ben. I guess I’ll answer your question with a question first? Does McGee belong to the graff art side or to the DIY (Do It Yourself) side? Or somewhere in the middle? Modern graff purists might see McGee, Shepard Fairey, and the like as DIY, not purely graffiti in style and purpose. Street art/guerilla art evolved from graffiti as a more commercialized art form but there is still a legacy in modern graffiti unknown in more established, formal settings (like K-12 schools). What I like about Ron Eglash is that he includes the history of the graffiti subculture as part of his web-based graffiti math tool. There are lots of pioneers who are largely unknown in mainstream circles (ex Rammellzee) but who are just as respected by artists as McGee, Fairey, or Bansky.

    So to answer your question, Ben, I think there are subsets or newer genres that are not graffiti and are more commercial. Many respected street artists are still in the streets, not in galleries, and their work is just as vital to this discourse. These art forms/subgenres are divided along the lines of race, class and gender (which would make for interesting discussion) and there is still a thriving urban/street art culture that is anti-capitalist and exists to counter mass culture’s reductional breakdown.

  8. Ben Street says:

    Thanks Nettrice. Good answer. Here’s another question: is graffiti inherently conservative? Looking at the images above, I’d suggest it is. Whether this is a bad thing or not is another question.

  9. Nettrice says:

    I’m not sure if anything produced on the streets could be considered as conservative. It depends on what you mean by conservative. On one hand, there are the “purists” who maintain pressure on graff artists, including McGee, to remain true to the streets, to maintain their “street cred” might appear conservative to some people. Street cred is about commanding a level of respect due to experience or knowledge of street life which is far from being a conservative way of life. On the other hand, wildstyle (graffiti) is the highest level of mastery an artist can obtain which does suggest a particular system of artistic production. Plenty of graff artists like McGee, Futura 2000, and others have shown that there isn’t just one style, or form of expression in graffiti.

  10. Joe says:

    Nettrice, I agree with your most recent comment. And wildstyle would definitely be considered mastery by many.
    Ben, I am also not sure what you mean by “conservative”…

  11. Ben Street says:

    J+N: I mean formally, by virtue of its being nominally an underground practice. Not politically. In the same way hip-hop is. This is not necessarily a criticism.

  12. Nettrice Gaskins says:

    Ben: I understand. I guess I think many underground artistic practices are the results of certain cultural and political shifts. At the beginning of my teacher career I was an art & technology intern in a summer arts program (for teens) at a university and I thought it might make for interesting discussion to show “Style Wars” to an audience of talented kids and the faculty. Limited legal venues, or opportunities for teens’ to express themselves creatively was a an incentive for them to get their art seen by any means necessary. I guess if those doors are closed the rationale is to paint on them from the outside.

  13. Ben Street says:

    Thanks Nettrice. I’m really talking about the ossification of style in “underground” cultures, how rigidly conservative it really is – like punk, I suppose, the point of which was that it had nowhere to go stylistically.

  14. Joe Fusaro says:

    Punk had nowhere to go stylistically? Ben, do you mean that punk essentially wound up shutting itself down?

  15. Nettrice says:

    I think modern graffiti evolved into street art and guerilla art. It also became part of an international movement, as a form of creative expression for the under-represented. There is an aesthetic of graffiti that can be seen as evolving into new media. Evan Roth’s “Graffiti Analysis” and DAIM in “Tagged in Motion” (augmented reality graffiti) takes the 2D form into new territories that are 3D/4D and virtual in ways that still capture the movement/motion of the body in space. I mean, would anyone be willing to say that Pollock’s most famous work was ossified? His style is close to that of modern graffiti.

  16. Ben Street says:

    Exactly! And that was the point, wasn’t it?

  17. Ben Street says:

    Hi Nettrice – not sure I get your Pollock reference – his work is absolutely, philosophically involved with the canvas in a way graffiti isn’t. His work didn’t have time to ossify, but that’s partly because it was energised by his particular historical consciousness. I like the sound of the new media art you describe. I’ll look those up.

  18. Sowa Mai says:

    great conversation

    Ben talked about the ossification of style in “underground” cultures and that punk had nowhere to go stylistically. The common root of punk and graffiti is the outsider DIY nature which is what will keep the appeal of the content fresh while the form gets commodified.

    Machinima was a way of subverting the game. Augmented reality has the ability to, as Amir Baradaran says: “confound current definitions of physical property ownership, rupturing the relationship between the ownership of a space and the agency of its alteration. This provides a platform for a new type of graffiti making as it defies our notions of sabotage, trespassing and vandalism.”

    Reading this I’m realizing the Field of Voices is a form of aural tagging and it might help the gathering of voices to present it that way. “Straight from Inwood the home of Julio204 comes Aequitas218 and you” 🙂



  19. Nettrice says:

    Hi Ben. I posit that Jackson Pollock’s painting physics can be compared to the production of street art, as a thriving culture that merges specialized forms of representation: alphabets, drawings, paintings (graffiti), films/videos, choreographic notations based on symbolic, linguistic and scientific formulations, programming languages, hardware (robotics, handheld devices), software (game platforms) and so on.

    What I see in “wildstyle” graffiti are texts that twist, interlock, converge and diverge in a type of rhizomaniac, capitalistic and cultural schizophrenia.

    It employs verbal, written, or performative forms of representation from language, kinetics and aerodynamics… and relies on sign relations that consist of letters or word forms (tags, burners, etc.) which also describe spatial environments, objects of reference and mental representations of spatial perception.

  20. Ben Street says:

    Hi Nettrice – I’m clearly way out of my depth here, but while I’m on the way back to the shallow end, can you explain what you mean by Pollock’s ‘painting physics’? I think I get what you mean – apart from the second paragraph, which is way over my head – but whatever you’re referring to seems to be taken for granted in your idea, and I’m not quite sure I follow. Thanks! Ben

  21. Ben Street says:

    Thanks for your answer, Sowa – I couldn’t feel more like a cobwebby old timer during this conversation, so I’m going to bow out and do my homework…

  22. David Dipré says:

    Hah old timer! I think you’ve made some fair points here Ben. I think that graff has evolved a great deal since the 70’s, but I’ve felt for a long time that it had reached it’s limits in terms lettering and characters that were the bench mark for what “graffiti” was. Peoples technical ability with the paint became so advanced that the only element that defined each artists work was the design, and because everyone suddenly had the same reference points (graffiti magazines/websites) it meant that there was no longer any international identity between peoples designs. Therefore, you could probably find identically styled pieces on a train in Germany and on an igloo in the arctic (more or less). When I first saw Daim’s work, I thought, “right, that’s it,graff is f***ed, there’s nowhere left to go” because it looked liked it had been made by a computer not a graffiti artist.

    It has now become something totally different, that is as much to do with graphics,advertising and propaganda. It had to change and it did. Some still work in a nostalgic way and that’s fine. Others have gone on to make money and that’s also fine. People like Futura have long been making a career out of it, and many of his contemporaries were taken into galleries in the early 80’s because art world darlings wanted the latest thing.

    The difficulty of making work illegally in a world of cctv, has of course played a role in driving the work in a new direction, leading to people diversifying into what we now see as street art, (paste-ups and stickers being quicker to produce that a full blown piece).

    Graff has had a massive impact on visual culture and you just can’t escape its influence in advertising and graphics in general. You have institutions like the V and A museum in London acquiring works that they see as defining this area and time in visual culture. But graffiti as it was, as we once knew it, is part of hip hop cultures history and there’s no point in going on and on repeating what was once radical. Everything has to evolve.

  23. Nettrice says:

    Sorry Ben. I’m motivated to go deeper after interviewing graffiti artists who link mathematics (i.e. geometry) and science (aerodynamics and physics) to their style and aesthetic. That’s what opened the door for me to look for and find Dr. Eglash’s graffiti math web-based tools. Doze Green speaks on this, as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyK20wFamQw. Case Western Reserve University physicists tried to use fractals to explain the art of Jackson Pollock, with mixed results.

    My second paragraph touches on the philosophy behind modern graffiti/hip-hop artist Rammellzee’s “Gothic Futurism” (he gets a mention in the Doze Green video). Pollock was as much about being involved in the canvas as in the movement of his body in space which is what modern graffiti art is all about. The presence and movement of the body connects easily to science and math, as well as counter assumptions about the purpose of graff art/artists who are trying to make their mark on the world. This style and aesthetic resonates with the postmodern, polycultural and heavily media saturated world we live in.

    I hope that clarifies my previous comment. I find the deeper I go the more fascinating and complex it gets. 🙂

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  25. Ben Street says:

    Great response David – thanks. I get the impression that when I speak to people about graffiti in the abstract, they’re all for it (apart from, like, anyone over 24) without acknowledging its limitations. I do believe that “mainstream” art making (in all its manifestations, will all its problems) is able to do more, say more, and be more than anything nominally “underground”. Perhaps I’ll expand on this in a further post.


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  27. Jose Martinez says:

    You should check out the books “GRAFF: the Art & Technique of Graffiti” and “GRAFF 2: Next Level Graffiti Techniques”, both by artist Scape Martinez.

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  31. Ludovit says:

    The Dirt Floor website seems to be infected. 🙁

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