Why You Need to Teach Graffiti in Your Art Room

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Matt Christenson to the AOE Writing Team! Matt is a high school art teacher from San Francisco, California with a passion for creating an engaging, relevant curriculum for his students. In addition to teaching visual arts, Matt also teaches mural design. Learn more about Matt on our About Page!

Have you ever considered bringing the study of graffiti art into your classroom? The word “graffiti” in school settings can bring up instant feelings of discomfort and danger. After all, the origins of graffiti art come from the illegal vandalism of public and private property. As art educators, we can analyze the differences between legal and illegal graffiti with students. We can use legal graffiti murals, commissioned pieces, and gallery works to enhance our curriculum.

Graffiti-inspired curricula can engage, motivate, and advance every student. Whether you teach in a rural community or bustling city scene, bringing graffiti into the classroom can transform students into artists.

student working on graffiti piece

Relevant and meaningful content increases student investment with the material. Graffiti-inspired studies can develop student knowledge of identity, interdisciplinary content, symbolism, metaphor, and artistic conventions. You don’t need spray paint and drippy markers to create graffiti-inspired content. Students can design dynamic graffiti-inspired work using markers, colored pencils, pastels, or paints.

Here are 6 Reasons to Teach Graffiti in Your Art Room

1. Graffiti Is Personally Meaningful

student piece that says "believe"

Graffiti art is found everywhere. Art educators can use exemplars from student towns, cities, and neighborhoods to help captivate their classes. Popular visual culture is saturated with graffiti art. Commercials, movies, music videos, and documentaries have used this art form to attract young audiences. Students of all backgrounds have been exposed to graffiti art.

2. Graffiti Is Academic

Graffiti is a combination of imagery and text. Usually, the text is a “code name,” or a unique aspect of the individual’s identity. Students can create and design their own code name to represent an aspect of their own identity. The compositions students create incorporate imagery demonstrating their understanding of symbolism, metaphor, and artistic conventions.

3. Graffiti Helps Students Express Themselves

student graffiti work

Graffiti-inspired art provides students a safe, academic way to help express and explore identity. Choosing a code name to display is personal, yet allows for a sense of secrecy. Seeing each individual’s work and questioning the meaning behind each piece creates a sense of collective intrigue.

4. Graffiti Connects to Language Arts

Graffiti artists are often called “writers.” There is significant interdisciplinary content overlap between studies in graffiti and language arts. Concepts such as symbolism, metaphor, and irony are applied to both disciplines. Students can show their knowledge of these concepts through their text and imagery choices. Educators can develop integration opportunities throughout the process of choosing code names and incorporating imagery.

5. Graffiti Incorporates Artistic Conventions

student graffiti piece

The three elements of graffiti are direct parallels to the first three elements of art. In graffiti, works evolve as tags, throws, and pieces. These are in direct correlation to line, shape, and form. The study of graffiti lettering can provide students access to artistic concepts. One-point perspective, overlap, and depth in space are natural conventions used in graffiti. Drawing techniques are used to design the imagery in each piece. Color theory is demonstrated through studying the color wheel and applying various color combinations. Gradation is another convention often studied and practiced by graffiti artists.

6. Graffiti is Everywherestudents working

Graffiti art provides endless exemplars for students to study. Examples are abundant on local, state, national, and global levels. Students who have more exposure to graffiti culture can also become resident artists and experts. That kind of acknowledgment can provide the most struggling students with a positive, academic connection to school.

In Case You’re On The Fence

A powerful art program challenges students to think about what they believe and what they have to say to the world. Many students can disengage with the curriculum when art education only provides “high art” exemplars that are often disconnected from their lives. The study of graffiti validates the lives of young people who tend to favor this aesthetic and tradition. Our most struggling students, as well as our most advanced artists, can all benefit from engaging in graffiti-inspired curricula.

What possible challenges or struggles do you anticipate when introducing graffiti-inspired content?

What kinds of content requirements would you include for your students in graffiti-inspired assignments?

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

Related

  • Abby Schukei

    Thanks for sharing your insight on such a heavy topic. One of the greatest things about including graffiti within the curriculum is the student engagement it brings! Just as you said it is something that becomes very personal and meaningful, thus attaining that student buy-in!

    • Matt Christenson

      Much appreciated Abby! This unit is one of my favorites and it is how I begin each school year. When a large amount of new students come in saying that they aren’t artists and that they are going to fail art, graffiti-inspired work can ignite artistic transformation for the rest of the year.

  • Lee Ten Hoeve

    I could agree more Matt! I love doing graffiti projects with my students. I have students choose a philanthropic cause to support with their graffiti so that the message and association remains positive. I call it “Graffiti 4 Good!”
    Also, the way you mentioned how graffiti utilizes artistic conventions is spot on. Welcome to AOE!

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for the warm welcome, Lee! I love the “Graffiti 4 Good” approach. I’ll bet your students make some great work!

  • Leo Barthelmess _ Staff – RHS

    I incorporate graff in my perspective lessons and in more independent units on street art, and lowbrow.

  • marnioberpriller

    Matt, I started incorporating a graffiti name plate unit in my HS-level, beginning ceramics class. I use it as a vehicle for introducing a number of concepts:
    • Drawing from line to shape to volume/form
    • Introduce use of the slab roller
    • Introduce use of tools to create textures and surface designs
    • Introduce color theory.

    Students tell me it’s their favorite unit of the semester!

  • Jessica Reed

    What kind/brand of paper do you use for students to do graffiti in the classroom? I’m assuming something relatively heavyweight so it can hold all of the paint/ink/etc, but I’m trying to do a bulk order for a Street Art and Graffiti class and I’m not sure what to get.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Jessica! I actually just use the good ol’ printer paper from our main office. 8.5 x 11, 11 x 14, and 11 x 17 inches. Every now and then I’ll have a few students who want to go 18 x 24 and beyond, but all of this is during their final project of the unit. I use sharpies and colored pencils for these assignments, so the printer paper works just fine. Even when students paint this paper comes through…especially if you have a small supply budget.