How to Implement a Graffiti-Inspired Unit: Week 2

Starting the year with graffiti is a great way to ease students’ anxiety. There’s no pressure to draw something “realistic” and the subject provides an immediate hook. Earlier today I spoke about how I start my visual arts course with graffiti through having students practice “tags,” “throws,” and “pieces” during the first week of school. After students get comfortable with these exercises, it’s time to add the next element: color.

Here is a progression of activities to will lead your students through adding color.

graffiti

1. Review Basic Color Theory

Students should be held accountable for knowing the most basic color wheel with six colors. In addition, students should know the order of these colors, which are compliments, and which are warm and cool. Knowledge of neutral colors is also a bonus.

There are numerous ways to introduce this material to your students, and the way it is introduced is not as critical. Using graffiti-inspired design to allow students to apply their understanding of this knowledge is the key.

2. Have Students Create Sticker Sheets

Give students a half-sheet of white printer paper. Ask students to fold it into fourths so there are four boxes for them to design letters in. Each piece of paper students receive is called a “sticker sheet.” In graffiti and street art culture, stickers are often used as a way to share work in a quick and public way. Students may refer to these as “slaps” or other terminology, but by linking these pieces of paper to stickers you will help increase the relevance and motivation for some students.

In each box, have students draw three letters. These letters need to be “throw” letters, meaning they must be able to be colored in. (Tag letters are not to be used in the sticker sheet challenge).

  • In the first box, ask students to color the letters using all of the warm colors.
  • In the second box, ask students to color in the letters they drew using all of the cool colors.
  • In the third box, repeat the process using neutral colors.
  • In the final box, have students combine two complementary colors in the same letter. For example, if one of the letters that they designed was the letter “A,” they could color that letter anyway they want using blue and orange.

sticker sheets

3. Run a Sticker Sheet Challenge

After students have fulfilled the requirements of the first sticker sheet assignment, introduce the sticker sheet challenge. The challenge is for students to design words on the same folded half-sheet of paper that incorporate the content of the unit so far into each word. Give students the choice to demonstrate overlap, perspective, warm colors, cool colors, neutral colors, and complementary colors in their word design. Include shading or gradation as options for students as well. At this point, let them design words and play with the various combinations of artistic conventions they have learned thus far.

The challenge can go one step further. Students who have completed one whole sheet should be encouraged to try another one. If they do so, they can cut out their favorite sticker design and glue it to a piece of butcher paper at the front of the room. The paper, or “Wall of Slaps” as it is called in my classroom, is for students to make their work public while remaining anonymous. The various ways students design letters, add patterns, shift colors, and incorporate creative imagery will be seen by peers and different periods of classes. Your students will learn from one another and begin a dialogue around what they see. Not only does this Sticker Sheet Challenge provide an opportunity for applying knowledge, it motivates students to improve skill and builds peer review culture.

sticker sheet challenge

4. Graffiti Alphabet

At this point, we have spent one week drawing different forms of lettering and one week implementing color theory with letters. Before giving students a major project in graffiti-inspired study, there is one more valuable assignment to help scaffold skill and content. The graffiti alphabet is a simple grid with 30 boxes. Students design each letter of the alphabet in a throw style (so the letters can be colored in). Each row consists of five horizontal boxes and each row asks students to color in the letters of that row in different ways.

The first five letters (A-E) in the first row are colored in using warm colors. The second row is for the cool colors. The third row uses neutral colors. The fourth row incorporates two complementary colors in each letter. The fifth row demonstrates shading, gradation, or value shifting in each letter. The final row demonstrates one-point perspective on each letter. Since there are 30 boxes but only 26 letters (if students are using the English alphabet), students can design numbers or reuse letters to fill each box.

kids working together

Having students complete a graffiti alphabet before major assignments is important for a few reasons. At this point, students will not have had substantial time practicing each letter. Some letters will be challenging and need extra coaching. Also, some students get really creative and break out of their letter designing routines in this assignment. It is low-risk, so students might experiment by drawing the letter “i” like an ice cream cone. Finally, the graffiti alphabet makes a great first assignment for critique. By the end of this assignment, a good three weeks have been invested in graffiti-inspired exploration. Students can discuss what others have done so they might be able to develop an idea into their own work.

Final Thoughts

I have opened up the school year with graffiti-inspired work for 12 years. It is one of my most successful units, especially for student populations who do not see themselves as being successful in art class. Most of the art educators to whom I have presented this type of work get hung up on the introduction. The most confusing part of doing graffiti-inspired work is how to get it off the ground. We can see the final projects and where we want students to be at the end of the unit, but getting them there can be a struggle.

A graffiti-inspired unit can last anywhere from three weeks to three months. After students have experienced these enhancements of foundation, then they can pursue work at a higher level. Part of the excitement around graffiti-inspiration is the cognitive work that students apply in their work. The names and words they choose, the aspects of their identities that they illuminate, the symbolism and metaphor that they incorporate, and the advancements made in artistic conventions makes graffiti-inspiration profound.

Before we can jump to the summative work, we must build student knowledge and confidence. Graffiti can already give art educators the hook and students the motivation to make wonderful work happen. Follow the elements of art when developing the elements of graffiti: line, shape, form, and color.

What further questions do you have about how to begin a graffiti-inspired unit with students?

What experiences can you share in bringing a graffiti-inspired curriculum to your classes?

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.

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  • Melinda Loggins

    I did this last year after i saw it at the Winter conference with middle schoolers. They loved it. I of course modified with differentian and had pre printed examples for those who were unable to create their own alphabet so they could replicate and let others just color a pre printed.

  • Renee Whitworth

    You are rockin it again Matt! Nice to see the pre-steps you do with this project…..excellent scaffolding!

  • Connie Z

    I’ve started my school year with graffiti inspired unit, too, since i started teaching public school 8 years ago. Your approaches are intriguing. I especially like how you have them stack and twist letters to get them out of their comfort zones. I start with block and bubble letters, with 2 strategies: walk around and sticks. Then we do some tagging and use the same strategies. But now I’m thinking I could develop that tagging day a bit more… I don’t get into color yet but I focus on teaching them sophisticated ways to use basic tools like markers and colored pencils…fading out colors, slow transitions, laying down color instead of scribbling. And this year I’ve added more about symbolism and those special effects. and big yes to their engagement and this being super approachable to beginners who don’t think they can draw. Which is why I use it to introduce terms like proportions, under-drawing, and craftsmanship. Anyways, thanks for sharing, sounds like you’re doing great work.

  • Katherine Boiczyk

    I have NEVER done graffiti before, but my students would love it. Thus, I’d like to do it, but i really have no idea how. Any tips or resources or a direction you can guide me to? I don’t even have a clue of the lingo!

  • Sally Saul

    I am eager to branch off from my traditional line unit with my 6th graders and works on graffiti. Your lesson is great. Do you have any art history or historical graffiti reference you talk about with the students?