It’s time to speculate a little about my observations of street art culture from a Finnish art teacher´s point of view, lifting out and describing characteristics that, in my opinion, could be made use of in art education. The speculations below are not presented in order of importance.
I have realised that time is a flexible concept. Art teachers often moan about the one-hour classes (which are still very typical in Finland) as being too short for art lessons at school, because in that time you just about manage to explain the assignment before its time to finish the lesson. Whereas the art students are very likely to be able to carry on with the assignment during the next art lesson, which is usually held the following week, graffiti painters rarely have such an option, and their time can be limited to minutes rather than hours. Although in both cases there is a race against time going on, when looking at the way graffiteros work, it becomes clear that an hour or even half an hour can be enough to finish the job, at least if the working method has become tacit knowledge, if there are already ideas or sketches waiting to be realised, and, especially, if there is a group able to work together. Time, or rather the lack of it, simply sets demands as to how you must organize and carry out the project.
Skills and fluent use of techniques are valued among graffiti artists, so they have to be developed. In street art, repeating certain favourite ideas or subjects, be they whatever, with whatever medium, is not a sign of mental fixation or regression. Firstly, it is not just the tag but also the style and special themes that make the artist recognized. Secondly, learning to paint one subject fast and well, with a particular technique or medium, leaves you with the tacit skill that can be adopted when time is scarce and also for other subjects.
The point of constant sketching and doodling in the blackbook is like composing and practicing variations and versions of a “tune”, as in music. It exemplifies an idea of visual expression, where your work need not always be completely different from that of everybody else or your own previous work. A blackbook is like a collection of musical scores of jazz pieces, which are played by the painter at a painting session: it is where each painter starts from, but improvises from there to create a mutual work.
Blackbooks are also proof of great spontaneous artistic commitment and discipline. Making hundreds of sketches, playing with your favourite themes and their variations again and again, is actually a systematic, disciplined way of working, which is something worth encouraging in and outside the school context. In fact, I think it’s worth encouraging any type of spontaneous art projects in and outside school, be it painting, drawing, craft, photography, making paper dolls, birthday cards, cartoons, videos, installations and so on.
The graffiti painters’ committed and disciplined ways of working are maintained by passion and enthusiasm for expressing their ideas through their works and growing constantly better at it. I have seen how these forces manifest themselves in the street artists I know, to whom artistic activities bring such kicks in life that they never seem to be too tired to seize an opportunity for a painting gig.
If, as it seems, passion and enthusiasm – whatever it is that ignites and maintains them –are among the key forces behind any creative work, then killing them would clearly be the worst an art teacher could do to a student.
When talking about self-expression art teachers often seem to mean something like, “showing your emotions, who you are, what goes on inside your mind” (see also e.g. The free dictionary), and they expect it to manifest in a particular type of expression in the works of their students, something resembling expressionism in the history of visual art (see e.g. Wikipedia). But if we consider self-expression as one of the most important goals and values in art education, we should reconsider what we mean by it, and how we expect it to show in students’ works.
As I have come to understand, in graffiti self-expression is not about expressionism, but it is about expressing your emotions, sentiments, ideas, and identity in your own refined style and visual vocabulary to as many people as possible.
Indeed visibility and publicity are of utmost significance; the desire to be seen and recognized through your art, through your own style, “voice” and character. To this end street artists document their (otherwise very temporal) works and shoot videos, which they publish and share on their own web galleries or web-based services such as Flickr and Youtube. In other words they expand their potential visibility and publicity into the worldwide social media and become members of a global graffiti community.
It looks like, as an art teacher, I have something to learn here…
embodiment, physicality, materiality
Then there is the obvious importance of embodiment, the physical and the material in street art. The pleasures start from selecting colours in the spray paint shop (like Jekse and Cines). They continue with mixing the foundation colour and covering a big surface with it, using a paint roller attached to an extension, if necessary. Then you get to watch the spray colour flow on the wall, exactly how and where you want it. All the while you are working with your whole body, having to climb on chairs, ladders and scaffolding, and to balance on walls, ledges, edges, and precarious structures, every now and again climbing down and walking a distance just to see what you have done all at once. The surface or object that is painted onto – and which can be almost anything, any material, colour, shape, or structure – often inspires the painter with its details and qualities which become essential expressive parts of the work. (See Kuvionisti.)
From this point of view, stocking rich, attractive art materials well visible on the art class shelves, venturing outside smooth, rectangular A3 paper and painting on big (also outdoor) surfaces and varied shapes instead would seem to make sense in art education, too.
Clearly, looking at the images and videos I have taken and those on the web, it isn’t just self-expression or visibility that motivates graffiti painters. It could also be the joy of sheer physical work and having fun with a group (see Video Proceso “Estacion Graffiti 2009”); it could be the excitement of having to work fast and dangerously or secretly in fear of getting caught (see Riser – Throwie 2011); it could be a desire to outshine others in a competition of excellence, creativity, or daring between crews or crew members (see Pixação São Paulo); or it could be a will to make a difference in the world we are living in.
making a difference
The importance of making a difference or saying something significant becomes particularly obvious in the big collective community projects such as the Wall for Peace in Peñalolen or Museo del Cielo Abierto en San Miguel and socially aware, political murals such as can be found in Antofagasta (see e.g. “No plantas nucleares”).
Would it be possible to escape, if not even abolish, the self-demeaning label “school art style” (Efland 1976) by allowing students, with their work, to get involved in real, meaningful projects, performances, demonstrations, or important public discussions in the real world?
Working as a group or “crew” is useful when painting large surfaces with little time. A group project enables sharing the expertise and experience, having fun, jamming and improvising like in a rap or jazz session, but thereby also poses challenges that require either having or learning special social skills. You have to be willing and able to negotiate and agree quickly on choice of themes, colours, composition, and who does what. One important and challenging task is to combine the individual designs so that unity is achieved without losing individuality.
A photo collage on the web of Muro por la paz / Wall of Peace in Peñalolen shows how the works are connected together to form one big piece as if made by one single crew. Unlike the wall by Estación Central (see photos below) with its pronounced pillars, the wall in Peñalolen has no structural elements in itself that would encourage separate works.
This brings us to the issue of peer learning, which is possible and natural when working together as a pair, a group, or a crew, where ages, experience and skills of the members differ. In street art there is a lot of expert knowledge that a master can teach to an apprentice, such as how to clean the surface for the painting, how to mix spray colours by making them flow from one tin into another, why and how to use different spray caps and to redesign them on the spot and so on. (See also Christen 2003.)
Well, as art educators we already know and can adjust to the fact that there are areas of expertise and technical knowledge in visual culture where we are inferior to our students and could ourselves learn from them. We also know that social skills rank high as educational goals in Finland. I wonder what could be achieved if student groups in school art classes were formed from some other basis than age?
concept of art
Appreciating street art seems to require a wider and more flexible conception of art than that which many art educators hold. Their enlightened eyes tend to find illusionism, realism, and naivism, which are much valued and sought after by street artists, as outdated in Art. They may consider the stereotypical, schemata, mannerisms, and the cliché-like features of graffiti, as well as copying, imitating and repeating the same theme over and over, as alien to self-expression. Yet these are precisely the means by which the graffiti painters arrive to the styles and visual vocabularies they need to express themselves and their individuality in the street art scene. In street art illusion, real and naíve are not in the least outdated, and stereotypical and popular imageries are there to be utilised for a purpose.
And why worry about repetitions or re-inventions of the wheel, when each re-invention of the wheel is useful, unique and rewarding as an experience? To really be able to capacitate, inspire, and motivate students in their visual expression, art teachers might be wise, at least, to give up negative attitudes towards aesthetic values that are different from their own.
Adopting a wider concept of art, such as is formulated in pragmatist aesthetics of James Dewey and Richard Shusterman, would be helpful in this. According to their thinking art is not in the art objects stored in museums, but resides in the aesthetic experience. The motivation behind this idea has been to enlarge the domain of art, to democratize it and to integrate it into the real everyday world. As Shusterman puts it, “Pragmatist aesthetics not only seeks a greater and more embodied appreciation of art’s diverse forms but also enhances our experience of life.” (Shusterman.)