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The Art and Integrity of Graffiti

“Staring at the buildings; they are bare.  Staring at the spaces; they are boring.  All the while the artist ‘s energy and blood is seething with stories to tell…”  Edward “Scape” Martinez 

Can graffiti be taught?  Should graffiti be taught?  Edward “Scape” Martinez seems to think so.  He is the author of the hottest selling street art book titled “GRAFF the Art and Technique of Graffiti”.  (Impact Books)  Before anyone gets the impression that this is a street manual for vandalism, let me attest that it is not.  Nor is it some underground bible on “tagging”, “piecing” or “gang banging”. What it is, is a thorough, well written, beautifully designed visual handbook on the urban art form of graffiti. 

Since the dawn of man, graffiti has been a part of our social legacy.  Dating as far back as cave drawings discovered in Lascaux, France (13,500 BC), evidence of wall inscriptions have been found in the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Aztec and Viking civilizations.  Through the middles ages and Renaissance, artists inscribed their work on public walls. During World War II, a graffiti tag of “Kilroy was Here” was circulated around the globe by American troops. What we know as modern graffiti, however, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1960 ‘s thanks to two street artists called CORNBREAD and COOL EARL who tagged their names in as many places as possible around the city.  Soon after, the movement surfaced in New York City where it became popular to “bomb” the sides of subway cars for citywide notoriety. At one point, the artwork on the subway trains became so incredible that the doors were removed and hung in New York City galleries.  Modern artists like Jean Michele Basquiat and Keith Harring were born out of graffiti roots. 

Like it or not, graffiti is a legitimate art form and Martinez brings its concepts to life in living color in his book.  His comprehensive look at the subject includes the history of graffiti, supplies and materials needed for the craft, and most importantly, the difference between graffiti as art and tagging as vandalism.  From page one, he provides a disclaimer that the book is intended to illuminate a worldwide art form, not to underwrite vandalism or the destruction of public property. As an instructor I appreciated his references to the elements of design and principles of art, especially his emphasis on line and color.  His technique is clear and easy to follow with color examples that explode off the pages.  A sidebar in the book refers to “tag” names and the importance of choosing one with appropriate letters that lend themselves to the flow and movement of graff style.  He provides techniques for graff characters as well as letters and words and backgrounds. The book documents how to do a “piece” including what safety precautions to take and how to find an prep a wall.   

Martinez is a self-taught, former street artist who has channeled his graffiti skills into web design, photoshop and high end illustration.  He designs and manufactures clothes-not unlike Marc Ecko- also a former graffiti artist. His fine art has sold for thousands and he working on his second graffiti book.  He does not advocate mindless tagging but he is a true believer that graffiti provides continual innovation in the visual art world.  He sees it as a ‘cultural re-education” in terms of art and creativity, the least of it being that graffiti exposes the masses to the arts. He is right. Artistic movements swell and fade, but graffiti has remained. It is the one lasting art form that connects us forward and back through the ages. Any principle of art or element of design can be taught through graffiti.  It is an impactful, engaging tool that we cannot ignore in the classroom.  While the educational environment may not lend itself to spray paint and primer, the design techniques, lettering styles and urban art forms that Martinez provides can be used with just about any medium.  Most importantly, graffiti is, as it has always been, an essential vehicle for communication. We all need to be heard, affirmed and validated.  We can capitalize on our students ‘ infatuation with the art form and use the concepts of graffiti to teach kids how to reach that objective appropriately. Or, we can leave them to their own devices- which is usually a Sharpie and the closest, emptiest surface space. 

Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California. Visit her blog at

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