The Education of Urban Youth


My Lens

My interest in grafitti began a long time ago. On summer days, I would wander the city of Toronto, a huge mural would catch my eye and I would often take pictures of its beauty and admire the talent that was behind all the colours. On some days, I would notice sprayed on writing that made little sense and stirred up notions of destruction and vandalism. I never really gave it much thought until I began to research and understand the origins of graffiti and it’s culture of urban youth. As an educator, I wanted to allow others to understand the research that I have come to identify with and the ideas that I seem to always want to critically pull apart and share with others.

Moving forward, I am interested in learning more about graffiti and the role it has in understanding youth contextually. Additionally, I seek to understand how we can use this information towards educating and inspiring youth through art. I wanted a digital vehicle to reach a wider audience so that I may disseminate the knowledge that I have gained with this research. In order to conceptualize my own experiences and learning, it was clear the importance of navigating the tensions of political, social and cultural thought. While I realize I don't have all the answers, nor begin to offer any real solutions, the process of inquiry begins with the step of ontological authenticity. "If each person's reality is constructed and reconstructed as that person gains experience, interacts with others, and deals with the consequences of various personal actions and beliefs, an appropriate criterion to apply is that of improvement in the individual's (and group's) conscious experiencing of the world." (Schwandt, Lincoln, Guba, 2007) With raising perspective on troubling topics, I've given it a great deal of thought to consider how we are silenced by others and how a society constructs the appropriateness of it.

Before I begin, I would also like to mention the lens from which I write this. As a South Asian woman born and raised in Canada, I understand the privilege I hold and have begun to deconstruct the spaces that I occupy. In other words, my views expressed are shaped by who I am and understanding my own personal narrative. I try to remain bias free and hope with a clear conscious I might uncover a deeper understanding of the human struggle for freedom, empowerment and social justice.

Some Burning Questions to Guide My Research:

How might we define pop culture and graffiti?

How might images in pop culture influence the way we think?

How is graffiti apart of pop culture that seeks to reform perceptions of urban youth?

What is the difference between private and public forms of graffiti?

Understanding Graffiti in Urban Youth Life

People usually have mixed feelings when the topic of graffiti comes up. On one side, it is considered art and on the other side, it is considered vandalism. We first need to consider what graffiti is and in doing so, we may begin to understand popular perceptions of it. Traditionally graffiti is known as low art. High art is institutionalized with elaborate sculptures and paintings that dwell in museums and art galleries. This intellectual experience was criticized by the common people in society with the graffiti “emergence of “wild style”, an intertwined and decorative lettering that mixes icons and images from popular culture to form complex compositions.” (Fineberg, 1995) With the popularity of graffiti artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, this new style gained the fame that wasn’t deserving of low art. “In between spaces emerged between the streets and the formal galleries, in the form of alternative exhibition spaces and urban boutiques where writers can show their work and launch art careers.” (Hampton, 2013)

As the graffiti form emerged, the perceptions of it were resurrected in popular societal beliefs and norms. “Another way to think about the relationship between graffiti and art is through notions of “the vernacular.” Graffiti can be understood as a form of vernacular art, commonly understood as creations by artist without formal training, and often admired as “authentic” expressions that are not regulated by the established disciplines of art.” (Hampton, 2013) This same notion is built into the understanding of why many graffiti writers do not accept deals from establishments who most often shape their art and are told to work within the confines of another person’s vision. “Legal work often involves negotiating the content of their work and has to be aligned with mainstream political ideas or to target an affluent audience.” (Hampton, 2013) For many graffiti writers, the culture of the underground urban youth resides in the act of committing an illegal act that challenges the status quo in an effort to explore their identity and self-expression. “This rebellious attitude against the whole society is one that many adolescents exhibit, often manifested in their defiance against parental authority and revolt against codes and order. Adolescents may seek autonomy primarily in this way, establishing their own identity by breaking away from their earlier dependent and compliant role.” (Kan, 2001)

We must consider different contexts of graffiti and how we often confuse its definition for a larger audience. There are two different contexts of graffiti. One being private graffiti and the other is public graffiti. Private graffiti focuses on simple doodling. Their value is seldom recognized, however as meaningless images for some, this type of graffiti fits into the psychology of bored student in class who often switches their attention and uses doodling as a rejection of uninteresting content learned in class. Therefore, “adolescent doodling is a form of escape. It can be interpreted as an unconscious rejection of the kind of learning that is not helping them construct personal meaning and effectively integrate their inner needs to promote growth. (Kan, 2001) Latrinalia which is a type of graffiti found in bathrooms is a problem for schools and other public areas as a form of vandalism with little art value added but satisfies youth in a private way to express their feelings for others to view. (Kan, 2001) Public graffiti in contrast is about gaining recognition, respect and some level of fame. The distinction is, private graffiti happens more unconsciously rather than public graffiti as highly intentional. (Kan, 2001)

Public forms of graffiti that are associated with adolescent gang activity is used to intimidate or let other gangs know of a territory or space being occupied. Many use “tags” or scribble initials, letters, or a picture on top of other drawings to occupy another gang’s space. Many older and more experienced graffiti artists create “pieces” from the word, “masterpiece and are often found on buses, trains, or buildings as a sign of political protest to challenge the dominant narrative in marginalized communities. The marginalization that these graffiti artists face does not exist in the positionality of race solely. Interestingly enough, while graffiti as some of its roots in the hip hop pop culture and the African diaspora, most graffiti creators in the United States today are estimated to be between the ages of 12-30, with the majority younger than 18 years old. Half are from white middle-and upper-middle class families. (Walsh, 1996)

Popular Graffiti Artists


Graffiti has a place in the educational curriculum. It is a topic that sparks interest in adolescents and is enormously attractive because it is controversial. The illegal aspect of graffiti excites many students and is considered unacceptable by adults. If educators tap into this interest in a positive way, students can make connections of lived experiences through the art form of graffiti rather than its illicitness as public defacing or vandalism. In a 2013 study of graffiti in art education by Laurie A. Eldridge, she writes, “Some administrators and art educators would see the exclusion of graffiti art from the curriculum as a deterrent to vandalism. They would possibly see teaching about graffiti art as the education of vandals. I was fortunate that the administrator I worked with saw an opportunity for educating students about he difference between vandalism and graffiti art so that they would stop vandalizing the school property and their neighbourhood, risking getting arrested, and instead turn their interest in graffiti in a positive direction.” (Eldridge, 2013) By using education as a tool to bring awareness to the topic of graffiti, students are more equipped to make better decisions.

In a would full of images through television, radio, billboards, advertisements on public spaces, in magazines, and the internet to name a few, students are surrounded by a visual culture that influences they way they behave. It is increasingly important to educate the youth on making better inferences and navigating their way through the important and not so important ideas or messages they are consciously and unconsciously receiving. “Art teachers often ignore or refuse to acknowledge the pedagogical importance of popular culture, thus devaluing students’ knowledge and overshadowing their own lived experiences.” (Tavin, 2005) When teachers educate students by understanding the visual culture students are exposed to, graffiti can be an excellent medium to connect appropriate decision making skills and art creativity of ideas and thoughts.

The rise and popularity of graffiti in the early 1980’s in New York became a playground to expose the political, social and cultural thought of many marginalized people. At a time when break dancing, rapping and dj-ing became apart of mainstream pop culture, graffiti made its way to the streets as an illegal act of vandalizing public property. Graffiti is linked to the hip-hop culture that is connected to sociological literature on low socioeconomic status of people and their need to establish a place in society. (Eldridge, 2013) The evolution over time however, has seen how the graffiti culture and hip-hop became less about kids “just expressing themselves where ever they wanted to, to colorfully artistic and elaborate politically charged messages. These messages created a voice for people to challenge and disrupt the status quo when the consumerist mindset wanted everyone to conform. (Eldridge, 2013) The hip hop community also found that the freedom of restraint created an atmosphere that liberated their agency. For many graffiti writers that have found an avenue to reach some disadvantaged and marginalized students through graffiti, have said, “ learning about graffiti art as a means to overcome the difficulties and limitations faced by low-income children…..that graffiti art is a way of equalizing disparities in opportunity for enrichment including developing individual students’ voices and identities.” (Eldridge, 2013) Perhaps, giving back to the community in this way, is a legal and more fulfilling avenue for political and social change for many graffiti artists to influence marginalized youth.

Culture of Poverty & Power in Society and the Classroom

New York and many communities in North America face the same type of social and political upheaval that binds and shapes thoughts together. Graffiti as an emerging cultural practice, specifically in New York and linked to the hip-hop culture, gained recognition of many neoliberals. These neoliberals found New York and their ideologies problematic because of the on going battle and disparities of wealth and status. “Because graffiti culture and practice in public space remain problematic for the neoliberal vision of New York City, there is an ongoing battle against it, waged by political leaders who see their job as catering to the business community, not to the needs of the citizens of New York.” (Dickinson, 2008)

This ongoing battle between the rich and the poor as been waged over time to be seen as the norm of societies, however, we must first begin to understand how these structures are neatly in place and what we can do to overcome some of these injustices. “The culture of poverty paradigm has also significantly shaped social science practices, in which the behaviour of urban poor and working-class people of colour is often assumed to be either pathological or a reaction to oppression and inequality (Kelley, 1997). This leaves very little room for agency on the part of the urban working poor, or for understanding their activities through the lens of pleasure and desire, the things which make us fully human.” (Dickinson, 2008)

Understanding the structures in place that have maintained certain class structures and instilling a belief in the marginalized has left many communities to act in accordance to how society ahs made them feel about themselves. This culture of poverty has slipped unconsciously to the classroom as well. As cultural conflicts in the classroom exist, teacher attitudes must shift to fit a more inclusive environment. It must be a safe place for students to explore and learn through their lens and also understanding how they may be able to overcome any boundaries society has subtly embraced them. Educators must embrace the cultures of injustices and the subcultures that may seem to threaten ideas.

Lisa Delpit: Speaking about Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

What is a Meme?

I was asked to put a meme together for an article we read in class called"Graffiti as a public educator by Richard Christen. A meme is a few images that showcase various points of view.
Big image

Analysis of Meme on Graffiti

The author Richard Christen begins by saying “graffiti writing is as ancient as human communication…” so when I saw this picture I found it very interesting and a great way to start off my meme. I liked how the person who is actually erasing the graffiti is the graffiti itself and the horror that comes with erasing precious or even invaluable evidence of early people and understanding ancient culture and civilization. The graffiti on the wall serves as the only evidence of a certain people and tells a story of their lives. However the graffiti we see today is in sharp contrast to this and popular notions of its unpleasantness. It could perhaps have something to do with the fact that graffiti today is associated with urban gangs, and is seldom understood by the mainstream as anything else.

For the Urban youth it is more about style and production as the article suggests rather than about the violence that gangs are associated with. I found this picture really fascinating because it depicts a girl who almost becomes apart of the graffiti landscape by wanting to capture the doves which signify peace flying over a hidden or secret doorway to who knows where.. a paradise maybe, an escape? Perhaps the urban youth dream of another place where they can be free from being judged by society, their peers, or themselves. I found a certain type of innocence from this picture. It depicted a certain understanding of the artist themselves who exposes their knowledge, skills and values important for success in the mainstream as the article suggests and empowers them to challenge the dominant society and to transform rather than escape their communities.

I included Lisa Delpit because she is an important in understanding the cultural power that exists. She contends, “ that if students from oppressed communities are to effect individual and social change, they must learn both an understanding and appreciation of their own culture and the codes for participation in the culture of power.” I used a picture of two cats of different colours and one is dominating the other. However, I also chose a picture that depicted the dominated cat as resister to the domination. He or she has his paw out and is facing the dominating cat. According to Lisa Delpit, there is a dominant culture and graffiti artists use this knowledge to empower their communities rather than escaping them and to build links to the dominant society rather than joining it.

Here you have a picture of a person just about to squash a graph, which is how the elite, or people in power such as law makers, politicians, the police view graffiti artists as more of a menace to society rather than judging them based on the significance of their work. This picture is different from the domination that happens in the previous picture because the grape doesn’t have a chance. It is going to be pulverized. There is a certain annihilation that I wanted to show here and the intolerance that the elite hold to perpetrators of graffiti on “their” streets. There is no real understanding of why people are doing what they are doing, they are committing a crime and breaking the law and should be punished. However, the educational contribution of graffiti is rarely seen as the critical understanding of dominant power structures and artists engaging in the fight for justice.

This picture depicts the challenges people face with trying to conform to society vs, doing what they want to be free. I had asked some people about whether or not we should conform to society and it’s rules even in light of people being marginalized by those rules and whether there is justice in that. Some people I talked to said that we need to conform as a contributing member in society and that inequality is apart of the social hierarchy that exists. I found it interesting when reading the article on Henry Giroux’s insight. He mentions that oppositional behaviours like graffiti challenge an oppressive status quo, but argues offer little insight into the nature of domination and might actually reinforce existing hierarchies and that true resistance has a “revealing function” that fosters a critique of power and opportunities for self-reflection and struggle for emancipation. Some writers lack an understanding of the roots of these needs but over time they engage in a reform process that transform their individual or collective needs. I found this powerful because while people may believe that using graffiti as a means to elicit voice respect and justice through the unlawful act of what the mainstream know as vandalism, over time there is a process of transformation of acceptance and understanding.

I chose this graffiti picture because it is recogognizable with traditional graffiti, the big bubble letters. What drew me to this picture is the colours and also the word love. The hip hop culture which is very much associated with graffiti, are both misunderstood. Many view hip hop as poetry and to really appreciate it for it’s worth, one must carefully listen to and understand the lyrics. Some good community based organizations like hip hop organizations that are rooted in legal activities began to build partnerships with schools for teens to learn from master artists to organize what they refer to as “graffiti gardens” I wanted to show a picture of how colorful graffiti is and that it is much more than just vandalizing property, but can also be viewed as a work of art like hip hop is viewed as poetry. The graffiti in this picture is associated with "wild-style" graffiti and is complex to draw.

Some Conclusions

It is easy to forget how complex a topic can be simply by understanding solely what the main stream pop culture of it is. Graffiti has it's roots in the underground hip hop scene in New York and culminated into a political protest of the marginalized over the privileged. Many young teens who are programmed to go against the grain of adult rules and regulations in an effort to discover their own identity and challenge popular ideas are programmed to forge down unwanted paths. Graffiti as an art form is an amazing way to steer students away from the illegal aspect of it and educate themselves in a positive way. Understanding cultural conflict in classroom and using Graffiti as a means to spark interest with a positive spin, serves to protect the integrity of the art form and dispel popular notions of its illicitness.


Christen, S. Richard. (2003). Hip hop learning: Graffiti as an educator of urban teenagers. The Journal of Educational Foundations, 17(4), 57-82.

Delpit, Lisa. (2006). Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Delpit, Lisa. (2012). “Multiplication is for White People” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. New York: The New Press.

Dickinson, Maggie. (2008). The Making of Space, Race and Place: New York City’s War on Graffiti, 1970-the Present. London: Sage Publications

Eldridge, A. Laurie, (2013). An Unselfish Act: Graffiti in Art Education. Art Education; 66(5), 21-27.

Ferrell, Jeff. (1995). Urban Graffiti Crime, Control and Resistance. Youth and Society, 27(1), 73-92.

Fineberg, J. (1995). Art since 1940: Strategies of being. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hampton, Rosalind. (2013). Graffiti and Art Education: “They Don’t Understand How I Feel About the FUNK”. Art Education; 66(5), 51-55.

Kan Koon-Hwee. (2001). Adolescents and Graffiti. Art Education; 54(1), 18-23.

Young, A. (2012). Criminal images: The affective judgment of graffiti and street art. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(3), 297.

Kelley, Robin D.G. (1997) Yo Mama's Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. New York: Beacon Press.

Tavin, K. (2005). Hauntologial shifts: Fear and loathing of popular (visual) culture. Studies in Art Education, 46,(2), 101-117.

Walsh, M. (1996). Graffito. Berkeley, CS: North Atlantic Books.

Young, A. (2012). Criminal images: The affective judgment of graffiti and street art. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(3), 297.

Sheila Sastri

I am a Master's of Education student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Education. I am passionate about teaching and learning through a social justice lens.