The art of graffiti. Formal and informal learning environments.

Nobody is taught how to paint graffiti at school. It’s something that’s picked up through practice and sprayed onto the school, not taught by it. But, like any skill, it is learnt and it is influenced by what has come before. Despite being the most non conformist of artistic expressions, it conforms rigidly to certain rules, rules which are learnt and followed.

Graffiti is both the rawest expression and, increasingly, the safest of urban art, but i’m most interested in how it is learnt and how this differs from the more formal ways that we learn other things. As ever, understanding the different ways that people learn different skills can help us look at our own learning and also how we teach things.

Graffiti ranges from the simplest of tags, where an individual simply signs things with their stylised name, through the most complex of artistic creations. The term ‘graffiti’ relates more to the fact that the art is unsanctioned, placed in public and often unwanted, than to it’s relative crudity or style.

It’s also a destructive art, where one individual will often paint over what another has done. In this it differs from most other forms of art: if you write something, you can be panned by critics or attacked in articles, but nobody is going to change what you’ve written. If people like what you’ve painted, they are likely to leave it, but if they disagree with your statement or style, they will paint over it, or amend it, so graffiti is, in many ways, community generated and moderated. Not by the rules that we would apply in civilised forums, but in the market driven environment of limited prime real estate to paint on and competing uses to which it can be put.

People often ‘make their name’ by painting tags in dangerous or inaccessible places, not unlike writing in an unusual or niche field. Social media have transformed the way in which graffiti is perceived and distributed, with mainstream media picking up the baton, with artists like Banksy ( and Blek le Rat ( currently media darlings and highly collectable. Indeed, their status as counter culture must surely be challenged by their mainstream poster boy status.

Away from the spotlight of socially responsible graffiti in council sponsored subways and skate parts, the underground world of illegal daubing is one that combines learning with reward. If you become good, become recognised, become famous, there is a way of gaining notoriety or fame, not unlike the rise of a blues or rap artist from the slums. Graffiti can set you free.

So maybe the time is right for graffiti to leave the streets and become mainstream? Just as you can now do a degree in pop music, maybe we will formalise and tame this style?

Unlikely, because although we can adopt the graphical style of graffiti, the spray paint and curves, the stencils and tags, we can’t make the illegal legal. Whilst graffiti is characterised by style, it’s also characterised by location and legality, so although we can have derivative art that looks like graffiti, it’s never going to be actual graffiti.

This highly informal, peer reviewed, transient and untamed world in which people learn can, however, teach us lessons, maybe even give us techniques that we can experiment with in learning design. The nature of peer review and how work is layered on top of other work may inform us in how we create communal spaces and environments online. Maybe even the way that people engage with graffiti, in highly informal, spontaneous, dangerous ways is something that we can consider, outside of the formal, registration, moderated protocols that are more common online.

Whatever we think about it, there is no doubt that the world of graffiti is a highly specialist learning environment, harsh, but shaped over time, that people willingly immerse themselves in, and it’s fascinating to reflect on what we can learn from this.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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12 Responses to The art of graffiti. Formal and informal learning environments.

  1. Rizzo says:

    I collect street art and the majority of “big names” (Banksy, Xenz, Invader, etc) will have fine art degrees so, though one will find their work dotted around Shoreditch, they are nearer to “mainstream” culture as opposed to counter culture.

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