Over the last five years I have had the opportunity to present street art to students in a variety of classroom settings; some of these lessons are developed by non-profits for which I teach and some are of my own devising inspired by my own experiences as an artist. I am a visual artist working primarily in painting, drawing and printmaking. However, over the past thirteen years I’ve found myself working in other mediums such as street art, sculpture and installation art.
I have always enjoyed teaching on the subject of street art. I’ve come to find that it is a subject that can often be is often frowned on but, for me, it’s one of the more exciting of areas of art to cover with my students. As a visual artist I have found my own practice crossing paths with street artists who I have had the opportunity to work with, and also from roaming the streets of New York City where one can always encounter random acts of art. As an educator how could I not be excited to teach my students about something that they see on a daily basis when they, too, are walking the streets of New York City? One may ask “why teach street art to kids?” My response is simply “why wouldn’t take advantage of an art form these kids are already familiar with and use it to help them to look at all art critically and objectively?”
In the fall when the school year began, I went to a curriculum review for one of the organizations I work for. As we went over the roster of projects for the semester I was thrilled to see a printmaking project on the Parisian artist Xavier Prou who goes by the name Blek Le Rat. Blek Le Rat makes stencils with the image of rats and sometimes with his name and he spray paints those stencils onto walls, buildings, subway stations, and so forth. When the time came for me do the Blek Le Rat project with my students the purpose of the project was to talk about the artist and for the students to create their own street art animal(s) that would then be created into larger stamps for an in-house printmaking project.
We were not going into the streets to do actual street art, but it was a chance for my students to think critically and consider if they see this work as an art form. Our group of six- to eight-year-olds began as it always does by looking at images of the artists work. The kids started breaking down the images, talking about what they see happening: repeating of images, red rats, black rats, words, graffiti, paint, spray paint. And then, I posed the question: “Is this art? And, if so, why?”
My students spent some time in groups discussing the question and the majority of them came back saying, “yes this is art.” The reasons as to why were varied but the underlying response was that they could see that the artist was making specific choices about where to work and what images to portray; my students were able to describe why those specific choices make street art “art”. When one of my students brought up the subject of the legality of “graffiti” we discussed it. We talked about legal walls and non-legal walls, getting permission to use walls versus not and whether this was art. And then we started our project.
Each child was given a large foam sticker. Each child had to create an animal that they would use to represent themselves, similar to that of Blek Le Rat. They drew an image of their chosen animal on the foam, pulled off the sticky back and adhered it to a piece of cardboard in order to create a stamp. They then used a brayer to ink the image and stamped their images on sheets of paper. While they worked I also gave my students a challenge to come up with a street art name for themselves just as Xaxier Prou (Blek Le Rat) had. As my students began to work someone would occasionally share a name they had chosen for themselves and by the end of class every child had created their own name: Young Wolf, Bunny Power, Sweet Cakes, Jaws and so forth.
The project was a hit but more importantly the kids were give the time and opportunity to analyze the work and make decisions for themselves; this is at the heart of what I think we should be doing as teaching artists — giving students the skills to look at many kinds of art objectively so they themselves can be better artists.
p class=”MsoNormal”>The Blek Le Rat project discussed was designed by a Free Arts NYC teen Ricardo Mejias Jr, who participated in the Weekly Mentor Program and interned with Free Arts in the spring of 2012. Ricardo was inspired to pitch the artist and project to be included in the Me, Myself and Identity curriculum after having had the opportunity – through a special project coordinated between Free Arts NYC and the DETAILS Guild – to assist Blek Le Rat in creating a mural in Chelsea several years ago.