The 1980s Series – Graffiti



During the 1980s, music, dance, fashion, and art experienced a boom of energy and innovation. It was also during the 80s that Haring came into prominence and produced most of his signature work. This series of lessons seeks to explore the cultural and creative phenomenons of the 1980s for the youth of today. The Graffiti project seeks to create an open & constructive forum for students to communicate their thoughts and feelings by creating a "graffiti wall" within the classroom.


To allow students the opportunity to express their opinions and feelings in a constructive manner.

To expose students to the destructiveness of public defacement and offer alternatives for communication.

To share with students other ways of art making and art exhibiting.

To teach students about other lifestyles and ways of understanding the world around them.

To provide students with the freedom to claim their identity through art as graffiti artists do.

To introduce Keith Haring's life and work to students.


1 Available wall
2 Large sheets of foam core

1 Gallon can of Chalkboard Paint
White wall paint (matte)
Super-Thick permanent markers (multi-colored)


Because graffiti is against the law, many times its artistic merit or perhaps even messages of peace and hope get overlooked so as not to promote a criminal act. As a result, it is quite possible that many students may not even have a clear understanding of what graffiti is and how many different kinds of graffiti there are and have been. Begin the conversation here (and write down all responses and save until later)-

What is graffiti?
(A writing or drawing made on a public surface (as a wall or rock). In Italian, the translation of the word: graffiti is "little scratch", from graffio "scratch". Derived from the Latin word: graphium, "pointed device for writing on wax tablets", and originally derived from the Greek word: graphein, "to write". related to words such as: -GRAM, GRAMMAR, & GRAPH.)

Where have you seen graffiti?
(on a wall- inside or outside, on a piece of furniture, on a tree, in a subway, on a vehicle, in a cave, on the street or sidewalk, on a window...)

Describe as many different kinds of graffiti as you can.
(memorials, turf/gang wars, tagging, murals, ancient cave art, directing traffic, communication, Guerrilla Art, social & political activism...)

Why would someone create graffiti?
(to mourn, to honor, to assert one's identity and power, to threaten, to be vengeful, to beatify, as a favor, as a spiritual ritual, to direct traffic, to communicate with others, to make art available to everyone, to expose injustice...)

How is graffiti made?
(with spraypaint or other kinds of paint, minerals and vegetable dyes, chalk, water, marker, or even the absence of a material, like when someone uses their finger to write through a dusty surface...)

Why is graffiti against the law?
(defacing of private property, costly to restore property, hurtful & hateful messages, a promoter of gang warfare, political messages that are not agreeable to the public...)

Show students images of "classic" graffiti (surf the web for numerous links to graffiti that may be suitable for students to view). Discuss commonalities, such as color, line, scale, style, and application. Imagine the role a set of conditions play in an artist's work and working process. Conditions such as the products the artist can afford to make their work with, the time, size, and location constraints. Compare the intention as well as the condition in which graffiti was made with more traditional forms of painting such as landscape and portraiture. Perhaps most important, uncover the psychological motivations behind "Tagging", the act of creating graffiti that contains a name or symbol of the artist- an act that references the claiming of self-empowerment and identity. Question students why these young graffiti artists would feel a desire to extend their voice and presence in public, maybe even without consent or permission. Where do these artists come from, what might their living conditions and family life be like? How do issues like these affect the desire for personal identity and freedom of expression?

Show students images of Keith Haring's subway work. How did the circumstances surrounding Haring's lifestyle and work lead him to make drawings in the the Subway? Discuss Haring's intentions with this body of work- What was he seeking to do? Why was this body of work so unique and shocking?

Show students images of cave art (Lascaux or Chauvet Pont D'Arc). Discuss living conditions and possible belief systems of cave dwellers. Examine the idea of art as ritual, or alternative reality- escape.

Take the students on a "Graffiti Hunt". It could be just a walk through and outside of the school, or perhaps a small field trip somewhere that would be likely to have some graffiti. Take note of all of the different messages you find. If on the school premises ONLY, the class may choose to restore a location that has some graffiti on it. This experience would be helpful for students to see the effort and time that goes into removing hateful messages. You may also send students on their own "Graffiti Hunts" for homework- in and around their house. (Please use the best interest of all students involved before deciding to restore anything and/or sending students to look at graffiti. By definition graffiti is just a drawing or painting in a public place, but it's connotations have been altered. Because of the various forms of graffiti, some work may be unsuitable, in unsafe neighborhoods, or may express instigatory efforts. If you open your students up to seeing smiley faces and street lines, they may find more "suitable" means for inspiration.)

Explain to the students that they will have their own "Graffiti Wall", in the classroom, to share their ideas and feelings, as long as they are kind and constructive. Graffiti can stay up on the wall for a small period of time in order for other students to have their turns, but, as a tradeoff, students can work very large on occasion, having the opportunity to explore drawing in big, physical strokes. Emphasize that this project is a special opportunity and required permission from the principal. Remind students that graffiti is against the law, and if they would like to paint on their walls at home, they must get the consent of their parent or guardian. (If students disobey these rules, then they will be eliminated from the priveledge of working on the Graffiti Wall.) Before class, during quiet time or study hall, or at other elected times, several students may use the Graffiti Wall at one time.

Have the students paint the wall (preferably the back wall of the classroom). Chalkboard paint is great, since students can just use chalk on it, and the teacher can always use additional chalkboard space if needed. The best part is that it doesn't need to be painted over with each students' graffiti work, just erased with a chalkboard eraser.


This project is a nice excercise that can last throughout the year since it asks students to work independently. Take photographs of the wall throughout the school year, and in the spring, look them over with the students. Discuss the different work using the questions below.


What was it like having a Graffiti Wall in the classroom?
How has your graffiti work changed from the beginning of the schoolyear?
How did it feel to have the space to work so large?
How did it feel to have the freedom to express your thoughts and feelings constructively?
What did you learn from drawing on the Graffiti Wall?
What did you learn from looking at the Graffiti Wall?

What is graffiti?
Compare your class' definition of graffiti from the Fall with the definition in the Spring.
How have students' perceptions of graffiti changed?
Why did the perceptions change?
Is it possible that our ideas of people and things can change with the more personal contact we have with them?
Why is it important to expand our ideas and question our own opinions?


Go here to try an interactive graffiti wall.

Go here to learn more about graffiti laws and the harm and punishment of defacing public property.

To extend this project, ask the students to write about what they did that day on the Graffiti Wall, what they chose to share with the class and why, or ask them to express ideas they liked from classmates' work on the Wall that has inspired them. Hold an Open Graffiti hour or day, so other students can try the Wall out. Have a Teachers' Graffiti Day where only teachers do work and students respond to it...

Please use the best interest of all students and adults involved before embarking on this project.
Be sure to receive all permission necessary, and take appropriate precautions when choosing to create, locate and/or restore any graffiti. does not condone the unlawful act of graffiti. seeks to educate young people about the life and work of Keith Haring and those movements that influenced and informed his art.