Why you should care
Because some argue that graffiti can still be an important form of protest.
A longtime fan of street art, Lyla Sultan had never — until one recent evening — held a can of spray paint before. While sipping on a glass of Cabernet, the 24-year marketer approached a brick wall and practiced maintaining a firm pressure on the nozzle of her can so that her paint sprayed evenly. The process was slow, and colors increasingly stained her smock, but she tried her best to replicate her favorite piece of graffiti: Girl With a Balloon. Even though she found traces of paint on her clothes that night, Sultan says the experience was weirdly invigorating.
The graffiti movement has been gentrifying for years now, but the explosion of hundreds of sip-and-spray workshops and street-art classes has been a more recent phenomenon. They’ve popped up in cities such as San Francisco, Melbourne, Berlin and Valparaiso, Chile. Some provide local sidewalk tours before unleashing wannabe taggers with stencils to mark up walls of their own, while others focus on teaching techniques such as making badges and super-fat caps or introducing participants to industry lingo like throw-ups or burning. “What makes street art mainstream is how easily accessible it is to everyone,” says Candace Hopkins, the artist who founded Beyond Canvas, which organized Sultan’s paint-and-wine workshop.
It’s all very polite and refined — a shift symbolizing how graffiti has morphed, globally, from a subculture of flipping the finger at the system into an increasingly commercialized art form. For some, it’s become an interactive, social experience, where they’re paying anywhere from $50, or more, to learn about what young rebels once gladly produced on their own for free. Part of the interest, Hopkins says, is driven by people’s craving for creative outlets for self-expression, something that’s arguably become less tangible in the instantaneous yet virtual world of social media today.
The oldest person we’ve worked with was 101 years old.
— Lara Seixo Rodrigues, founder LATA 65 street-art workshops
Sure, it’s enough to offend the most serious of street artists, though some of them are getting involved in leading these classes by visiting high school students or teaching curious seniors. Many of the roughly 120 artists linked to Montreal’s Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention now help run community programs about graffiti, up from around just 20 two decades ago, says convention organizer Melissa Proietti. Others have taken the corporate route, where straitlaced suits kick back in style during team-bonding sessions. San Francisco’s 1AM studio says it gets the bulk of its income today from corporate events, such as one where employees from Yahoo! came in to work on a tag wall and their teacher whipped up a kick-ass ninja unicorn.
In the past, of course, graffiti wasn’t seen as artistic and street art was considered gang related. That started changing when millennials adopted its antiestablishment message into everyday culture, helping mainstream the subversive art — remember Shepard Fairey’s famous graffiti-style “Hope” campaign poster of President Obama? Then there was the 2010 release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by the street artist Banksy that featured some of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists at work.
Today, most pay-to-spray graffiti programs around the world encourage legal participation. Cities including London and Berlin have designated graffiti zones where people are permitted to spray-paint without fear of reprisal — and even a section of the Great Wall of China is fair game. Meanwhile, Valpo Street Art’s graffiti tours in Chile only take people to tag where homeowners have already given their permission, and governments that might not have always appreciated this kind of art form are now pulling out their checkbooks to commission new works. The Moscow Department of Culture, for example, recently hired street artist Andrew Tseluyko to document WWII in multiple murals.
Despite being more accessible and accepted, Proietti says street art is still a medium for critiquing power structures. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it can’t be valuable social commentary. And as much as graffiti has become gentrified, ugly scrawls still exist on subways and street signs — and unsanctioned graffiti is still considered vandalism, which accounted for nearly 5 percent of juvenile arrests in America in 2011, the latest year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Yet that hasn’t stopped grannies from getting into graffiti. In Lisbon, seniors in protective gloves and face masks attend LATA 65 street-art workshops, where the average age of students who learn tagging and stenciling is 74. “The oldest person we’ve worked with was 101 years old,” founder Lara Seixo Rodrigues tells OZY. Her A-plus student is Luísa Cortesão, a.k.a. L is not an artist. The 65-year-old started spray-painting only a few years ago but has already racked up more than 1,500 likes on her Facebook page and gets pleasure in spraying designs around Portugal. “I found something to live for,” she says.