graffiti as public voice

This entry is part of my contribution to Iliff School of Theology‘s Social Change Praxis: Graffiti as Public Voice’s weekend painting as our final project. The views expressed, though created in my mind from the collective weekend spent, are only my own.

Working for seven weeks doing the average nitty-gritty of graduate school studies, which is basically reading theory and discussing, might not have seemed that exciting to those who may have popped their heads into Bacon Education Center 218, above the library at the Iliff School of Theology. Fortunately for the mostly outspoken group contained inside the four walls, we knew that reading all that background on graffiti and the racial, class-oriented, and gender-specific implications that were associated with it were going to lead to one thing: doing actual graffiti.

The problem?

None of us had done it (well, none of us had done it outside of a classroom – we had one art teacher on hand).

This was the sketch we were to go off of. Us. Theologically-minded graduate students.

This was the sketch we were to go off of. Us. Theologically-minded graduate students.

Not to skip over the weeks of theory reading that went behind the course, because of course it was important, but there are much more important issues at hand. These issues stem around the idea that we are graduate students in a school of theology; we are not students in an art program. Our professors, both incredible graffiti artists (one a professional at that!) had decided that yes, we could do it. We could get outside of the nerdy reading box and hold a spray can, attempting to move ourselves up from toy to king. Talk about nerves. I’ve personally done art and even have my undergraduate degree minor in fine art, but photography =/= drawing. Don’t let anyone fool you.

Ten students and two professors were holed up in the basement of Street Fraternity, a group that works with mainly refugee male-identified youth on the East Colfax border of Aurora and Denver. We had chosen to create our graffiti mural on the back wall of their Active/Aggression Room. After having a very graduate-level discussion on what it means to create art on a space used that does not advocate for nonviolence, we recognized the importance of allowing difference to be difference – we were creating art in a space that we were not going to be able to relate to (none of us are refugees trained in aggressive protections of any sort). We worked with Keith (Lemon of Your Name In Graffiti, one of our instructors) on the design for the wall, and spent two days taping, tracing, filling, and adding accent to create art that we never dreamed possible.

Our unique group was able to take what we learned from the course and recognize that what we were doing was not something that many folks would consider to be graffiti. This was a commissioned mural from a company to a group done in the style of graffiti. We kept that in mind as we broke for conversation while doing only a move that graduate students can: referencing readings throughout conversation sprinkled with our own personal experience. I often find myself referencing my life twin Liz Lemon when I imagine what other people think when we’re out in public:

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Standing outside of the experience, it’s so wonderful to be able to have something tangible that isn’t a fifteen-page paper to show folks outside of our experience just what a graduate program at Iliff is all about. We can only repeatedly describe our unique experiences, but when we say that we talk about race, class, gender, and sexuality, it can turn people off who feel like we’re speaking at a higher level purposefully. Being able to say “oh, yeah, I did a kickass graffiti wall for a really great nonprofit” seems to be more of an interest-piquer.

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