Approaching the graffiti project: hints


Even if you have your project idea, read this over to get a sense of what separates great projects from good ones.

You could start your project by thinking of a space. I know I complained about eleventy percent of my last class saying they would post their graffiti in the middle of the Quad. So, what would work there? For what kind of message is the center of the Quad the best medium? Let’s list some things to consider about that space:

  • It’s an intersection—unless you were to pick the sidewalk that runs across halfway.
  • It’s not a destination in and of itself—people generally pass it on their way to class. They’re on their way somewhere. In a hurry?
  • They pass it because they are walking on the sidewalks rather than cutting across the grass—coloring inside the lines, sort of.
  • If it’s too crowded—which it sometimes is—you won’t be able to see it, or you will just catch flashes of whatever is there.
  • It’s one of the most iconic spaces on campus.
  • Sometimes bicyclists run people over; sometimes people get into bicyclists’ way

Just to spitball here, I’m thinking something like a police chalk outline of a body? You could add some footprints and tire tracks. What do we want to label the body? I don’t know—what is something you feel gets trampled by the student body or the administration? If the G.E.O. had gone on strike, it would have been pretty powerful to label it “grad student” or something. It would also be pretty easy to make an anti-Chief argument. The point is, you can leverage how people interact with your space and what they are doing when they encounter it.

You can also start with a message, something that drives you crazy, something that you wish the whole world knew. But remember: didactic, “public service announcement”-type projects have a tendency to be less successful. Why? I think part of it is that using an anti-establishment medium like graffiti to try to sell establishment messages undermines both. But these messages also have a tendency to be approached fairly simplistically—have you even heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”? It’s never more appropriate than when dealing with a visual medium. Consider the difference between the message “people are too materialistic” and this:

banksy lifestyle

Between the message “technology is turning us into zombies” and this:


Between the now-cliché “Big Brother is Watching You” and this:

banksy looking at

Each of these images contains each of those messages, but the message is just one of several layers that are available to the viewer. The “Lifestyle You Ordered” image, for instance, uses Helvetica, which we discussed in class as the “typeface of corporate America” as used by American Apparel, Jeep, JCPenney, and, probably most directly here, Crate and Barrel. What does that accomplish? What does it mean to order a lifestyle? Why would it be out of stock? There is a complexity to this message that would not be there if the graffiti just said “stop buying so much stuff” or “stop letting corporations tell you who you are.” They’re clever—not in the sense of being amusing but in the sense that there is a moment where you “get it, “ where you nod and say “Mmm” under your breath.

Also, notice that these images are not overtly telling people what to do. People don’t like being bossed around! It isn’t that you can’t send a message with the intent of changing people’s behavior, but you want to do it all subtle-like. We’re bombarded with messages all the time—how are you going to make yours different?

The other thing you can do is start with an image. If this is your plan, chances are it’s an image from pop culture, and these kinds of images have a lot of pre-packaged meanings that you can tap into. That being said, there are ways to use them more or less effectively. Let’s take, for instance, the Grumpy Cat stencils we were working on in class last Tuesday. Where could we put that to make a soundly designed argument?

Let’s really ponder what makes Grumpy Cat tick:

  • Expresses not just negativity but a deep misanthropy
  • Opposition to anything earnest/sincere, sentimental, or trendy
  • Inversion of the internet’s love of cats
  • Curmudgeonly; smug

Given this profile, I would say it would be not so effective to, say, paint Grumpy Cat onto a poster for a politician you disagree with. What makes Grumpy Cat grumpy is disliking things that other people actually like, so while his image would indicate disagreement, it isn’t making an argument about that disagreement the way it would on, say, a “buy one get one free” sale at Urban Outfitters. Does that make sense?

Or: my most curmudgeonly position is my extreme irritation with people who have their cell phones out at the movie theater. But I STILL don’t think this would be a good option for Grumpy Cat because EVERYBODY hates that. At least, I think they do. A better behavior to curb with Grumpy Cat would be couples making out in public, as Natalie (I think?) mentioned in class.

Anyhow, hope this has been helpful. Feel free to email me with questions!


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