Saturday, April 21, 2007

Teaching graffiti/tagging in city schools?

In last week's SF Bay Guardian there was a story about an "after-school program" that teaches "the art of graffiti," even though the city spends millions of dollars a year fighting graffiti/tagging. (Graffiti is S.F.'s $30M-a-year Problem, Bonnie Eslinger, SF Examiner, July 14, 2006):

A couple dozen of San Francisco's best young graffiti artists, many dressed in black hooded sweatshirts and baseball hats, huddle around long tables littered with markers, blank books, pens, and stickers. The artists crowded around the white paper–draped tables do a little talking and joking, but mainly they're drawing and writing, some at a fever pitch. Bright colors and stylish lettering abound. There is a sense of concentrated creativity in this large studio space — something rare in classrooms these days. But this not your run-of-the-mill art class. This is Streetstyles, a free course that focuses on the misunderstood medium of graffiti and street art. Its aim is multifaceted, concentrating on the production and repercussions of urban art.
 
You thought graffiti/tagging was vandalism? Think again, square! It's actually "urban art" or "street art," according to the teachers at the Root Division in the Streetstyles class, a course in "the misunderstood medium of graffiti and street art."
 
According to the Guardian, "The number one rule in [teacher]Warnke's class is respect. Respect for the art. Respect for one another. And respect for oneself." But evidently not respect for either public or private property---or the city's taxpayers either, for that matter. Turns out teacher Dave Warnke has "been an active street artist for more than 10 years." The other teacher in the course is Carlos Castillo, "first-generation West Coast graffiti artist who started writing on the streets of San Francisco around 1983."

Warnke is aware of the criminal aspect of his passion and understands how some, particularly opponents of street art at large, might think his work empowers vandalism. There are students in his class who have been arrested, suspended from school, and even jumped for their love of graffiti. Many are doing community service for vandalism...
 
Warnke's response:

"I'm not a cop, and no, I'm not going to snitch. I understand [these kids'] passion, and when you compare writing graffiti to what's going on in the schools these days and in the streets with the violence and drugs, I just want to give them even more markers...And yeah, I let them get up. For four hours a week, they are not getting in trouble, getting in fights, doing drugs, or whatever. While they are in my class, they will be safe, creative and respectful."
 
Right. At least they aren't out on the streets shooting or getting shot. Of course when they are on the streets they are probably engaging in vandalism, but dude, Warnke is no snitch. He's a teacher!
 
When asked if he's still a tagger, Warnke is coy: "I'm semiretired," he says, smiling shyly."
 
It's not clear exactly what relationship Root Division has with the city's public schools, but evidently there is a relationship, since their website quotes a Chronicle story: "The arts non-profit Root Division is part artist's collective, part educational organization. Its basic premise is to supply subsidized studio space to artists in exchange for the artists' working with children in arts programs in the public schools..." And the Guardian article describes the Streetstyles course as an "after school program."
 
San Francisco, the City That Knows How: On the one hand, we spend $30 million a year trying to deal with graffiti/tagging vandalism, while on the other, we teach kids how to "create" this form of vandalism.

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