A few years ago I started an experimental project in which I aimed to discover and test innovative approaches to teaching seniors through street art. Today this project has developed into a fulltime job. However, it is still a work in progress. In the following article I will address and describe the process until now.
I have chosen to use the term ”graffiti” with my senior work simply to be more coherent, although the projects in question also include street art such as stencils and murals. For me it is important to clarify this, as graffiti and street art can differ by motives, environment and the materials used. There is no one definition everyone would accept, except the fact that graffiti, as well as street art is a mode of thinking and teaching that cannot be easily classified.
To explain my own interest and how I got into this field, a few words about my background: I would describe myself as an unruly art educator, with an academic degree and a long history of environmental and public art and performance. I have not been a ”bomber” as a teenager but since I got into the field it has more or less taken over my life.
Back in 2009, I was working at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art – EMMA’s Educational Department as a museum educator. My main field was the workshops – an interactive way for all ages to get to know the exhibition. It was there that I initiated the first senior street art projects called “graffiti grannies“. They involved working with elderly people inspired by the contemporary art inside the museum and street art pieces I had recently seen in Barcelona. During the first two workshops I taught along side a museum educator, visual artist Hans-Peter Schütt. The project consisted of ten seniors invited through a local cultural centre who planned and painted two big scale paintings, one inside the museum and another on the newly opened legal graffiti wall of Suvilahti.
At first my interest was to work with this fascinating combination and to see what would happen when these two different cultures, grannies and graffiti, were brought together. In one of these first workshops, I met a then 92 years old woman, who told me that she liked classical music and was very skillful in knitting – but that she had been doing those things for some decades already… ”It was about time you came and showed me something totally new.”, she told me. Perhaps it was this little conversation that convinced me of the importance and meaningfulness in my work. When the workshops could no longer continue as part of the museum’s educational program due to the constant demand of variety and change, inspired by the positive response from the participants, I decided to continue them on my own.
– I was lucky to get involved. It was a joy to make graffiti openly. I think that even if you get older, inside you do not age the same way so I was ready to jump in! Before I used to think that graffiti was just smudge, “how ugly they have made this place”. Then I did not know how much work was behind. But now I can tell if something is good or bad. … If the place is wrong or someone has chosen wrong colours, that is not good.
Tuula, K65 Crew
I started my voluntary work with a phone call to a local senior center in Tapiola, Espoo. As some of their members had already taken part in my earlier projects, they were more than delighted to participate. Gradually the place became the headquarters for the ”K65 Crew”, the first independent non-profit senior street art group of Finland and as far as I know – the whole Scandinavia. The group is eligible for anyone who is 65 years or older and it has currently 10 members. The group gets together somewhat irregularly to chat, to sketch and to share their discoveries and thoughts on street art and of course – to have a cup of coffee. Following the graffiti traditions, the members have pseudonym names and blackbooks for sketching. During the warm months the group paints outdoors and takes part in different urban events.
The activity is based on my voluntary work, collaboration and a little, but important, support from spray paint shops and a local coffee shop. My role is more of an informal mentor than a teacher and I consider myself a member of the group (the only one under 65). In my approach I try to use various approaches ranging from art history to open-ended. The idea is to help the group members to develop their creative skills, but I find explaining the mode of thinking behind graffiti and street art far more important. From the educational point of view, it is all about free choice and non-formal learning, which I organize and give a structure to. The K65 Crew is constantly developing itself and recently it has started to move beyond self-directed learning, as the members of the crew have undertaken their own research and started for example to photograph their own discoveries on the streets, in abandoned gas-stations and closed factories. They collect and exchange books on graffiti, they save articles from newspapers, they follow actively international graffiti sites and take part in conversations over the Internet. This interesting development is something I have tried to document the best I have could. Sometimes with a little help from others, in 2011 a student conducted a qualitative research under my supervision based on interviews with the K65 Crew members for the University of Lapland’s Faculty of Education.
– I want to make others happy. And it is fun to break boundaries. It is amusing when people get a little bit surprised and start saying: ”who does she think that she is”. …and the last one we made, I think we really succeed with the colours. I thought: was I really part of making this?
Taru, K65 Crew
One of the most significant aspects for the members of the group is – as for many young graffiti writers as well – the community: having fun with friends and getting the support of the group. One of the main principles we go by is that the activity must be fun and stress-free for everyone. Therefore, I would not call K65 Crew members ”artists”, but a group of active citizens interested in contemporary phenomenon. Nevertheless, when Myymälä2 gallery approached us with an exhibition concept we decided to participate; after all it dealt with something we stood for: bridging the gap between generations. The exhibition Helsinki Graffiti Blast executed in early 2012, presented young writers from the local crew, ”Backdoor Assaulters”, Finnish graffiti legend EGS and K65 Crew.
– ”YR was here.” I see graffiti everywhere – even in my dreams!
I started with intensive street art workshops after having been repeatedly asked to participate in street art projects all over Finland with the K65 Crew. It’s not easy to move a group of ten seniors from one place to another and in my interest was not to form just one elitist and exclusive group, but rather a chain of different groups working in different environments. While the K65 Crew mainly works in the Helsinki region of Finland, K65 senior workshops will now start to activate elderly citizens anywhere and they have been supported by the Finnish Norwegian Cultural Institute FINNO.
The senior street art workshops are characterized by a curious, playful and open approach to each project based on thorough research. I try to make each one of them each a unique experience. Following the time limits and the expectations of the employers, I have gone for using more visual forms and quick, easily accepted working methods such as stencils.
It is possible to join the workshops as well as the Helsinki based crew with no former knowledge of street art. You do not have to be a skillful artist and there are no specific learning outcomes for participants to achieve. The idea is rather to stay open and fluid and to involve free choice learning only. Activities are customized to accommodate the interests of each of the participants attending and can also be customized to address age appropriate factors such as physical limitations. I am constantly trying out alternative ways to make street art for those with specific mobility or physical requirements, such as shaking hands and mobility or vision problems. As a result, we use basic wall paint, acrylic paint and paint markers as well as spray paint. I concentrate on painting techniques in my workshops and have no interest to combine the senior member with for example the guerrilla knitting, since I find it would be too much of a cliché.
After having run the K65 Crew for some time, I started to realize that what I was doing was actually working in two ways; while providing an alternative for the stereotypical picture of elderly it also widened the narrow image of street art. Since it all started out as voluntary work and a hobby, which it still partly is, I was not prepared on the big media response we got.
Very soon I realized that it was impossible to avoid the ”bombing grannies” sensationalized. No one seemed to care that the K65 Crew had nothing to do with ”bombing”. I am more interested in the process than in any ”hype” but I understand that media coverage is a good thing for most of my employers, museums and other organizations. As an art educator I find it difficult to deal with the journalists and photographers when they show up at the same moment I am about to meet a new senior group for the very first time. I have been asked if I am taking advantage of the big contrast between my workshop participants and graffiti and if I am intentionally showing grannies around, like some kind of a ”zoo”. What the media mostly wants are pictures of the seniors holding spray cans. When we explain that we will only reach that point after a couple of days, the reporters get disappointed.
Right now I am at the point where I am not especially interested in just ”decorating the city” anymore. The senior graffiti is an attempt to make streets a more meaningful place for everyone. It gives the elderly a possibility to question, investigate and reclaim the changing world around them. My ambition is to open up the messages and symbols contained in the surrounding environment for seniors living in it. My basic principle is lifelong learning as a never-ending process of creating meaning. Following this, I am trying to fight prejudices, develop old people’s ability to read the urban environment and to provide them with new opportunities to participate in society.
I am excited about all the inspirational contact: the premeditated meetings as well as the random encounters, the dialogue between the different age groups, subcultures and art.
– A brand new world has opened up for me both aesthetically and societally with all its controversies and possibilities. Besides our teamwork me and my husband – a member of the crew too – also explore our own urban environment, taking photos, visiting exhibitions and finding a myriad of interesting and great works of Art from the web. I find myself more and more often reading about the societal and social issues and statements connected to Street Art throughout the world.
Marja, K65 Crew
After three years, over 10 senior street art projects and a large number of participants between 61 and 93 – I would definitely say graffiti can be used for pedagogical purposes. Learning about street art can benefit senior citizens in a number of ways; I have witnessed people being ”empowered” through exploring new sides of themselves, gaining new confidence and skills and finding new social contacts. Still I am not saying street art would suite every senior, just like it does not interest every young person. I also think it would be naïve to say graffiti or street art can unite people in general, because there are and will be highly different opinions on it.
One aim of this article is to evoke discussion of street art being taught in general. Over the past few years graffiti and street art has gained status very fast in the Finnish society. Almost anything seen on the street, can be described as “graffiti” and the term is widely used within new, eco-friendly activities such as “guerrilla knitting” (neulegraffiti), “reverse-graffiti” (pesugraffiti) and ”moss graffiti”, just to mention a few. Since we live in a highly structured, rational society, all experimental movements may seem fresh and needed at first. More and more street art workshops open for anyone are being arranged, even for free, which is fantastic.
Many people believe that there should not be any rules in teaching graffiti or street art, since they are seen as free forms of expression, which should not be tainted. Spontaneously made texts and pictures on the street may give an image of ultimate easiness, but to be honest – when I first ran into the tradition of New York based graffiti, I was amazed about it’s conservative approach. Perhaps what has influenced my opinion is that graffiti or street art as method or technique seems to be chosen often for the wrong reasons; because they are hip right now or just make the project or event sound more rebellious for street cred.
During a nonstop-workshop of some hours you can teach people the basics of using a spray can at most. But then what? I believe no city needs more bad street art – or graffiti. In my opinion, an ”anything goes” attitude must be rejected. While we arrange more and more low-threshold activities, we should also concentrate on developing the ethics, goals and knowledge of the chosen material and the self-criticism we self-evidently expect from any other art form and art educational action. The quality of engagement and experience should be prioritized as a measure of success, rather than just the quantity of the painted area or the amount of participants.
The institutions have provided me with a good starting point, but as a next step I would like to focus on the activity itself and the participants’ individual needs more than the product-oriented expectations. I am keen on collaborating and try constantly to develop new strategies and perspectives. I would like the senior graffiti to be even more informal in the future and to deal with on-traditional contexts and develop more adventurous, flexible approaches. A simple virtual environment for all the ”internet-using” participants of the senior graffiti projects around is in progress as well. I would particularly be interested in organizing the next projects for the elderly who are in a disadvantage position in society – at risk of marginalization or exclusion.
One of my principle arguments is that everyone should have a right to learn new things no matter how old they are. Within this particular project, the new things happen to deal with street art, but it could be seen in a bigger context. As I go on with my mission, I would like to challenge others: I believe that with some creativity and courage brand new, exciting cultural activities for seniors could be developed in every field.
The article is a part of a broader study related to a non-fiction popular book on senior graffiti, which I am currently writing and hoping to get published in 2013. The book presents the first steps of Finnish senior graffiti through case examples. It will also include reflections on ideologies and teaching strategies used so far. The book will contain interviews and quotes from the persons involved: workshop participants and street art leaders as well as the project employers, graffiti writers and street artists. Selected international perspectives on seniors and street art will be included. I will also list the basic components and recommendations for a potential organizer to make up a good senior graffiti project. I hope the writing will help me identify the issues I am working with even better and at the same time develop new ideas.
For more information on senior graffiti and other street art projects, please visit: www.vjalava.com
COLLECT & SHARE: Good practise. London 2005. Available to download from the COLLECT & SHARE website.
International Journal of Education through Art. Volume 1. Intellect. Bristol 2005.
Teaching through Contemporary Art. A Report on Innovative Practises in The Classroom. Tate Publishing. London 2008.
Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution by Cedar Lewisoh´n. Tate Publishing. London 2009.
Abstract Graffiti by Cedar Lewisoh’n. Merrell Publishers Limited. London 2011.
Reverse Graffiti: Street Artists Tag Walls by Scrubbing Them Clean by Matt Chapman, 03/03/11. Inhabitat.com.
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