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Spraying between the lines

Students will put up with a lot for the chance to do graffiti art, says Catherine Boyle

Graffiti, for some, conjures up images of names scrawled along railway lines. Year 9 pupils at Oaklands School in Bethnal Green, east London, recently explored the possibilities of legal graffiti art, or aerosol art. Their three-hour workshop was led by Mark Davis of Get the Message, a Lewisham-based project, and was organised as part of the Oaklands School Literature Festival, a week-long event co-ordinated by Eastside Arts of Bethnal Green. The students braved the coldest February in years to work outside on their 8 ft x 4 ft plywood canvases. Wearing three jumpers is not always necessary for graffiti artists, however - Mark usually works inside, but the school didn't have a room with sufficient ventilation for spraying aerosols.

Mark begins proceedings with a quick run through health and safety, including the introduction of Darth Vader-esque masks to protect pupils from fumes. They are to use grey "banana caps", which reduce the size of the paint spray. Mark explains: "It takes more time but you get a nice even coverage and there's less chance of them spraying the wall instead of the board." He also emphasises the importance of spraying as far from your own (and other people's) clothes as possible.

He demonstrates a few basic spraying techniques on a rough board, showing that the closer the can is to the canvas, the thinner the line of paint will be. He warns against spraying too slowly, as this will cause more drips. For vertical lines, he recommends bending the knees and trying to keep the can the same distance from the wall.

The students start in groups of four, spraying a square, using separate rather than continuous lines. "It's ok to get it wrong," Mark tells them, emphasising that they will begin to spray the canvases using light colours, adding more vibrant colours later. After a few practices on rough board, they begin to consider their blank canvas. They had already discussed their theme, "journeys", at an earlier session, and have prepared their designs.

The plan is to draw an outline, then fill in the colours, which Mark compares to "painting by numbers".

One group quickly realises that their template won't work on the canvas; it consists of a dreamscape background featuring a Japanese farmer and a fireball, with "JRNY TO DA DRMS" (an abbreviation of "Journey to the Dreams") emblazoned on it in semi-wild lettering. Mark encourages them to "think as a team" to solve the problem. They decide to substitute a thinner samurai-style warrior for the man holding his hat, because "it's still something you might see in your dreams".

Another group have already begun transferring their design onto the canvas, helped by Mark's assistant, Joe Deacon. One of the group, Sophie Small, has designed an athlete, his arms stretched wide in celebration, surrounded by a circular track with "Live" written on one side, and "Life" on the other.

Ryan Viegas has been nominated to draw the outline, with the rest of the group advising him on whether the image and lettering look in proportion.

Once the outline is done, it's time to discuss colours. For the lettering, the group decide on yellow, orange and red stripes. Joe advises them to try to achieve a "solid, clean colour" when filling in their outline. He explains that they should start spraying colour in the middle, and then work their way out, maintaining the movement of the can.

The sky background to the athlete is achieved by painting on stripes of purples and blues. Once these are dry, which takes a couple of minutes, "fading" can begin. For this layer, the stripes are blended into each other. "This is the best bit," says Chloe Hutchings. As a finishing touch, the letters are outlined, first in black, then white.

The students seem pleased with the results, and all say they've enjoyed the day. Most have previously encountered aerosol art only through signatures or signs in public places.

Mark, who also runs a graffiti workshop at Home Park Adventure Playground in Sydenham, is receiving more and more requests from schools to teach graffiti art. "It's an art form that young people are more involved in than adults, so it's becoming a viable alternative to get young people involved in art."

* Mark Davis Tel: 07932605201 Email: iammarc Events for schools and community groups

* Eastside Arts Tel: 020 7033 2865 lGraffiti canvases made with Eastside Arts can be seen at St Paul's Church, St Stephens Road, London E3.

Lesson ideas


Allow pupils to experiment with aerosol art, beginning with different ways to draw vertical and horizontal lines on plywood or cardboard. They can then move on to simple shapes and motifs, such as flowers or the sun, or to writing their names or initials on individual boards. Ensure that the room they are working in is big enough, and that they wear masks while spraying.


Undertake a project like the one described in the article.

Let children plan an aerosol image in small groups, then create it under intensive supervision, remembering the necessary health and safety procedures.


Discuss aerosol or graffiti art with students, using the pictures available at or Contrast the work of Banksy or James Hewlett with some of the amateur work seen at This collection of graffiti ranges from the irreverent ("More Holidays for Everybody") through the literary ("Talking of Michelangelo") to protests.

Are statements like this just vandalism? What purpose might they serve? How are they related to legal aerosol art? You could also introduce the concept of cave drawings as the first known graffiti.

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