Graffiti to order

6th June 2003 at 01:00
It may look like the work of vandals, but this playground mural had approval, and funding, from the school's governors. Art teacher Tom Hartney reports

When staff and pupils returned to Vyners School last autumn, there were stares of disbelief at the explosion of colour completely covering one playground wall. Had vandals broken in and decided to redecorate? It certainly looked very like the "tags" that adorn a stretch of underground between nearby West Ruislip and central London. The bold, brightly coloured lettering set against a comic book-style background bore all the hallmarks of what has become known as Graffiti Art. Only the wording, "Abide in Me", seemed incongruous.

As everyone soon discovered, this was no wanton act of vandalism perpetrated by bored or angry youths. This was the work of an ex-Vyners pupil, currently studying art, and the paint paid for by the school governors. The wording is the school's motto.

Leo left school when he was 16 to study art full-time at a nearby college.

When he was in my GCSE art class we had discussed the merits of Graffiti Art, sharing an interest in the form that emerged in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Leo stayed in touch after he left Vyners, keeping me informed of the progress of a scheme he was involved in that had been sponsored by the local authority. A group of young artists was producing colourful graffiti-style murals in youth centres and public spaces. Photographs of his work showed that Leo was highly skilled and we discussed a school-based piece.

There was already a mural in the playground, but it had seen better days.

Its theme was vaguely environmental and it was, apparently, the work of a general studies class. Its impact on the space had faded along with the paint. Located on a wall facing directly on to the playground, it was the ideal site for a new artwork.

Working around his college commitments, Leo tried a number of design ideas.

The final product had to appeal to the pupils, but it was also important that the subject matter suited its intended setting. So he appropriated the school motto and badge and rendered it in a lettering style based on the Wildstyle logo from the film of the same name. We felt that the comparatively uncomplicated style and colour scheme - mainly red, yellow, blue and purple - would pack the right kind of visual punch for the otherwise colourless space.

Once the design and costing were completed, we presented the plan to the head and school governors. I urged that the proposal would benefit the school since: the proposed design would reinforce the school motto in a way that pupils could enjoy and appreciate; it would significantly brighten a much used but dull area; and it would convey a sense of vibrancy to visitors, reinforcing the impression that the school values creative and artistic expression.

The governors approved our plan and agreed to cover the cost of all materials. For two days during the summer holidays (including half a day spent preparing and priming the wall), Leo painted his mural. Watching it take shape was fascinating, so much so that I recorded it on eight millimetre cinefilm, later edited for screening at a school assembly.

Leo's skill and hard work, along with pound;120 for materials, have made a real difference. And we've had no vandalism since, either on the mural or elsewhere to the environment of our school. A similar project could happen anywhere, so what are you waiting for?

TOP TIPS

* Once you've got your artists and design, get the support of the headteacher and governors, explaining the advantages to the school.

* Get approval for costs during the same meeting.

* If using spray paint go for a specialist product - Leo used Montana which is ozone-friendly. You may have to hunt around for suppliers, but the results are worth it.

* Carefully choose the timing of your project. Although students would undoubtedly enjoy watching the artist at work this may prove difficult to manage during a normal school day. You can film the work as it happens to show them later, while the impact of surprise has advantages, too.

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