Students embody the act of graffiti by creating a mural while considering the history of the hip-hop art form and its relation to race, class, and work. Before students head out into the community, there are preparation sessions where students work with a graffiti artist to plan the design and content of the mural. During the preparation sessions, the program facilitator and course instructor set expectations about what it means to do this type of work in a public space, the impact on the community, and the value of service learning.
A local graffiti artist leads students to design and create a mural. Students opt into this experience by writing a letter of interest. 30 students are selected from a total course enrollment of 200. The small number means the facilitators can better manage the experience, ensuring all students have the opportunity to actively participate in the mural — in other words, everyone can hold a spray can. Students must expand their comfort zones to incorporate creating art with little to no experience, and must learn to trust their peers and the artist.
Students are assessed through a post-experience assignment where they relate their experience to course content and research. The remaining students complete a similar assignment, using a tour of local graffiti tagged on Google Maps. The course coordinator and instructor work with stakeholders to determine their needs and help achieve the goal of beautifying downtown St. Catharines.
Reflection is introduced in the preparation sessions. During the experience, the course facilitator engages the students in reflective circles to consider different aspects of the experience. One example is the student’s changing perspective on graffiti, as the course receives funding for materials through an anti-graffiti campaign. Students continue reflecting on the experience in the assignment where they link back to course content.
Key success factors
- The project is supported by the St. Catharines Downtown Association (funding materials) and local businesses who provide mural space.
- The ability to pay a stipend recruits high-quality graffiti artists. The artist gains access to a secure space where the work will be on display for at least two years, which adds further legitimacy to the project.
- Needing to apply for the project means student participants are engaged and commit the time to the project.
- The course instructor and program facilitator are highly engaged in supporting the graffiti project and work together to remain flexible throughout the implementation of the project.
- The subject matter and project are unique, and students can develop and grow personally and professionally in a rare way.
- The careful cultivation of reciprocity with community partners has led to significant impacts on both students and the community.
- This project embraces the uncertainty inherent in service learning to create a transformative experience. While in the public, police and other business owners have approached students to question what they're doing and whether they're allowed to be there. These experiences were unpredictable and are connected to the project's central message of questioning graffiti in public spaces.
- Provision of this opportunity depends on external funding of $1900-2400 per offering for materials and the artist's stipend.
- The opportunity also depends on access to viable mural space in downtown St. Catharines. It can be difficult to sell the value proposition of beautifying the space through graffiti to community stakeholders.
- Legal agreements need to be struck at the highest level between all stakeholders.
- It can be difficult to design a mural interesting enough to engage students that can also be completed in the allotted time.