library graffiti

We have held 3 graffiti programs at the library now. I have to say, these are some of the coolest programs we’ve ever done. The teens are so excited to get to do this “dangerous” street art, and they’re really good at it.

The first program we held was part of my Frances Henne/YALSA/VOYA research grant-funded series of six programs. For this we hired the fantastic artist Patrick Stoltman (note to librarians near Madison, WI: Hire him now!) My favorite part of this program, besides the nearly delirious joy of the 17 kids who attended (maybe the delirium was just the fumes) was when a local banker came out of the bank and saw what the kids were doing. He seemed so surprised and happy to see what we were doing. We invited him to join us, and he did. He nearly sprayed his snazzy suit when he held the spraypaint can backwards, but an eagle-eyed teen spotted the problem just as he started to press the nozzle, and disaster was averted. But he happily painted for a moment before he drove away.

Now this guy is actually the son of the owner of the bank–one of the most influential people in our tiny town. I’d never seen him in the library before, but lately he’s been coming in. Coincidence? Maybe, but I choose to believe that he was delighted by the program and decided to check us out. And now we have a huge gorgeous work of graffiti art on the wall of the library.

Our next program involved graffiti inspired by kanji, sprayed on clothes. Teens painted jeans and t-shirts. They unvented some pretty nifty techniques by purposefully letting some paint seep through to the other side of the clothes.

The last graffiti program we had involved spraypainting some letters to make a 3D sign for our teenspace in the library. I’ve been driving around for three weeks with these finished letters in my backseat. I keep forgetting to buy the epoxy I need to glue them together. But when I’m done, the teen area of the library will look utterly fantastic–and the teens keep clamoring for more graffiti programs.

So, as a note to all the librarians out there who I know are dying to host their own graffiti extravaganzas, here’s my 10 tips for a great graffiti experience:

1. Hire a pro. I paid $150, and may have been able to get away with less, but I value artists and would have loved to pay more had my budget allowed it. I actually used Craigslist and got about a dozen applicants, all of whom were incredibly talented. I just liked Patrick’s app best. I would have hired him for the other programs, if I’d had any money left in my budget.

2. Buy at least one can of paint per teen attendee, with a few extra for unexpected drop-ins. We didn’t preregister, and I was worried that we’d have a lot of people. For a town of less than 4000, 17 kids is a lot, but we were fine. We had some paint left over, but I’ve had to buy more for our third program. It costs about $3 a can. Buy an enormo roll of plastic dropcloth. The gazillion feet roll I have will last for several more programs. Don’t be stingy with the plastic. I knew that if I had a drop of paint on the parking lot, I would hear about it forever (and never mind the fact that doggie doo regularly adorns this lot).

3. Don’t leave the teens unattended. Duh. Even though I have the coolest, most chill teens in the universe, who all uniformly respect the rules and listen to me (no joke–I’ve told them if they are freaks, I won’t be able to convince my boss to have more sleepovers or other cool stuff, and they totally love those programs) I still wouldn’t leave them alone with fully loaded cans of spraypaint. I went over the rules very clearly, before they were allowed to touch the paint (RULES: no painting each other; no painting anything except the panels; be careful of overspray, both yours and others; no running around like an idiot or you’ll get hurt or sprayed).

4. We did these programs in the library parking lot. There was a breeze each time. The cars were far away. But the first time I was so terrified of overspray that I kept bleating like a sheep in a flooded ravine. So make sure the teens understand overspray and just how far it can travel (many feet with a gust of wind) and make sure no one stands in the overspray of another artist. And as for the bleating–I learned to relax. The kids want to do this again, and if you’re clear that will only happen if there’s no visible evidence of paint, then they’re more careful than you would believe–except for very brief moments when really excited, so make sure you’re paying attention and remind them to calm the heck down.

5. Be aware of fumes. No matter how much plastic you put up, there is NO WAY you could have this program indoors. Every person there would lose 30 IQ points from breathing that crap. Even outdoors it’s a little much. You may want to take a snack break inside halfway through to let the noxious chemicals die down.

6. The graffiti’d pieces can’t be moved for a while. Allow time for the paint to dry. Again, this may seem like a “duh” statement, but when 17 teens spraypaint over and over on the same board, there’s an enormous puddle of paint that needs to dry, and that takes forever. Encourage teens to spray lightly. No one can take the graffiti home that day, it actually took some of our stuff a couple of days to cure. Make sure you have a secure spot to store it all. We carefully took our wet stuff into my teensy storage cubby and it still stinks in there.

7. Have many pieces of plywood, cardboard or whatever, for them to paint on. This helps with the puddling of paint, because they won’t all spray in the same spots. We were going to do a fundraiser and sell our pieces, but in the end, I just gave them to the teens. We’ll fundraise later. But I think you could raise some money with these cool panels–maybe a silent auction?

8. If you spraypaint jeans, be aware that any stretching of the fabric will be negated by the paint. In other words, superskinnies will no longer fit over the scrawniest of 13 year old legs after they’re painted. Paint baggy stuff instead.

9. Give the kids a chance to practice and look at graffiti. For our first program, Patrick showed a brief powerpoint showing styles and techniques, and we had paper and books for them. Outside we had pieces of poster board for them to practice the techniques and give them the feel of things. He also briefly touched on the subversive social commentary of graffiti, and totally delineated the difference between legal and illegal graffiti. “Respect the art, and don’t deface things and give it a bad rap!” he emphasized.

10. Prepare for a lot of startled comments when people walk by and see what you’re doing. I advocated for both the teens and the library by saying things like, “aren’t they incredible artists” (which they totally were) and “our library is the coolest” (which it totally is).

If you do a graffiti program at your library, I’d love to hear about your experiences. We could post pictures here too.


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