Graffiti as Street Math?

Last night, Key and our sister company KCP Technologies had an outing to the California Academy of Sciences weekly “NightLife” event–every Thursday night, the Academy opens to adults only with a theme of the evening, as well as opportunity to explore all the other cool things they have on display. It so happens that the theme of last night was “SF Streets,” with an emphasis on graffiti.

Did you know that makers of wildstyle graffiti are doing math as they create their masterpieces? Many years ago, I wrote my Master’s thesis on this topic. (You can find my preliminary paper on the web.) Makers of wildstyle graffiti are more diverse than you might think, coming from a wide range of age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, and ethnicities. I’ve met talented and passionate graffiti artists who are 13-year-old Latino middle school students and 30-year-old white middle-class engineers. I knew one who was obsessed with sacred geometry. Some love school math and excel at it, some absolutely don’t. But they’re all doing street math, much of it self-invented or taught by peers, as they plan and paint their pieces. Can you read the piece at the top of this post? A young graffiti artist would be able to do so immediately, using problem-solving skills developed to look for patterns and decode. And there are obviously concepts of symmetry and proportion at work in the design of these images. And imagine the challenges involved in accurately translating a sketch from an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper onto a wall 20+ feet long. These artists use concepts of scale and invented measuring techniques to do so.

As a teacher, I inspired some young students’ confidence and engagement in math by pointing out that they were already doing some math that was beyond my capabilities. For students who might not have already found their artistic calling that can be related to math, Sketchpad can be an inspiring tool: check out this animation by a high school student! You can be sure plenty of math was directly used here.

3 thoughts on “Graffiti as Street Math?”

  1. This is cool to see… I write geser for 21 years. So true about using math to translate a small sketch to large scale. I often use an imaginary grid when visualizing my final sketch up on the wall

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