A Week of Keith: Hip-Hop, Graffiti, and Legality

Last week, the Green and Orange bands got a tour of  the RESPECT: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. The multi-sensory exhibit covered music, fashion, dance, art, literature and even transportation as they connect and relate to hip hop culture, Black history, and in some sections, directly to Oakland. (I highly recommend the exhibit, if you can’t already tell.) While there were many different elements to the show, the two bands participated in a rich and insightful discussion with our DJ-tour guide, Alex, as he probed us to question the meaning and purpose behind the various different pieces and their connection to city life. One of the features of the exhibit that seemed to speak to the students most was this idea of street art/ graffiti. Because the kids know that painting or writing on someone else’s property without permission is illegal, there were mixed responses to the idea of graffiti. We were left pondering a couple questions—do we consider graffiti to be art? and is the intent behind it justified?

Aaliyah looking at an interactive “graffiti’d” wall at the RESPECT exhibit in Oakland.

Now cut to Rachel at home, reading in bed with her cats, at the late hour of 8:15 PM on a Thursday. The book she’s reading is Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, which was recommended to her by Lisa of Orange (oo…full circle). In the book, the reader gets a view into the brilliant but tumultuous lives of Jean-Michele Basquiat and his long term on-and-off girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk. The book is a mix of third person narrative, verse, and personal accounts from Suzanne herself (I highly recommend the book, if you can’t already tell). It also discusses both Basquiat and his contemporary Keith Haring’s relationships to graffiti and street art. Reading their stories inspired me to bring their work into the Band Space, so I did!

Guapa sitting on my library copy of “Widow Basquiat” by Jennifer Clements, at 8:45.

Cut back to Brightworks. The Greenies spent this past week studying Keith Haring. (I decided to start with him over Basquiat because I felt his art style would be more accessible for our first Artist Study. He was also able to more seamlessly straddle the high art world with the street art world than Basquiat, given his privileged position as a white man, which is discussed in Widow Basquiat. We will study him next.) During the week, we looked at Haring’s artwork, listened to his interviews, watched an 80’s news segment about him, and read two different sources about his life, including a picture book written by his sister. The kids used these various sources to discuss his art style, as well as what we felt his values were and what made him so unique as an artist. We learned that while he did make a lot of money selling his artwork, he also continued to make his art accessible to all—including by drawing in public places, like at subway stops. At the end of the unit, kids journaled about whether they feel it is ever justified to do something illegal. While we had mixed responses, not all art-related, one student wrote, “Keith Haring drew on blank sections in the subway. It was illegal, but he had good intentions. He wanted to let everyone see and enjoy his art.” 

The Greenies looking at examples of Keith Haring’s art.