Painting Outside the Lines: IOA’s Graffiti Project

Most cities are built with a certain geometric order in mind. They have a plan, and a system—all hard angles and neat lines. Streets blend into each other, and one block flows to the next: orderly, structured, and sensical. Graffiti, then, is a delirious blow against that order, an explosion of color and chaos. It’s an eruption against our long-held assumptions.

That’s why it is perhaps not surprising that graffiti recently took center stage at Institute on Aging, where we’re dedicated to changing the way we view older adults in our society. IOA has been a disruptive force in the accepted norm of ageism, much in the same way that the rise of graffiti in the 70s shook our notions of art and public spaces.

A 3-day program, led by IOA and in conjunction with Man One and Crewest Studio, invited older residents of San Francisco to take joyful part in the traditions of graffiti, and in doing so, to shake up the notions of which traditions belong to whom. It showed that aging, like art, is only confined by the lines we choose to draw around it.

Crewest and the Notion of Graffiti

When he was 16, Man One discovered graffiti, at a time when art wasn’t exactly a normal career path for a young man. But, graffiti took the notion of what art should be, shook it up, and sprayed it wherever there was a flat surface. Man One, now 45, and the co-founder of Crewest, credits graffiti, and the way this controversial art form allowed him to express his inner self, with saving his life.

It makes sense, then, that Crewest and IOA found each other. As Crewest’s other co-founder, Scott Power, says, “IOA has a reputation for being progressive and innovative,” and that’s true. Through our programs, we work to redefine aging in the same way that graffiti redefined art.

For too long, we have been willing to accept the notion that as you age, you stop growing. You are done exploring. You are done being you. We don’t believe that. IOA instead embraces the idea that, no matter your age, there is room to explore. You are still, always, you. You can do something new—something incredible. Like learning about hip-hop and then, on a cold winter day, going to transform some city walls into a work of art with spray paint. After all, as Powers explains, “Grafitti may not be for everyone. But neither are gray walls.”

The Graffiti Class: Shattering Perceptions from Both Directions

Organized by Jessica McCracken, the Director of the Social Day Program at IOA, eleven older adults from various cultural, ethnic, and economic classes came together to explore the history of graffiti as art. Jessica notes her “projects are fighting against ageism, and redefining what it means to age.” And, anyone who experienced the three-day Crewest session would agree.

At first glance, the connection between graffiti and aging may not seem obvious. But, as McCracken reminds us, our society too often doesn’t value the elderly, doesn’t think they have worth, and certainly doesn’t think that they can expand their horizons. We have a tendency to believe that aging means calcification, and exploration is a young person’s game. That idea of marginalization, and the line-breaking rebellion against it, is central to both the graffiti movement and the mission of IOA.

Day one was about learning the history of graffiti, which is inextricably linked with the history of hip-hop, an asphalt-based movement springing from the heat of New York summers, and later mixed with the trippy sunshine of Los Angeles’ post-reactionary surf and skate communities. But the heart of it is the rebellious aspects of hip-hop and rap—a way to stake artistic independence in a system that didn’t value you.

The following two days were about the joyous creation of art. Day two was an exploration of famed graffiti alleys in San Francisco, which many of the older adults had never seen, even some who lived in the neighborhoods. It was a reminder that important and meaningful things pass under our noses every day, unseen due to expectations. And, day three—that was about making a beautiful mess.

A wall designated for day three’s activity was first outlined by Man One with the phrase “One Love” in the sharp, oblong angles and trippy 3D shapes of classic West Coast graffiti. It’s a simple, but powerful phrase inspired by Man One’s conversations with the aging adults themselves, which all ultimately ended up being reflections on love—love for their families, love for their communities, love for each other. The crew of seniors then joyously painted, without regard for cohesion or traditional ideas of what art should be. They let go of the notions that they had to draw the way they were taught in school decades ago, or that they were too old to break out of the lines. They were able to truly express what was inside them. Age was neither a barrier, nor a burier.

Expressing the Art Within

As Jessica explains, this was pure expression. “It’s a way to say ‘we’re still here. We are still relevant.’” That’s a powerful message. It’s a message that gets lost in our normal treatment of the aging population. We imagine it to be one way: a tired winding down from life, a time to be put in a corner. But it isn’t. It’s a time to explore and grow, as much as at any other stage in your life.

We remind you not to be bound by how others see you. It’s time to change, and to shake loose from the shackles of perception. It’s just like graffiti. As Man One put it, summing up his life’s work, and our mission, “It doesn’t need to look like something. It just needs to feel like something.”

At Institute on Aging, we believe that aging should be met with dignity, independence, and a sense of exploration. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs for older adults, their families, and their caretakers.

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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