San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Graffiti teacher gives lessons in art, life

From the print edition

Isaias Crow is leading a somewhat unconventional art workshop. 

Take five minutes, he tells his students, and create your favorite drawing on a blank sheet of paper. Good. Now, exchange your piece of paper with somebody else’s, and add something to the new drawing. Uh, huh. Now swap a few more times, and keep adding to whatever lands in front of you. 

Eventually, Crow picks up a garbage can and walks around the classroom. It’s time to throw the artwork away, he says. Bewildered students search his face, and discover he is serious. Only after they’ve reluctantly complied does Crow explain himself. 

“This is what street art is like,” he says. People will change, paint over and destroy your art. The point of the exercise – which was part of a graffiti workshop put on in Costa Rica by the U.S. Embassy and U.S. State Department – was to help students accept that their work would not last.

Crow, an educator, painter and muralist, came from the San Diego, California, to teach that lesson, among others. He instructed two classes, one in the Caribbean port city of Limón and one in San José, before a total of 50 students aged 17-50. They were all selected by the Culture Ministry to participate in discussions on graffiti and self-expression. “I can’t stand there saying art has to be this way or that way,” Crow said during the local workshop at the National Gallery in the Children’s Museum. “You have to decide for yourself.”

With a teaching method that combines rigid direction and loose interpretation, Crow was brought in by the U.S. Embassy and U.S. State Department in a program called Arts Envoy. In conjunction with the Ministry of Peace and Justice, the program uses art to promote alternatives to violence for at-risk youth, said Oscar Avila, cultural affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy. “Using graffiti is an innovative take, because it lives in the community rather than locked away in a museum,” Avila said.

Past Arts Envoy programs brought hip-hop dancers and jazz musicians to hold clinics. When the workshops conclude, the students are expected to host similar workshops in their own communities. “We want to change the perception that graffiti is a form of destruction,” said Gina Marín, the art and culture adviser for the Education Ministry. “[It] can carry messages of peace and beauty in a community.”

Crow said he sees the workshops as the vehicles to develop skills. His methods are strict, and on more than one occasion, he chastised the group for talking out of turn and not following directions. But he also acknowledged that a failure to follow directions is a kind of creativity. “I want to use art as a humbling, team-building and listening experience,” Crow said. “Through these practices we can work towards solidarity.”

Lisette Vargas is a high school and college art teacher who attended the workshop. “I work with young people interested in graffiti, but this isn’t a topic you study in college,” she said. “So I’m taking all the notes I can about graffiti form and conception to bring to my own workshop.”

She will hold a graffiti class for her high- school students, but with some alterations to what Crow taught. “The exercises were really interesting, but if I told my students to tear up their art and throw it away, they would revolt,” she said.

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