Graffiti Art Therapy

 

Art Therapy with Adolescents

 

Art therapists have found art to be a useful tool in working with adolescents’ resistance to the therapeutic relationship.  In the foreword to Linesch’s (1988) book, Adolescent Art Therapy, David S. May eloquently articulates the compatibility of art therapy with the adolescent population:

 

Effective therapists, regardless of their psychological orientation, must have the ability to speak the language of their patients’ inner world if they are to promote movement or growth within their patients’ psychic structures....This challenge of finding a mutually comprehensible and suitable language for therapy is particularly critical when working with adolescents.  Words and formal language may not be fully developed in an adolescent, or heavy reliance on the part of the therapist just on words can turn off an adolescent since the very notion of words is so strongly associated with the adult/straight/authority world.....Art Therapy can serve as a universal language for the therapeutic process, and one that can be embraced by adolescents without having to surrender their limited but hard-won emerging individuation.  (p.iii). 

 

Linesch (1998) adds, “adolescence is a stage of development with unique difficulties that make psychotherapy very complex.  Many of the struggles experienced by the adolescent involve conflicts of identity and self-expression.  These conflicts can be made accessible for exploration through art productions in a way that they cannot through verbal expression” (p. ix).  Landgarten(1981) agrees, based on her own experience, saying that “both the preconditions essential to adolescent character formation and the development tasks of adolescence may be worked upon through the art psychotherapy modality” (p.156). Through the use of art directives, specific treatment goals can be translated into art tasks.  This concept is at the core of the art therapy modality (Linesch, 1988).  Linesch(1988) says, “with a thorough understanding of the adolescent stage of development, an accurate analysis of the defensive style and psychopathology of the particular client and an experienced appreciation of the art process, the art therapist can direct the adolescent’s progress toward improved intrapsychic functioning” (p.59).

 

Group Therapy with Adolescents

 

It has been recognized that the psychology of adolescence is intimately connected to the interactions of group dynamics within youth circles. Blos(1962) writes:

 

The adolescent wages a battle against authority figures with the collaborative support of the group, the influence of which mitigates superego as well as social anxiety.  Through transient identification with the central person of the group, or with the egos of its members, the individual is aided in separating out the projective component from objective fact.  (p.210).

 

Several therapists have found that working with adolescents in a group therapy setting can be very beneficial.  In Berkovitz’s(1972) book, Adolescents Grow in Groups, he puts together a group of authors who stress the importance of and promote the creation of more adolescent therapy groups. Irene Josselyn is quoted in this publication:

 

[The therapy group] becomes a significant arena for the adolescent in which to struggle through the confused issues that adolescence typically creates.  Within this milieu it provides support against common enemies, guidelines for acceptable behavior, a forum in which to discuss issues that can be safely explored only with those who are equally unsure, and tolerance for uncertainties and inconsistencies concerning ultimate goals.  (p.3)

 

Although the group model of therapy is effective for the adolescent population because of the group dynamic aspect of their psychological tendencies, Linesch(1988) finds that it is not so easy to rely on verbal therapeutic modalities in these scenarios.  She found that “directing youngsters to discuss the here and now of group process is often very difficult in verbal therapy groups.  The art process allows this kind of exploration to occur: diagrams, symbols and metaphors allow the adolescent to distance [him/]her self from the potential anxiety in this kind of task” (p.142).  In writing culture, it is common for a writer to belong to a “crew” of other writers who form a supportive group.  Often times these crews come together to create a group piece, as a mural.  Through this they learn to cooperate with one another and work together to create something with a collective message(Stowers, 1997).  Hanna, Hanna, & Keys found that, “teaching kids to empathize with and help each other is a tremendously powerful tool that carries over and transitions into group therapy and everyday interactions...A therapeutic peer culture can be far more beneficial than any individual counselor can” (p.17).

 

Graffiti as Youth Culture

 

In the article entitled “Fifty strategies for counseling defiant, aggressive adolescents”, by Hanna, Hanna, & Keys(1999), the authors discuss the importance of being familiar with current trends in youth culture and knowing about their interests, in music, art and the like;  “In a sense, adolescence itself can be viewed as a unique culture, and adopting a multicultural perspective in working with this type of client is essential....When working with adolescents, it is important to stay abreast of the evolving youth culture” (p.15).  Often adults view youth interests as being empty, passing fads.  This perspective belittles the interests of youth and conveys the notion that their culture is not meaningful and that they cannot be deeply invested in it.  Austin(2001) puts it this way, “The culture of young people is often considered to be a matter of adult-sponsored, money making, commercialized fads, characterized by the cyclical eruption of trends in the marketplace rather than by continuity over time or by the authentic, affective investment of young people in tradition” (p.41). The belief, held by some figures of authority, which views youth culture as a meaningless fad, fosters a sense of resentment among adolescents and results in their increased distance and resistance to adult influence and intervention.  For young people who largely define their identity with regards to their peer group, the things in which they invest their time and energy, which make up their culture, are very much a part of who they are.  In order for an adolescent within this culture to feel validated as an individual, he or she must feel that their affiliation to their respective peer group is respected and acknowledged as part of their own identity.  Additionally, the particular cultural movement which the adolescent pledges his or her allegiance to must also be acknowledged as a valid cultural identity in and of itself, and not condescendingly viewed as a mere triviality.

 

In the case of graffiti, it is one example of a youth culture which has not only persisted over time, throughout generations, but has built a structure which provides youth with a focus for their passion and fosters dedication and development of skill.  Graffiti, as a popular youth culture, has existed in the United States since the 1960’s(Austin, 2001).  In discussing writing culture in New York in it’s early stages, Austin(2001) says that “the emerging writing culture institutionalized values of hard work, creativity, persistence, autonomy, and skill in ways that few educational and occupational avenues open to young people ever have” (p.52).  In his discussion of the fame that writers strived to achieve through their prolific art expressions, Austin goes on to say that “fame was contingent upon long hours, hard work and dedication.  In this way, acquiring writing fame has, ironically, offered a continuing means for urban young people to validate the liberal, meritocracy-based work ethic that had so starkly failed to produce the promised economic results for this group during the 1960’s and 1970’s” (p.52).

 

Redirecting Writers’ Energy

 

Young graffiti writers engage in a socially-defiant way of developing themselves through identity formation which at the same time provides a means of creative self-expression, acquiring artistic skill, and being part of a community.  Although the form that this takes is in direct defiance of societal restrictions which creates social tension and subjects its young participants to legal repercussions, it is possible for the energy that these young writers put into their illegal art to be redirected and focused toward more constructive, positive and legitimate directions if provided with the opportunity to participate in appropriate outlets for their creative expression. In Graffiti Verite 2, Bryan(1998) interviews Haze, a once prolific, illegal, graffiti artist in his days of adolescence who turned successful, legitimate, professional graphic designer in his later years:

 

“If you’re putting in work and you got the skills, you should find a way to get paid for your skills.  This is the modern world......you gotta find a way to plug in and if you can plug in without sellin your soul and keep doing what you believe in then you’ve accomplished both things.  Because if you’re sittin there goin, you know, fuck the system, you know, “I’m not gonna play by those rules ‘cause I don’t believe in it”, well, you might find yourself pretty lonely with your art.  You gotta get real with the program.  Develop your own program so that you can maintain.  But still understand that this is how the world works and you’re not gonna be that productive if you’re on the outside looking in.  You gotta get in the mix one way or another.”

 

Pursuing a career in art is one way that writers can focus their energy and talent into a socially acceptable venue.  However, making money is not the only possible positive outcome of these kid’s talent and energy.  The efforts that these youth put forth toward resisting authority and societal norms, if understood as social criticism, can be redirected to take shape as an asset to society in the form of social activism.  Given the opportunity to reflect on their actions and understand the motivation behind them, young writers can evolve and mature into active members of society. They can come to see that they can actually make more of a difference in evoking change in society by participating within its norms and working to change the things they don’t agree with, rather than acting out against them from the outside and winding up in isolation. Rather than to stunt the natural process of adolescent identity formation through rebellious activity by failing to see it’s purposes, it is more effective for the long term growth, therapeutic change and maturation of young people to make attempts at rechanneling this rebellious energy into constructive and socially acceptable outlets.  It is unrealistic to expect teenagers to stop taking risks or challenging authority.  It is realistic, however, for youth to learn how to channel their efforts through legitimate and productive means.  Fliegel(2000) says that, “by acknowledging that risk-taking represents a way to structure identity, and that it is essential to the maturational process, one can join with the adolescent in exploring risks that promote health, resistance that promotes change, and a questioning of authority that incorporates self-discovery” (p.83). If approached from this perspective and utilized as a therapeutic tool, graffiti art can become a source of reflection and individual development.  Tucker quotes a writer named Coda as saying, “to pour your soul onto a wall and be able to step back and see your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your weaknesses, really gives you a deeper understanding of yourself and your own mental state” (p.7).  The act of creating a work of art that that is fueled by frustration but offers insight into personal, inner psychological material becomes a form of sublimation and thus takes on positive attributes which instigate healthy transformation.  Kramer (2001) articulates that “’sublimation’ designates processes whereby primitive urges, emanating from the id, are transformed by the ego into complex acts that do not serve direct instinctual gratification.  In the course of this transformation, primitive behavior, necessarily asocial, gives way to activities that are ego-syntonic and are as a rule socially productive” (p.28).

 

    

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