Activism through Stencils

An oldie but a goodie…this is a lesson I did with my high school students from the American International School in Carlingford, Sydney (Australia) during my student teaching. And while I’ve only done this unit once, I absolutely loved it and so did the kids.  This unit focuses on how artists have successfully used stenciling (and graffiti) to create work that represents movements they are a part of or causes they believe in.  Students develop an understanding and why and how some artists focus their art around their beliefs and in the end, students create their own stencil regarding any strong feelings they have towards real world issues.

Essentially, all you would need to make this work for the actual project is tag board (any size), spray paint (any color), and xacto knives and scissors.  To make some other components of this unit effective, computers and av equipment would be helpful for student presentations.

For this unit, I started out by introducing students to a list of activist artists that have been seen throughout history ( is a great resource and is current). We did a pre-assessment (non-graded) about activism and what students knew (not much). Students then had to pick an activist from the list I compiled or find one prominent of their own and develop a presentation about this activist.  From there, students brainstormed, in a group, ideas that had strong feelings associated with them – poverty, war, child slavery, human trafficking, etc.   They brainstormed their ideas and began sketching out what their political stencils could look like.

At this point, we had to discuss how we can transform these sketches into drawings that would be easy to turn into stencils.  We talked about using contour line and creating shapes rather than value.  I also used stencil letters as examples of how shapes can stay secure with little, less noticeable tabs connecting to pieces.  Talking about how a thick border keeps the stencil strong is also key – of course, any mistakes or areas where intense detail is needed, masking tape can be a great material to use.

After practice, students taped their stencils onto the wall and added the necessary coats.

After practice, students taped their stencils onto the wall and added the necessary coats.

Some of the students took the project steps beyond what I anticipated and it was thrilling to see them become emotionally involved with their cause.  When it came to using the stencils (permission from school), we reviewed the basics of spray paint.  Anyone who has used spray paint knows how difficult an even coat can be for beginners.  We used a large tag board taped to a wall to practice lines of paint across – remembering to stand away from the way and only spray in one direction.  If you go back and forth while spraying, the sides always contain a heavier amount of paint and drip.  It is always better to come back with a second coat then have drip-page all over your work.

When taping your stencil to the wall or whatever it is your are spraying onto; remember to use double sided tape (or looped tape) to secure the finer details.  This can be tedious but it is worth it to make sure all the words or smaller lines stand out clearly.

After you spray your stencils evenly, let them dry completely.  Students got extremely anxious because they were still unsure what everything would turn out as.  Thankfully, spray paint dries fairly quickly.  After a discussion on the process and what students had gathered so far, we were able to remove the stencils (which could be used a few more times – you would need to use much sturdier board to make it a stencil that could be used for long amounts of time).  The results were fantastic!

As you can see, some of the details may have gotten blurred – that is where the extra taping can really help.  Others had pleasant surprises such as the North Korea mushroom cloud and the haziness that adds a sense of form (3D).  Students were excited to see their projects turn out well – many were ready to do it again.  Using rubrics and self assessment, students confirmed that this not only helped them learn a fun technique but they understood more of why artists have statements, themes, and purpose to their artwork (I recall a quote from one student, “Art can actually means something to me now.”  We had time to retake the pre-assessment to see what had changed, and students had excelled expectations and could apply their understanding.

Definitely a rewarding project.


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