Graffiti as Street Math? Or as History?

Graffiti as Math Street Art

The idea of street art and graffiti as something other than hooligans defacing public spaces intrigued me. And that art and even street art has math concepts built-in is an argument for my 6th grader who wants to go to art school to pay attention to math. I suppose concepts like symmetry make sense for art, but how about measurement, proportion, and scale?

What do you think of street art? Please share!

p.s. Josephine Noah’s article is here.

 Graffiti World (Updated Edition): Street Art from Five Continents by Nicholas Ganz

Graffiti Art Coloring Book by Aye Jay Morano

Graffiti Alphabets: Street Fonts from Around the World by Claudia Walde

To view any of these young adult street art books more closely at Amazon, please click on image.

Senior Sheila B. presents her research on Middle Eastern graffiti and street art during Calhoun’s Upper School Demo Day, when students share what they’ve learned with fellow students, faculty and parents. Held at the end of each term (or mod), Demo Day is just one more avenue to make students reflect on and reinforce their learning. (The project was for a course on the History and Politics of the Modern Middle East.)


Posted on December 9, 2011 by Josephine Noah

Did you know that makers of wild style graffiti are doing math as they create their masterpieces? Many years ago, I wrote my Master’s thesis on this topic. (You can find my preliminary paper on the web.) Makers of wild style graffiti are more diverse than you might think, coming from a wide range of age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, and ethnicities.

I’ve met talented and passionate graffiti artists who are 13-year-old Latino middle school students and 30-year-old white middle-class engineers. I knew one who was obsessed with sacred geometry. Some love school math and excel at it, some absolutely don’t. But they’re all doing street math, much of it self-invented or taught by peers, as they plan and paint their pieces.

Can you read the piece at the top of this post? A young graffiti artist would be able to do so immediately, using problem-solving skills developed to look for patterns and decode. And there are obviously concepts of symmetry and proportion at work in the design of these images. And imagine the challenges involved in accurately translating a sketch from an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper onto a wall 20+ feet long.

These artists use concepts of scale and invented measuring techniques to do so. Want to further test your wild style deciphering skills? Try these, by Geser and Knect.

As a teacher, I inspired some young students’ confidence and engagement in math by pointing out that they were already doing some math that was beyond my capabilities. For students who might not have already found their artistic calling that can be related to math, Sketchpad can be an inspiring tool: check out this animation by a high school student! You can be sure plenty of math was directly used here.

About Josephine Noah

I taught mathematics for 5 years in Berkeley and Oakland, California, before coming to Key Curriculum Press. Teaching with powerful curricula like the Interactive Mathematics Program and Paul Foerster’s Calculus book had a profound impact on me and my students’ experiences in the classroom, and led me to want to be a part of delivering powerful learning materials. I’ve been doing just that with Key Curriculum Press since 2002, first working as a development editor, and now as Product Management Director.

Follow PragmaticMom’s board Math Fun on Pinterest.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. JanB

    In Holland, where I come from, graffiti is considered a form of art. Especially in Amsterdam there is a big graffiti sub-culture. I know most of them work from a smaller design to start with and when you would ask them how they are able to convert that in huge murals they answer “I don’t know… I just do it”…
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    • Hi Jan B,
      Holland has some of the best design schools and designers in the world so I am not surprised that you and your countrymen see graffiti as art. I’d love to see some examples of what you like over there. Want to guest post as a follow up to this post?

  2. vanita

    in nyc there are professional graffiti artists who are paid really well by small businesses for wall art, indoors and outdoors, signage creation and flyer design. i’ve seen graffiti thats absolutely amazing and interesting and isnt an eye sore at all. then there are the eye sores. kids who want to leave their tag…on windows, store gates, people’s houses.
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  3. Carl Winchester

    I consider graffiti to be a form of art. In my country I have seen a lot of teenagers who make a living from it. It is absolutely amazing!
    Carl Winchester recently posted…http://www.kimkardashiantaped.comMy Profile

    • Hi Carl,
      Where are you from? I’ve heard this now in NYC and Holland. I think that is great. Any chance I can get you to snap some examples in your town and send them to me? Thanks!

  4. Artchoo

    I so love street art- I mean really good street art. The tagging is horrible and lazy and annoying. This is so cool to read this post, because I am starting a post on street art, but not from the math point of view. I will link to this post. How enlightening to think that a bunch of math can go hand in hand with street art. Hmmmm, maybe math teachers could spice up their classes a little?
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    • Hi Artchoo,
      I love that you are posting on Street Art and I’ll add your link back to this post as well. I’d love to see more great examples of Street Art that are local to each person’s area. It’s so cool that very good street artists are hired by businesses to create art.

      The connection to art and math is humorous to me because my oldest who is an artist and wants to go to RISD is 12-years-old and hates math. Math and art ARE related which makes sense when you consider proportion, symmetry and measuring. It’s just the math is intuitive but it’s still there. I hope this makes her pay more attention to math next year! Do you know other artists from RISD who hated math? It seems like artists and math don’t necessarily go hand in hand but it still there. Music too, especially classical like Bach, have a strong mathematical basis. I guess you can run but you can’t hide! At least for my daughter! 🙂

  5. Ann

    It hasn’t been on my mind lately since there is not much of it on the Cape. Used to like to seen nice ones living in Boston and Cambridge. Agree with Artchoo – don’t like tags much. Math and history connection is interesting!
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    • Hi Ann,
      That so funny that you say that because we were just down at the Cape (Plymouth so barely Cape but still Cape) and you are right. There is just picturesque coastal cute sea towns and no graffiti, artistic or otherwise. Does the town just paint it out quickly? Or maybe you don’t have the street tagger culture down there. You are lucky there is no ugly graffiti around there! I’m not sure if there is great street art in Boston … there is some along the Mass Pike but it’s hardly mind blowing.

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