Showing true colors: analyzing graffiti as a hobby in a high school setting

Artists explain how creating graffiti is a form of expression

Illustration by Emily Xia

*All names beginning with the letter “A” are false names meant to preserve the anonymity of our sources.


pencil scratches on a thin sheet of paper, forming a rugged sketch. A paintbrush smoothly glides over a canvas, leaving blooms of color in its wake. A stylus hovers over a design tablet, bringing a computer screen to life. There are many forms of art, regardless of what tool or surface is used.

To most, a damp, dark tunnel near an abandoned railway isn’t the ideal environment to cultivate ideas. However, for senior Aiden, the concrete walls and privacy are a perfect opportunity to let his creativity flourish. Clutched in his hand is not a pencil, but rather a can of spray paint. With a true feeling of freedom, he begins to draw.

This past year, he began creating graffiti to have some fun with friends and gain more independence.

“It was just my friends and I wanted something to do,” Aiden said. “[Cupertino] is a small town. There’s not a whole lot going on. So we said that spray painting a tunnel might be fun. I had one of my friends tell her parents that it was for a school project. Someone brought a bottle of black spray paint and we ended up using that.”

Senior Ariana began doing graffiti for a similar reason. She’s done it twice — once at the park in eighth grade, and once at Pineapple Express, an area in Cupertino already known for being covered in graffiti.

“Graffiti’s a good choice because it’s easy to get your hands on some spray paint and it’s easy to do almost anywhere,” Ariana said. “The only problem is getting caught, but I think, [with] graffiti, you can create something really pretty out of it. It’s attractive because it’s not always bad. If you use it in a good way, then it can create something good.”

Graffiti is illegal, and can have severe punishments. According to school resource officer and deputy sheriff Corey Chow, depending on the price of the cleanup, graffiti can be considered a misdemeanor or even a felony.

“It’s an issue. It’s an issue anywhere,” Chow said. “We don’t get too many calls about graffiti in Cupertino, but we do enforce it. There are a lot of people who are considered ‘taggers’ who will have their own signature. So a lot of times when we do car stops, we see a lot of [their signatures in art] and [we] will keep portfolios [of their offenses].”

Although neither Aiden nor Ariana create graffiti with the intention of committing a crime, they are both aware that their actions are considered illegal. While Ariana perceives graffiti as an expression of art, she understands why it is illegal.

“Because it’s illegal, it stops [graffiti] from getting abused by high schoolers,” Ariana said. “I think it’s a mix of both just trying to do something illegal for fun and for art. There’s different circumstances. It can ruin a lot of beautiful things. I think it’s better that it’s illegal so it doesn’t trash or ruin things.”

Despite graffiti being illegal, Aiden is determined to maintain his hobby, as the sole purpose of his art is to unleash his creativity. He finds that putting his art in a public setting is a way for him to share his ideas with the world.

“[Graffiti] is definitely just a fun way to express yourself,” Aiden said. “All art is just expression, except this is outside, you’re with your friends and it’s also a little bit exciting that it’s illegal. I don’t go out with malicious intent or urge to destroy public property.”

Aiden’s unique music preferences serve as his inspiration. Using symbols from his favorite artists, Aiden is able to make his artwork more enjoyable, while adding his own personal touches. Incorporating music is another way for him to connect with people who see his art.

“I remember I did one piece that I actually sent to a friend of mine,” Aiden said. “It was just a remake of an album cover, this original piece that I liked. A lot of [Malcolm X’s] music is about love and heartbreak, so what I did was I took a half piece of a shattered heart and stuck it next to X’s question mark so it looked symmetrical. It was just something I liked for myself, especially because I’m such a big X fan.”

According to Chow, there are ways to do graffiti without breaking the law. He encourages students to express their creativity as long as they get official permission from the property owners.

“I’ve seen beautiful murals that are on walls,” Chow said. “So I’ve talked to a lot of people who do do wall art, and they’ve asked me a couple of times, ‘Do you think I could do something on the wall?’ You have to get the ‘OK’ with [the property owner]. If not, technically you’re committing a crime. But I mean if you can speak to the person who owns the property and they’re okay with it, then I say go for it.”

Illustration by Aanchal Garg



Because Pineapple Express has been abandoned for years, Ariana believes that adding graffiti has given the building new life, rather than destroying it. Although she is unsure about the legality of doing graffiti there, she has followed the lead of many others before her who have been using the area for years to express themselves through their art.

“I did [the graffiti] because it wasn’t something I was ruining,” Ariana said. “[The building] was something that was already super graffitied. That was kind of something that was not being used anymore and it wasn’t for anyone’s benefit. Now it’s become an art form.”

Aiden takes pride in his artwork and plans to continue creating graffiti art. He sees his creations as expressions of his own thoughts rather than just paintings. To him, graffiti conveys messages that transcend words.

“All art is just expression,” Aiden said. “It’s whatever you’ve got on your mind. So your dominant thoughts at the time are just your emotions. I know that people who are very mentally broken appreciate art [especially] because there are things that you just can’t express through words.”