Next time you walk past a colourful tag on a building, or a large-scale graffiti mural, don’t jump to assumptions about who the artist was. Although graffiti has traditionally been seen as an urban art form for the young, a number of projects are exploring how it can offer therapeutic help for older people, particularly those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. In 2015 a Lisbon-based initiative by LATA 65 saw young artists and the older generation teaming up, supplying them with masks, gloves and spray cans to tag and spray their way around the Portuguese capital.
Similar ideas are behind projects by VSA Colorado. The State Organisation on Arts and Disability has been putting together street artists with older community members suffering from Alzheimer’s to take to the streets of the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver, spray cans in hand. The idea behind it is hardly new – art therapy has long been used to help people of all stripes express their thoughts and feelings, as well as honing motor skills and exploring memories. But the programme, called Granny Does Graffiti, adds to this the element of bringing different generations together via graffiti, recognising too the fleeting memory of graffiti as an art form also having interesting emotional parallels to the nature of memory itself. “We know arts can access different parts of the brain where words maybe won’t,” early stage service coordinator at the Colorado Alzheimer’s Association Kera Magarill, told Colorado Public Radio. “So participating in programmes like this opens up memories and pathways in the brain for people to get creative, explore and engage.”
The participants started with a short workshop led by Denver graffiti artist Ratha Sok, outlining the basics of graffiti culture, including ideas of tagging (adding your signature) and using simple symbols to express your own personality, before taking to the streets themselves. “We’re trying to break down the stereotypes of what people with Alzheimer’s can do and what graffiti artists can do and understand what art can do to bridge that gap. I think people are always willing to learn something new, and I think art is a way to do that,” Kera explained. “We start with the idea that graffiti is about leaving your mark. If you’re a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, that’s probably crossed your mind. We want to make sure we’re remembered. We talk about making tags, shapes and symbols to represent ourselves.”