With all the winter storms sweeping the country, I imagine there is going to be quite a bit of grime left over and what better way to spruce up the neighborhood or driveway than with a little cheerful environmental subtractive street art!


I’m not sure the location of this one, but it could definitely be a school!

5 or so years ago when I was playing with a pressure washer in my driveway (while I was supposed to be cleaning a rug) I never knew I was participating in a burgeoning street art movement! Since then, there has consistently been a picture pressure washed into the grime in our concrete driveway that my young neighbors like to come and color in with their sidewalk chalk. Who knew we were so progressive! I wish I had documented all the pictures we made!!


A Paul Curtis fine art piece

Out in the world, clever artists are taking to the dirtiest of streets and cleaning them up in a most non-traditional way while engaging in a public form of street are that won’t land them in jail. I’m not totally sure what the official name for this subtractive method is, but it seems to popularly be called reverse graffiti, or better yet, environmental graffiti. The word graffiti carries negative connotations for many, so I think subtractive street art sounds a little more encompassing. Maybe subtractive public art would be an even better name if you decide to take your children or students out to get involved with this beautifully helpful and creative art form, since even “street art” can carry connotations with some people. Or even better, come up with your own name!


Why stick to a simple “wash me” scrawled onto the back of a dirty car when you could take it to the next level like the artist who drew these birds on the back of this truck did! I really like the way the majority of the subject matter these subtractive street artists are engaging with is of natural scenes and imagery. The juxtaposition with the dirty urban environments really creates a thought provoking contrast.


Paul Curtis, AKA Moose, is the English street artists credited with first popularizing this “reverse graffiti” method. Originally these pieces were mostly based in Europe, but this tidy art style has gained steady popularity in the USA as a reputable art form. What better time to get students involved in the movement here in the US! It has even been embraced by large corporations as a form of less expensive street advertising and hip marketing. The top reverse graffiti artists are often hired to create these artistic trendy advertisements in large cities.


Paul Curtis created this piece for Clorox’s Green Works line. I personally believe that this combination is a gray area within the fields of street art, advertising, and public influence. It is much better than a dingy wall, but it is still a commercial. 

I think that with a little planning this quirky environmental art method could really spark older students’ wonder for connecting with sense of place and teaching pollution awareness in a non-ecophobic way. It gets students out into their communities looking at where there is the most pollution residue, what is causing it, discovering why, and then opening up the conversation for brainstorming ways that pollution in the community can be systematically reduced, ways to educate the community on specific pollution issues, and is a collaborative way to reduce pollution and build community pride–all through the construct of something beautiful–art!


This butterfly imagery on an underpass is one of my favorites, but upon closer inspection it may be an ad too!

My suggestion is to start simple. If nothing else create a design on your own car! Better though is to: find a wall that is less than clean (ideally highly visible and street facing), get the art teacher involved and plan out a nature based design, gain approval from the proper channels to “clean” the wall in this subtractive public art method (assuring them that you will pressure wash the wall clean if it doesn’t look awesome–which of course it will), procure abrasive sponges, soap, and scrubbers (a hardware store may even donate them), and get to cleaning art! Send me your pictures and I will post them!


How do you feel about public commercial art? In your opinion, is it helpful or invasive?

How could you incorporate this unique and tidy art form into your community?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Seeds to Sprout:

Check out this video of Paul Curtis creating a piece in San Francisco

See more images on the website Environmental Graffiti

There’s even a Wikipedia page about  reverse graffiti!

Here is some info on Reverse Graffiti as public advertising

This Huffington Post article has lots of links to different Reverse Graffiti projects around the world, including one done in moss! I have seen some of this moss art before and I love it!!


Have fun with it!


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