Is graffiti street art?

There are plenty of reasons why graffiti is no longer considered to be street art, and we explore why the two art forms have gone their separate ways.

Is graffiti street art?

Graffiti is not considered to be street art. While both are typically found outdoors, that is where their similarities end. Graffiti is its own art form with history and a culture that’s independent of other art created for public display. It differs from conventional street art in ways related to compensation, consent, and organizational structure.

The early days of graffiti

Graffiti is actually a forerunner of street art, so it’s necessary to understand how one form led to the birth of the other, to understand how they differ today.

 Street art (above) differs greatly on many levels than graffiti (below).
Street art (above) differs greatly on many levels than graffiti (below).

In its earliest form, graffiti existed before man learned to talk. Elaborate pictures drawn by cavemen and women on cave walls was their primary form of communication as far back as 30,000 B.C. Fast forward through the centuries and graffiti was formally named in the 1960s – although it had been around since the 1920s in a crude form that was predominantly practiced by street gangs.

Graffiti art, as it was first called was born in the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. The movement spread quickly to New York City and then eventually around the world.

Using their first names and a numerical connotation, a number of underground artists rose to prominence by painting their symbols, names and/or nicknames on a variety of locations, including on buildings, buses, phone booths, and postal mailboxes all over the Big Apple. Artists like T-Kid 170, Tracy 168, Pade Dos and Taki 183, who did his thing while moving around the city as a bike messenger, were some of the more prominent graffiti artists of that era.

By 1973, graffiti writing moved from the city streets to subway tunnels and the exteriors and interiors of subway cars. As competition to become the most prolific graffiti artist grew, their methodology changed from painting one car at a time as they rode the transit line to hitting them en masse while the cars were parked in the yard. This practice would come to be known as bombing.

The artistic talent of the painters was in full bloom during the golden age of graffiti art as they worked diligently to hone their craft.

Thick lettering provided the opportunity to further enhance an artist’s name, and these writers decorated the inside of the letters with their own designs. Limited only by their imaginations, artists employed a variety of patterns, including checkerboards, crosshatches, simple dots, and stars within their designs.

Each style had its own name, too: top-to-bottom, block letters, block busters, panel pieces, leaning letters, window down, whole car and throw ups were some of the primary styles. The forms also differ since graffiti is more textural while street art is more image-based.

For nearly a 15-year period during the ‘70s, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) waged a war against graffiti artists, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to remove graffiti from its transportation system. (This would include a war against street gangs who had seemingly always embraced the illegality of graffiti, using the form to mark their territories).

Although the MTA eventually lost the war, the on-going battle did have an effect: it would eventually help move graffiti artists from the subway system back to the streets.

Despite the rise in the popularity and seeming legitimacy of graffiti, thanks to such artists as Keith Haring and Banksy (whose work, along with others in the underground movement,  is visited in the documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop) the fact remains that one of the biggest differences between graffiti and street art is in the legality of the two forms.

Is graffiti legal?

While graffiti happens in the shadows and without the permission of the property owner, street art has risen above the dubious nature of its predecessor to work on a higher plain. Street art has become a movement and a cultural global sensation since casting aside the illegal nature of graffiti.   

Where cities once pursued and prosecuted graffiti artists for their actions, officials now embrace street art for the beauty it brings to their neighborhoods. Art districts have sprung up around the world thanks to the organized efforts of community members, including city government officials, local organizers, property owners and those artists who work within the confines of the law.

In Los Angeles, officials passed a murals ordinance in 2013 making street art legal if you pay for a permit, get permission from the location, and publicly announce your intentions to create art. Noted artist Shepard Farley, best known for his Obama Hope poster and others have jumped at the opportunity to have their works legitimized.

On the other hand, a few artists, like Banksy, continue to thrive on the illegality of their work, rising in reverence in the underground movement to cult-like status. Banksy is often pursued by law enforcement officials despite the aesthetic value of his work because he is viewed, in the eyes of law enforcement, as a vandal.

To be sure, there are those who still blur the lines between graffiti and street art, noting that most street artists are applying their craft without the permission of the property owner. However, those who navigate legitimate channels are viewed as street artists while those who operate outside proper protocols are graffitists.

How street art differs from graffiti

The concerted efforts to beautify a community and provide organization to the art that is painted in its streets also widely varies from graffiti. The uniformity and purposeful planning of street art provide a clear delineation from graffiti art.

While you can associate graffiti with spray-painted tags and an artist’s moniker, street art is usually much more in-depth. Many street artists use their work to make social or political commentary, often drawing murals peppered with an anti-establishment rhetoric.

New York City’s Queens Museum of Art Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl had this to say about the debate of what constitutes public art versus graffiti: “public art is the best way for people to express themselves in this city.”

Finkelpearl, who helps organize socially conscious art exhibitions, added, “Art gets dialogue going. That’s very good. I can’t condone vandalism… It’s really upsetting to me that people would need to write their name over and over again in public space. It’s this culture of fame. I really think it’s regrettable that they think that’s the only way to become famous.”

In another district of the city, The Bushwick Collective consists of several blocks in Brooklyn that are dedicated to the work of street artists. When graffiti artists strike out at these works, the street artists have come up with a clever solution to address the blight that has struck their street art: they paint smiley faces over the part of their art that was desecrated.  

Compensating legal street art

Finally, there is the issue of compensation.

Obviously, most graffiti artists, working anonymously, are never paid for their work. While Bansky and a few other graffiti artists have become wealthy, the vast majority of graffiti artists never see a dime for their efforts, remaining on the fringes of obscurity.

While it’s true that some street artists don’t get paid either, that paradigm is shifting thanks to the rise of the legitimacy of street art. Artists are able to charge for their services, cover their costs and receive compensation for the craft they love.

Furthermore, cities on the cutting-edge of the street art movement routinely issue Request for Proposals when street art mural projects are green lighted in their towns. This provides artists an opportunity to compete for projects and get paid for their services and, hopefully, pursue a career as a full-time artist.

The rise of street art festivals

A growing rise in street art festivals in communities around the world who have embraced the aesthetic and cultural values the form brings to their towns have provided another forum by which artists can get paid. Festival organizers routinely vet artists to ensure festival participants have the pedigree worthy of displaying their artwork within a given community prior to issuing an invite to paint their cities.

The growth of these festivals is relatively new and as they continue to gain in popularity, that will only serve to further widen the gap between street art and graffiti.

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