Is Graffiti an Art?

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Mention the word ‘graffiti’ and what typically comes to mind is something unpleasant and distasteful like indecent language scribbled on a wall of a store or crude pictures. Most graffiti is characterized as vandalism on property that does not belong to the culprit. Graffiti also displays negative graphics that promote some type of vulgar message such as violence, sex, drugs, gangs, and racism. On the other hand, when the terms “street” and “art” come together, a blast of colorful creations upon blank slates on the street comes to mind.

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Although street art is technically considered graffiti, it is a type of graffiti with positive qualities, but certain figures in society find street art to be, in some way, disruptive. If used properly, street art can be appreciated artistically and socially. Despite the negative stigma attached to graffiti, street art has emerged as a progressive valuable art form whose vast history, surge in popularity, and urge for social change warrant its classification as a fine art.

Those who argue that street art is nothing more than graffiti that violates personal property do not characterize it as a valuable art form. These critics argue that some places cannot afford to keep the property clean; if it gets really bad, the whole building will have to be painted, and that is expensive (O’Lear). Unwanted artwork will cause economic problems with removing the art from illegally used canvases such as building, billboards, and sidewalks. Critics also uphold that there are numerous outlets that people could use that are more tasteful and less destructive. (O’Lear). Turkey Stremmel, the co-owner of Stremmel Gallery, suggests that there are other ways to create the murals artists plaster on street surfaces. Artists can easily purchase a different type of medium and create a piece of art. Thus, critics deem the use of the street as unnecessary, as well as, expensive to get rid of. City officials say street art to be a “public nuisance that degrades the quality of life in neighborhoods and communities across the city” (Costello). The amount of street art creates an image about the city that the city officials believe is negative and displeasing. Finally, critics believe as well as damaging property, street art can encourage gangs to continue with their tagging methods, thus upholding gang related activity. After the “Art in the Streets” exhibit in Los Angeles, “an apparent increase in vandalism in the local area” created controversial speculation (Greiner). The show casing of street art and graffiti sent out a message to other artists that basically stated the approval of street art and graffiti.

However, in the recent years, street art remains a valuable form of art due to morphing into a cultural trait. Tracing the roots of the street art that exists today, people have been leaving their marks on walls for centuries (“Tracing the Roots…”). Many of the pieces have been recovered, valued, and treasured, serving to carry on a message left behind. Culture has altered and changed over the years, and now, society has what is street art today, stemming from art created years ago. The rise of the art movement did not come about until the 1980s and gave way to the 1990s. Most notably, San Franciso’s TWIST and New York’s COST and REV begin to work out of traditional graffiti by adding poster, sculpture, murals, and other media to the ink and spray paint standbys (Gastman). As time went on, many other graffiti artists follow in their footsteps. The concept of street art stuck and still stands today. Graffiti and street art have its own culture and keeps developing and thriving despite the resentment held towards it.

In addition, the definition of street art has taken a huge turn in the following years of its appearance around the 1980s. Now popularized by hundreds of people, street art exhibits have emerged due to the frequent unique pieces of art appearing around cities. The massive street art movement has gain followers. On April 17, 2011, Art in the Streets was held by MOCA, The Museum of Contemporary Art, and this exhibit proved to hold the most visitors during the span of the show’s opening. Art in the Streets received the highest attendance in the museum’s history, with 201,352 visitors from April 17 to August 8 (Castaneda). The sheer number of visitors shows an example of the support street art has claimed for itself. In a conducted survey of sixty-seven participants, forty-six answered the question: “Which would you rather see: an art museum or street art exhibition?”, and more than half of the survey takers choose a street art exhibition. The art one would see in the streets appeals better than the art displayed in cases as a result of the novelty. Furthermore, 94% believe that street art is a valuable art form (Bell). The artistic creativity has captured eyes, and most people find it interesting and different. Street art has even garnered much respect with art connoisseurs such as Donald Lagerberg, a Visual Arts Professor. ‘Street art is popular today because a lot of people can appreciate art that appears in the most unconventional places,’ said Rosa Fabon, 21, an art major. ‘I definitely think our generation is more accepting of street art’ (Castaneda). Fabon proves an excellent point. The generation of today thinks differently than people did in the past years when street art first emerged. Today’s generation is more into pop culture and the freshness of the culture. Interestingly enough, many of the survey takers agree that street art brings creativity to a city. The vibrant colors and intricate designs draw them in. Art is moving forward, and this generation likes new. Barak Obama, during his campaign, commissioned Shepard Fairey, one of the world’s most influential street artists, to design his campaign poster (Costello). Even someone like Obama holds some kind of appreciation towards street artists. All in all, the large number of attendees at MOCA’s exhibition proves that graffiti and street art continue to find popularity within our generation. “Street art is not so much about making a name and leaving a mark as it is getting people to interact with and view something in a new way,” stated Melrose & Fairfax during an interview with the Huffinton Post (Almendrala). Street artists are not about making it big or becoming famous; street arts are about conveying a message through their art that will bring people together to relate and interpret the message as a group.

“My first impression of why other people were writing was because I felt people were angry, upset that they didn’t have a voice in the world” (Gastman). Some time ago, many people were not able to voice their opinions live on the news, in newspaper articles, or over the radio, so many turned towards the streets. Street art is a wonderful way to voice opinions on issues occurring in the world. A great amount of street art is revolved around problems within society, politically and socially, and provides awareness within cities. In a way, street art has its own statement on things going on in the world, and since the artwork is out in the streets where everyone can see, there is more of a direct chance for passersby to take notice. During these times, “people begin to look to the streets, and to their peers, to find explanations for their condition” rather than using such things as a television, state radio, or newspaper (MacPhee). Street art has served as a form of communication during many occasions, one being in France during a student and worker revolt in 1968. Due to the revolt, many of the TV and radio stations were not available. The French began to look towards street art as a way to know what is going on in society. Literally, the walls were just about the only place people could get any type of news. Other areas such as Nicaragua, South Africa, and Argentina have used street art to the advantage to voice negativities of the time or just general oppositions of certain things. The most prominent influential artist is Banksy with his artistic murals that depict “harsh realities of life but in a humorous and poignant manner” (Wildman). An elusive figure standing in London, no one knows who he is or what he looks like, but he is well known for his thought-provoking artwork that “show the social reality of racism, social class divides, poverty, corruption and a whole lot of other issues” (Wildman). Banksy challenges what is known as the traditional norms of art today. To make people think is the goal of artists. The artist’s work allows those who view it to question things and wonder, to interpret, and to produce creative ideas and opinions. Banksy’s work is viewed at valuable art due to its incredible ability to provoke thought and question, and as a result, help people to become aware and active.

I think that for our time street art is no longer a novelty as more and more often we meet on the streets of our cities different pictures, drawings or graffiti. They embellish the grey walls of buildings, roads, public spaces and can appear in any of the most unexpected places. Actually not as it combines a wide range of various kinds of art forms and it is difficult to describe them by one common definition. Generally ,it is a free public art that is inspired by the urban environment and includes a lot of extraordinary styles such as graffiti, wheat pasting, sticker and guerrilla art, video projection, street posters and installations, art intervention and many others.

Street artists use different tools for communicating with everyday people, asking questions about social matters and expressing political concerns. That is why street art often refers to an unsanctioned art as opposition to government initiatives and can be a powerful platform for reaching the public and acute issues. For other artists, urban art is simply an adaptation of visual artwork into a format of public space that makes possible for artists reach a much broader audience and be seen in the off-center places.

Street art provides positive contexts that bring about intellectual thinking when it comes to the subject at hand, whether it be a social problem or an issues that is happening somewhere overbroad. From the stone ages to present day, street art has always been around to leave a message and to bring a little color to the bleak streets of New York and California. Street art proves to be a fine art form, becoming a part of a culture that is slowly becoming more and more social accepted and holds a larger meaning than most think. ‘Imagine a city where graffiti is not illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked, where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases, where standing at the bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business,’ Banksy writes (Fusco). To bring people together, artists or not, is a beautiful thing, like the blending of wet paint on broken stone—a fine sight to see.

While people might suggest a flair or style of writing, these forms fail to qualify as example of superb graffiti art because of a lack of aesthetic qualities and inability to produce a maximal aesthetic feeling in the viewer. In fact, the tag or individual mark is not produced for artistic purposes. It is basically a means to indicate the writer’s presence, i.e., the age old statement of ‘I was here.’ Gang markings of territory also fit the definition of graffiti, and they mainly consists of tags and messages that provide ‘news’ of happenings in the neighborhood. Murals for community enhancement and beautification are also a form of graffiti even though they are not usually thought of this way because most murals are commissioned. These are more colorful and complex. They take considerable amount of skill to complete, and murals can be done in a graffiti art style or a traditional pictorial scene. The last form of graffiti is graffiti art which is the creative use of spray paint to produce an artwork that is graffiti or done in a graffiti-like style, and this the is the concern of this discussion.

Modern graffiti art originated in New York City, and it was known first as ‘New York Style’ graffiti. This art form began in the late 1960’s when teens used permanent markers to tag or write their names, followed by the number of the street on which they lived, in subway cars. This trend originated with the appearance of ‘Taki 183’ which was the tag of a Greek American boy named Demitrius. Tagging soon became a way to get one’s name known throughout the city. However, it should be noted that tagging appeared in Philadelphia before New York. The monikers, ‘Cornbread’ and ‘Top Cat’ were well known in Philadelphia, and when Top Cat’s style appeared in New York, it was dubbed as ‘Broadway Style’ for its long skinny lettering. With street art becoming more and more widely accepted, some more contemporary galleries have opened their doors to the artists involved. So, not only can you go see a street artists work in an outside space but you can also go to a gallery and see their work there too, where a lot of it still manages to retain it’s urban style even in a designated, indoor art setting.

Street art isn’t just limited to painting on walls. It’s about interaction within the public space. And so many different types and styles of street and urban art come under that umbrella. The street art world is made up of artists and art lovers from all over the world, all walks of life, and of all ages. It really is so inclusive, and everyone’s welcome!

Works Cited

Almendrala, Anna. ‘Street Art Vs. Graffiti In Los Angeles.’ Huffington Post Los Angeles Culture [Los Angeles] 02 Feb. 2011. Huffington Post. Web. 14 Dec. 2018. .

Bell, Elizabeth. “The Value of Street Art.” Survey. Survey Monkey. 26 Oct. 2011.

Castaneda, Jeanette. ‘Street Art Proves Its Popularity.’ The Daily Titan. California State University – Fullerton, 22 Aug. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2018.

Costello, Lenore. ‘One Person’s Vandalism Is Another One’s Art (Gotham Gazette, Mar 2008).’ Gotham Gazette – the Place for New York City Policy and Politics. Citizens Union Foundation, Mar. 2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2018 .

Gastman, Roger, and Caleb Neelon. History of American Graffiti. New York: Harper Design, 2010. Print.

Greiner, Zang. ‘Does Street Art Show Encourage Graffiti?’ The Art Newspaper. Anna Somers Cocks, 07 June 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. .

MacPhee, Josh. ‘Street Art and Social Movements.’ Web log post. Justseeds. Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, 17 Feb. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. .

O’Lear, Casey. ‘Unorthodox Art Gains in Popularity, Acceptance | The Nevada Sagebrush.’ The Nevada Sagebrush [Reno, Nevada] 4 Apr. 2011. The Nevada Sagebrush – The Student Newspaper of the University of Nevada, Reno. University of Nevada, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. .

‘Tracing the Roots of Modern Street-Art and Graffiti.’ Tracing the Roots of Modern Street-Art and Graffiti | WebUrbanist. WebUrbanist | From Urban Art & 3D Graffiti to Abandoned Cities. Webist Media Publishing, 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. .

Wildman, Luke. ‘Why Banksy Canvas Art Is So Popular.’ Entertainment Articles – EzineMark – Free Content Article Directory. EzineMark, 28 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. .  

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Is Graffiti An Art?. (2021, May 09). Retrieved from