Graffiti Vs. Street Art – are they art at all?

It’s highly likely that you, like many others, walk past pieces of art on a daily basis without giving them a moment’s thought. It’s quite likely, that you have gazed upon said pieces of art and ‘tutted’, or shaken your head in disgust. It’s likely that many of you would not consider such pieces as ‘art’, at all. I refer, of course, to graffiti and street art. The Cinderella’s of the art world, viewed by many as acts of vandalism, ugly or useless. These pieces are in fact important social commentaries and critiques, they are “art for arts sake”, produced for a reason other than money or fame. Like all art, they represent a point of view, they are a release of creativity and they require talent, and they deserve the same appreciation, thought and respect as any painting hung in a gallery.


Many people nowadays associate street art with the allusive figure, Banksy, begrudgingly conceding that if someone has so much attention and praise, his art must be worth something and so must, by extension, other art works of its kind. So street art is less of an “issue”, and we will discuss it a little later. The real problem child is graffiti, letters scribbled on walls, acts of vandalism, stupid kids playing around with spray paint.


In the Oxford Dictionary, graffiti is defined as “writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view.” There is no denying the word ‘illicit’; graffiti by nature is an illegal act, which is why it is so easily and often dismissed as vandalism. If one were to view graffiti in other ways, the meaning and significance totally changes. For instance, graffiti is the most ancient form of art, dating from the caveman era, where individuals would narrate events through drawings on the walls of their habitations. There are also examples of graffiti dating back to Ancient Greece and Egypt, as well as the Roman Empire. Or, considering the motivation and situations of graffiti. The appearance of graffiti speaks volumes. Most can be found in the rougher sides of town, the poorer more neglected neighbourhoods where municipalities are not concerned with aesthetic appeal. It says: ‘no-one cares about us, no-one is going to clean this up’, it is the effort of downtrodden people to express themselves, to decorate their spaces, to address their struggles.


Graffiti is intertwined with culture, most notably hip-hop and gangs, but also in modern years gaming cultures. This genre originated in New York, in the 1960s, when a man named Taki wrote his name on the outside of Subway cars, beginning a trend and an area of mystique around him that many wished to emulate. The act of signing ones name is known as ‘tagging’, but as the trend of graffiti intensified, artists competed within themselves to produce more aesthetic signatures, via colours, effects or letters, known as the “Style Wars”.


Due to the illicit nature of graffiti and street art and the gang or ‘crew’ associations with graffiti, it tends to be a male-dominated genre, and typically reserved for 18-25 year olds. The reasons for this are mostly practical: graffiti needs to take place at night, under the cover of darkness and, since it is usually employed in less secure neighbourhoods, is particularly dangerous for young girls to achieve alone.


Graffiti Vs. Street Art


Is there a difference between Graffiti and Street Art?

Whilst the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is arguably a difference. Firstly, that ‘Street Art’ is deemed a more acceptable, higher term, and thus tends not to include tagging, or letter-heavy works, it is rather image based, for instance: murals, and takes far more time. It is also often produced on larger scales, so is more costly. Secondly, many street artists have had formal art training, whereas those who graffiti are self-taught. In fact, many street artists also display their works in galleries, and will happily sell their art, but wish to continue contributing to the art on the streets to stay in touch with urban culture and remain true to their roots.


There are, however, areas which allow street art, such as Val Paraiso in Chile, or Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who have commission artists to decorate city walls and public spaces. This is known as ‘urban art’, i.e. legal street art, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Many examples of the two address political or cultural occurrences, often critiquing their subjects.


Art is subjective, and simply knowing that street art or graffiti is considered true art by many does not mean you have to agree. Do, however, consider the motivations, the situations and the message of street-side scrawls when you next pass them, and begin to engage with the most dynamic form of artistic creativity we have today.