The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti @ Schrift & Farbe Design Group (2022)


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The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti

Advertising / Branding / Graffiti / Street Art Posted by Jill C. Weisberg

The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti @ Schrift & Farbe Design Group (1)

Quite often, a question we get asked is what is the difference between street art and graffiti? It’s hard to explain in just one sentence or so, so we have decided to write a blog post about it. Please note: this is our opinion… would love to hear comments on what your take is.

Graffiti writing and street art are often confused with one another. Both are subversive art movements where work is displayed in public rather than a gallery setting. While graffiti artists place their work in public, generally speaking they are not interested in the public understanding their work; they want to speak to other graffiti artists. Street artists want everyone to view and be engaged by their work. They are trying to make a statement. Graffiti writing and street art are closely related contemporary art movements, however, they differ in terms of technique, function and intent.

Graffiti is as old as human civilization. “Graffiti (sgraffiti), meaning drawings or scribblings on a flat surface and deriving from the Italian sgraffio (‘scratch’), with a nod to the Greek graphein (‘to write’), originally referred to those marks found on ancient Roman architecture” (Manco 9). “Tagging” is a modern form of scratching one’s name in the wall. It is usually done with spray paint or markers. The first ‘tags’ appeared in New York City in the late 1960s (Manco 9).

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services there are different types of graffiti.The major types include:


  • gang graffiti, often used by gangs to mark turf or convey threats of violence, and sometimes copycat graffiti, which mimics gang graffiti
  • tagger graffiti, ranging from high-volume simple hits to complex street art
  • conventional graffiti, often isolated or spontaneous acts of “youthful exuberance,” but sometimes malicious or vindictive
  • ideological graffiti, such as political or hate graffiti, which conveys political messages or racial, religious or ethnic slurs. (Weisel 3)

In addition to the above listed types of graffiti, “graffiti writing,” (or tagging) is separate from graffiti, and is the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture. The graffiti writer’s main concern is the “tag” or name of the author (Lewisohn 15).

The tag is the core of graffiti writing. A graffiti writer might be insulted to be called a “graffiti artist” or “street artist.” Within this subculture there exists one main delineation between graffiti writers and street artists, and that delineation is marked by the intention of the artist. Street art is a subset of graffiti writing. Although there is a distinct difference between the two, they are closely related and there is a great deal of crossover between the genres. Because graffiti writing has a bad public reputation as a destructive and vandalistic behavior, many artists prefer to be called “street artists.” Conversely, many graffiti writers, specifically “taggers” are out to destroy and vandalize public property. They find the term “art” offensive and are happy to be known as “saboteurs” (Lewisohn 18).

Because they are conceptual artists, street artists want the general public to not just see their work, but to interact, understand what they are seeing and have an emotional response. Although a street artist may have a tag name, most don’t use just a tag to get their message across (Lewisohn 21). Their artwork may contain their tag name, but it is not usually the focus of the artwork. If a tag is used, it is more like a signature at the bottom of a painting or a form of branding. Street artists generally focus on iconic visual symbols, rather than tags. “Street Artists have taken the concept from Dada and Pop art that iconic images of popular culture or even unremarkable objects can be elevated into symbols of expression” (Manco 150). Because of this use of symbolic imagery, it is fairly easy to visually differentiate street art from a tag.

In addition to symbolic language, the materials and techniques that are commonly associated with street artists also help them stand apart from graffiti writers. Such materials include: stickers, stencils, wheat-paste posters, and the hijacking of outdoor advertising media. Part of the visual surprise or captivation thatone receives from street art is due to its unexpected placement in public, whereit is juxtaposed against functional signage or advertising.

In an ironic twist, street art and graffiti writing has made its way into the mainstream by the recent appropriation of the style by films, advertising, music packaging, fashion and media without people really understanding what they are looking at (Lewisohn 21). An example of such appropriation would be the recent ‘tagged’ handbags by Marc Jacobs, Louis Vitton, Dooney & Bourke and Betsey Johnson.

Like taggers, street artists are also fond of placing their work in difficult locations. Banksy is a street artist from Bristol, England and is known for his often humorous, absurdist concepts. “Inside the elephant and penguin enclosures at the London Zoo, he painted, ‘I want out, this place is too cold; keeper smells; boring, boring boring’ in giant handwriting, which looked as if it had been written by the animals themselves” (Manco 76). Because of the intended audience, this piece is in stark contrast to graffiti writing. Here, Banksy seeks to engage the common zoo visitor and contribute a bit of humor with empathy for the caged animals.

The use of handmade stickers is popular with street artists and taggers becauseof the speed and ease with which a visual message is placed into a public venue. Shepard Fairey is a legendary street artist and graphic designer best known for his iconic image of Barak Obama for the 2009 U.S. presidential campaign. Fairey’s Andre the Giant Has a Posse sticker campaign began in 1989, to make fun of cliquey skate board groups by creating a ridiculous fake posse headed by the well-known Russian wrestler, Andre the Giant (Manco 67). He sent stickers all across the country to friends and distributed them locally in Rhode Island where he was attending school. He not only gained recognition, he also went onto gain national attention for his sticker concept. Fairey’s work is now so mainstream that his Obey line of t-shirts are available at upscale department stores worldwide.

Like stickers, stencils provide a street artist with convenience because they can be quickly painted onto a surface with a tidy final result. Blek le Rat, who has been stenciling walls in Paris since the 1980s, chose to work primarily with stencils because he could produce the design at home with no rush or risk of interruption. Blek then was then able to duplicate the same iconic image all across Paris (Proand Adz 19).

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Advertising and marketing companies have recently employed the use of street-art inspired stencils to promote products in both traditional and guerilla marketing campaigns. “Promoters and advertisers often employ stencil artists to undertake the covert campaigns – which is ironic as they are often the most disparaging towards corporate stencils encroaching onto their creative territory” (Manco, 15). Mainstream companies believe that they will gain the acceptanceof street art-savvy consumers by mimicking a technique their target market feels comfortable with.

Discovery is a very important part of both graffiti writing and street art. “Some choose a humble spot, perhaps an old, disused door with aged and peeling paint. The audience in this case will be small, but when stumbled upon, the piece will feel like a hidden treasure” (Manco 11). Other times locations are chosen for their associations or demographic. For example, the Wynwood Arts District in Miami now has a large concentration of graffiti writing and street art primarily because of the fact that people who appreciate art populate that area. Wynwood, however did not start out that way.Years ago it was a warehouse district next to a massive train yard, which is now the colossal Mid-Town complex. As rail shipping disappeared, the area became blighted, and subsequently was an attractive venue for graffiti artists. Eventually, the more savvy artists, namely Primary Flight, got permission from property owners to create legal murals. Today, Wynwood has one of the largest concentration of graffiti and street art murals in the world.

Graffiti writing and street art are very similar to other types of self-expressive artwork with the exception that what graffiti writers and street artists do in public, unless sanctioned by a property owner, is illegal. Because it is an illicit activity,it has kept writing at the street level. “Illegality is graffiti’s biggest asset and its greatest handicap. While it allows writers to operate outside society’s norms and codes, to retain the air of mystery implicit to the subculture, it also refuses entryinto the works of high art” (Rose and Strike 194).

Whereas graffiti writing functions as a code for other writers, street art is more about communicating with the general public. As noted by street art collective Faile:
“Graffiti isn’t so much about connecting with the masses: it’s about connecting with different crews, it’s an internal language, it’s a secret language. Most graffiti you can’t even read, so it’s really contained within the culture that understands and does it. Streetart is much more open” (Lewisohn 15).

Some street artists work similarly to traditional artists, creating something beautiful, conceptual or stylistically intriguing, the only difference is that they want to display their artwork outside the gallery setting and in the public eye. Jorge Rodriguez- Gerada’s work looks like realistic charcoal portrait drawings you might see in a gallery, with the exception of their large scale. These drawings take up the entire side of a building. The most important thing to Gerada is how the look changes as they degrade over time. Gerada notes, “The blending of the charcoal and the wall surface with the wind, rain or the sudden destruction of the wall is ultimately the most important part of the process. My intent is to have identity, place and memory become one” (Gavin 92).

The main difference between graffiti writing and street art is intention. Graffiti writers are not interested in the general public understanding their artwork. They are primarily concerned with other graffiti writers who can decipher the coded tags and appreciate the style of the writing. Also the ritual of vandalism comes into play. Graffiti writer and fine artist Twist (Barry McGee) feels that the act of destruction is where the power really lies in his (illegal) graffiti writing work (Rose and Strike 41-42). To those who have some knowledge and appreciation of tagging, public spaces can be like historical digs. You can see who has been to a particular section in the past days, months or even years and wonder what brought the tagger to the place and under what circumstances the tag was created (Jacobson and Sjöstrand 5).

By using humor, irony and absurdity, street art communicates on a more conceptual level than graffiti writing. Street art often combines seemingly unrelated slogans and images. By altering the original intent of a commercial image, the final meaning changes. Kaws is one such artist who manipulates existing advertising. In 1995, he was illegally given a key to the glassed in advertisement spaces in bus shelters and on the streets. Kaws was able to take out the existing commercially designed poster, alter the imagery to change the message and then return it to its original location. “Calvin Klein models were groped from behind; children in Guise (a clothing company) ads had their faces reconstructed to look like aliens; a kid in an advertisement for milk was given a gimp mask” (Lewisohn 109).

The motive is often humorous or even political or it could be merely absurdist and may mean nothing at all to the viewer unless they are familiar with the artist. For example, “Caliper Boy,” a street artist from London, has created artwork based on his own mythical story, “this foul-mouthed and rather uncouth child from the weird and horrible parallel world of Scumdon” (Gavin 8). The resulting wheat-paste posters are put up around London and contain line drawings of a sad looking child with the words “dirty little secret” scrawled above him. Where the casual viewer may take note of the poster and ponder its meaning, the viewer that is familiar with Caliper Boy feels privileged to know who the artist is and the story about the child from Scumdon.

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Ironically, gallerists around the world are starting to appreciate graffiti writing and street art and are finding new ways to collaborate with the artists. Graffiti writers and street artists are bringing their concepts in from the street to create pieces for galleries and museums for a more captive audience experience. Retnais an example of a very successful graffiti-artist-turned-gallery-artist. He showed with other well-known graffiti and street artist at the Los AngelesThe Museum of Contemporary Art’s showArt in the Streets, the first major U.S. museum exhibition of the history of graffiti and street art.

The strength of street art is its ability to captivate people as part of their day-to-day experience. With graffiti writing, the audience becomes part of something personal and subversive. Although similar artistic movements in terms of venue, street art and graffiti writing are each distinguished by technique, function and audience.

Works Cited:

Gavin, Francesca. Street Renegades: New Underground Art. London: Laurence KingPublishing, 2007. Print.

Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. New York, Harry N. Abrams,Inc., 2008. Print.

Manco, Tristan. Stencil Graffiti. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.

Prou, Sybille and Adz, King. Blek le Rat: Getting Through the Walls. New York:Thames & Hudson, 2008. Print.

Rose, Arron and Strike, Christian. Beautiful Losers. San Francisco: D.A.P./Iconoclast,2005. Print.


Weisel, Deborah Lamm. “Graffiti.” August 2004. Web. 5 April 2010.


What is the difference between street art and graffiti vandalism? ›

It is illegal under the Graffiti Vandalism Act 2016. Urban Art, unlike graffiti vandalism, is legal artwork where permission to mark the surface has been granted by the owner of the property. Urban Art is often known under many names such as street art or mural art.

What is a graffiti group called? ›

Crew - A loosely organized group of writers who also tag the crew initials along with their name. Crew names are usually three letters, many times ending with K, which stands for kings or kills in most cases.

What are the 3 major types of graffiti? ›

Types of graffiti.
  • Tag. Tagging is the easiest and simplest style of graffiti; it includes one colour and the artist's name or identifier. ...
  • Throw-up or a bomb. Sometimes called a "throwie" is a simple form of graffiti, sitting between a tag and a bomb. ...
  • Letters. Letters can be different styles. ...
  • Piece or character.

Why is graffiti called street art? ›

While murals have existed for many centuries, the idea of taking over the streets with art started with graffiti. In this sense, graffiti predates street art, and many street artists draw their inspiration from graffiti. Graffiti is a contemporary art form defined by words and or images written in public places.

What is the meaning of street art? ›

Street art is related to graffiti art in that it is created in public locations and is usually unsanctioned, but it covers a wider range of media and is more connected with graphic design.

What is graffiti art and example? ›

Definition, Meaning

One of the most radical contemporary art movements, "graffiti art" (also called "Street Art", "Spraycan Art", "Subway Art" or "Aerosol Art") commonly refers to decorative imagery applied by paint or other means to buildings, public transport or other property.

What type of art is graffiti? ›

Graffiti art is a radical contemporary art movement. Coming after the Pop Art movement, Graffiti artists show some of the influence from the Modern art movements that preceded it, such as Pop Art, Abstract Expressionist, or Surrealism.

What is another name for graffiti? ›

That which has been scribbled, written in a scrawled or careless hand. scribbling. cacography. graffito. griffonage.

What is the most common type of graffiti? ›

In areas where graffiti is prevalent, gang and tagger graffiti are the most common types found. While other forms of graffiti may be troublesome, they typically are not as widespread. The proportion of graffiti attributable to differing motives varies widely from one jurisdiction to another.

What does X3 mean in graffiti? ›

X3 translates to 13, representing M, the 13th letter of the alphabet.

Why is it called graffiti? ›

Have you ever WONDERed where the word “graffiti” comes from? It's from the Italian word “graffiato,” which means “scratched.” Art historians think this is because the earliest graffiti was carved on walls. Examples of graffiti date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Is graffiti an art or a crime? ›

All in all, graffiti is arguably an art form because it's an expression of the artist's particular viewpoint or idea. For this reason, it belongs in the hall of culture as much as painting and architecture.

What are the elements of graffiti? ›

The Elements of Art and the Elements of Graffiti

The first three elements of art are line, shape, and form. The three elements of graffiti mirror those art elements by manifesting as a “tag,” “throw,” and “piece.” A “tag” is a word design using the qualities of line.

What are some key differences between graffiti and street art? ›

Definition. Graffiti is writing, or drawings scratched, scribbled, or sprayed illegally on a wall or other surface in a public place, while street art is visual art created in public places.

What are the characteristics of street art? ›

Street Art Characteristics

Street art is often created in public spaces and usually elicits a strong political or social message. Street art is historically linked to breaking from traditional practices, be it in terms of subjects or artistic styles.

What is the importance of street art? ›

Additions of street art benefit urban environments by creating a safer community, generating relationships between constituents and businesses, and increasing economic revenue. Murals, while beautiful, don't serve simply to brighten your day, but also are an integral part of creating a safer community.

What is the process of street art? ›

It can be done with stickers spread over surfaces or by methods like yarn bombing, a process where artists cover things like trees and telephone poles with colorful fibers and knitting. Street art can also be done using stencils, where the creator repeats the image all over a surface to make a statement.

What is the origin of street art? ›

Where Did it Come From? Some of the earliest expressions of street art were certainly the graffiti which started showing up on the sides of train cars and walls. This was the work of gangs in the 1920s and 1930s New York. The impact of this subversive culture was extraordinarily felt in the 1970s and 1980s.

What is graffiti design? ›

graffiti, form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group. Although the common image of graffiti is a stylistic symbol or phrase spray-painted on a wall by a member of a street gang, some graffiti is not gang-related.

Who is the father of street art? ›

Hambleton was a Canadian-American street artist who is widely credited as the original godfather of street art and kingpin of the creative revolution that exploded in the East Side in the 1980s.

Who is most famous graffiti art? ›

Banksy is arguably the most famous graffiti artist of all time and he's broken more barriers for the art form than anyone else has.

Who started graffiti art? ›

The first modern graffiti writer is widely considered to be Cornbread, a high school student from Philadelphia, who in 1967 started tagging city walls to get the attention of a girl. But it was only in the 1980s that galleries began to showcase graffiti as artwork.

How is graffiti a form of art? ›

Graffiti art is another form of an artist using their creative skill as an expression in a visual form. So why shouldn't it be considered art? It can mean from a colorful mural with a meaningful message, to stenciling letters or images that protest against something.

How do you do street art graffiti? ›

4 Tips for Beginners | Graffiti Art - YouTube

When did graffiti become street art? ›

Modern graffiti seems to have appeared in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and by the late sixties it had reached New York. The new art form really took off in the 1970s, when people began writing their names, or 'tags', on buildings all over the city.

Is graffiti a public art? ›

“Like Banksy, who is socially and politically driven, graffiti is driven by almost a communal pride,” she said. Street art is considered rebellious in nature and illegal in practice, while public art is commissioned by cities or property owners and is considered culturally enriching and socially acceptable.

Is graffiti and vandalism the same? ›

Graffiti is always vandalism. By definition it is committed without permission on another person's property, in an adolescent display of entitlement.

What is graffiti vandalism? ›

Graffiti vandalism is a form of vandalism in which individuals use paint, often spray paint, to create words or images on public and private walls and property.

Why is graffiti not vandalism? ›

Instead of being considered a meaningful expression, graffiti is seen as vandalism. This is an unfair label to give to something that requires the same creativity and hard work as other forms of street art.

Should graffiti be considered art or vandalism? ›

Graffiti, also known as street art, defines paintings or words written on public places. Some call this form of expression vandalism while others identify it as a form of art. According to the law, graffiti is vandalism. To scribble on another individual's property without their consent is illegal in the United States.

Why graffiti is not a crime? ›

Because paint, spray paint, brushes, etc are not illegal - the crime often committed when deploying graffiti is vandalism. It is a form of theft. There is nothing inherently illegal about drawing a picture of a cat.

Why is graffiti a problem? ›

Graffiti can cause damage to decorative or delicate surfaces. Affected areas may also start to feel run down and appear threatening, putting off customers and prospects. Some graffiti can be very offensive, threatening to groups or individuals, or racially abusive.

Why do people think street art is vandalism? ›

Still, many critics argue that street art is an act of vandalism, centered on the fact that most street artists don't seek permission from owners of property before scrawling their work onto walls. On the one hand, street art is often an aesthetic enhancement and adds to a neighborhood's local flavor.

What is the importance of graffiti? ›

Graffiti and street art embody cultural significance through its individualistic nature, though its ability to beautify and enhance public spaces, and 1 Page 12 through its highly visible way of speaking out on political, social and economic issues, because it so clearly represents an artistic subculture with a message ...

Does graffiti increase crime? ›

- Graffiti and litter made people twice as likely to steal in a study researchers said on Thursday shows how evidence of social disobedience spurred a surprising number of others to break rules.

Who made graffiti famous? ›

1. Cornbread. Born Darryl McCray, Cornbread is generally acknowledged to be the first modern graffiti artist, who got his start tagging in Philadelphia during the late 1960s.

What type of art is graffiti? ›

Graffiti art is a radical contemporary art movement. Coming after the Pop Art movement, Graffiti artists show some of the influence from the Modern art movements that preceded it, such as Pop Art, Abstract Expressionist, or Surrealism.

Why does graffiti affect our community? ›

Loss of sense of community

It's known that the appearance of graffiti often encourages further crime. Young adults and teenagers are easily influenced, and are therefore most at risk of turning to vandalism. To prevent youth crime, education is key.

How did graffiti start? ›

Graffiti art has its origins in 1970s New York, when young people began to use spray paint and other materials to create images on buildings and on the sides of subway trains. Such graffiti can range from bright graphic images (wildstyle) to the stylised monogram (tag).

What's the main idea of is graffiti art? ›

Graffiti artists are often self-taught, and their art is a means of self-expression. Graffiti is subversive, and graffiti artists are often not concerned with how their work is received, as it's not commissioned by or for the masses. Street art, on the other hand, tends to be image-based.

Why should street art be legal? ›

It should be legal because art allows expression. Even if it's illegal, and it doesn't hurt anyone. A poll on, 80% of people agree it should. It obviously allows freedom of expression.

Is street art considered art? ›

The idea that a form of artistic expression could be considered vandalism is, unsurprisingly, not widespread among graffiti artists. “Graffiti is 100% art,” says Pearce. “It's a symbol of rebellion, and it presents a fantastic new form of creativity, but what makes it art is an individual's opinion.


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