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The Incredible World of Street Art

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

While considered an ‘unofficial’ art because of it commonly being found in public locations, street art is being seen more and more as a visual art in its own right. With its roots in graffiti, this visual art has been seen in a negative light in the past. While this art movement might have begun in cities, today it’s not uncommon to find street art everywhere.

What is street art?

Street art is sometimes referred to as independent art or post graffiti. Graffiti, however, was based on repetition. Graffiti artists create in order to express a message and the message can only be heard by repetition, the constant recreation of a mark or tag in a lot of locations. With every shake of the can, graffiti artists fight to be heard. The art of tagging is based on certain repetitive spray can motions, usually on walls, buildings, or as is the case in New York City, train cars. Street art evolved from graffiti to encompass colors and images in an expression of social and political statements.

The very individual form of artwork is publicly displayed, created in whatever public space the artist feels is right for their idea. While graffiti was associated with vandalism and condemned, society has come to see street art as a work of beauty. Street art provides a medium and means for artists who feel their hands are tied when it comes to opportunities for people to see their work, such as galleries. Street art gives artists a broader reach. While the tool of graffiti is typically the spray can, street artists work with a more diverse media that can include tiling, LED lighting, stencil art, wheat paste, and yarn balancing.

When did street art get its start?

Street art’s roots are in graffiti, an art movement whose beginning is credited with the advent of the famous World War II slogan ‘Kilroy was here’. Kilroy was a simple line drawing of a long-nosed man peering out from behind a ledge. The outrage of these early works of graffiti was not so much what it said as the fact that Kilroy was turning up everywhere. Twenty or so years later New York City saw a graffiti boom that peaked in the 1980s with full murals spray painted on subway cars in the Bronx. But something else evolved in the 1980s. What started as a text-based art became visually conceptual art. The rebellion on subway advertisements by pop artist Keith Haring began around this time. It was the inception of street art.

Some of the most iconic early works of street art were seen at the intersection of Houston Street and the Bowery in New York City. A castoff wall, the Bowery Wall had always been a target of artists. Most notably, in 1982 Keith Haring hijacked the wall for his use which led to a stream of now well-known artists doing the same. The effect led to the wall becoming so prestigious that in 2008 it became privately managed. The wall now is only available to artists by commission or by invitation. Today street art continues to be more socially accepted and respected in some public spaces. However, legalities continue to be an obstacle as street art is still largely considered an illegal act. 

Who are the street art artists?

One of the most famous and recognizable names in street art is Banksy. The British artist is an activist and filmmaker who came out of the underground art scene of Bristol, England in the 1990s. Inspired by French graffiti artist Blek le Rat, Banksy used stencils as he worked with spray cans. Today Banksy still uses stencils for most of his work. His work is a mix of pop culture references and political themes that started on walls and bridges throughout Bristol and London. His opening of an amusement park installation piece titled Dismaland in 2015 closed after a month but fueled  his now world-wide fame. His notoriety has garnered him financial success as well with his work selling in the high six figures. Thanks to Banksy, interest in other street artists was generated, often referred to as the “Banksy effect”.

In the late 19980s, Shepherd Fairey was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. His obsession with posting stickers of the famous wrestler Andre the Giant all over New York City landed on t-shirts and posters, giving Fairey his start in one of the most famous street art careers in the world. Today the line of merchandise that started in 2001 inspired by Fairey’s Andre the Giant stickers, Obey, is found in skateboard shops across the country. With major commissions for murals throughout the country, Fairey is a street art empire. His catchy imagery and typography led to his most enduring claim to fame when he created the Barack Obama “Hope” poster during Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Kutztown, Pennsylvania is a small borough in Berks County, Pennsylvania with a population just barely over five thousand. But one of those five thousand who grew up there was today’s superstar of the art world, Keith Haring. While Haring was one of many who got their start in graffiti, he also went to the School of Visual Arts in New York. It was during his school years that he began making his mark in the subways. Spaces reserved for advertisements became his canvas. Haring covered the black sheets with what would become his signature style – dancing figures, radiant babies, and flying saucers. Haring died of AIDS in 1990 but his artwork lives on today in his recognizable style.  

One can’t have a conversation about street artists without talking about SAMO or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat is one of the most famous contemporary artists of all time. His art career was so enviable in the 1980s that Andy Warhol proposed a collaborative project with the artist. Basquiat started out in 1976 as a graffiti artist, partnered under the tag SAMO. His mysterious messages could be found on walls in lower Manhattan. At twenty years old he turned to studio painting. The world of street art lost Basquiat to a heroin overdose in 1988 but his reputation as one of the most talented contemporary artists is alive. In 2017 he broke the record previously held by Andy Warhol with the sale of one of his canvases going for over one hundred thousand dollars, the highest price ever paid for an American artist.

What is the difference between street art and graffiti?

Many in the art world still argue the difference between street art and graffiti. If you were to judge on the basics, it could be said that graffiti is vandalism. The word graffiti comes from the Italian word Graffito that translates to “incised description or design”. Even still, the tagging associated with graffiti is still an illegal act. However, thanks in part to street art, graffiti is being seen more as an art that is getting people to stop and notice.

Street art is seen as art found on the street or public space created for public viewing. It is in fact created with the purpose of public viewing. Unlike graffiti, street art encompasses other mediums such as painting, and tiling. Public murals are the most common form of street art. Permissions might have gone a long way in helping the public’s view of street art, as today many murals on building walls are created in partnership between the artist and local organizations or companies. City officials have gone so far as to commission street art in an effort to prevent illegal graffiti.

Regardless, the key differences between street art and graffiti are intent and technique. When it comes to intent, graffiti artists do not create with the purpose of pleasing the public or connecting with people who view their work. with regard to technique, graffiti artists work largely with words. Graffiti art is associated with tagging, the repetitive use of a word or symbol that becomes a personalized signature. When it comes to intent, street art is created with a certain audience in mind. Street artists want an interaction between their work and the public. This is especially true when the street art is commissioned by an organization, company, or a city. Street artists are often trained artists and as such their art is more perceptible where graffiti isn’t understood by everyone.   

Does street art hold importance or contribute to the art world?

Society is beginning to accept street art as a creative work by talented people who are artists. Street art is important as it offers validation to the artists who aren’t exhibited in a gallery. Street art has been important in opening minds to an untraditional art form. Art represents creativity and freedom, and street art has helped society understand the importance of both. Another important aspect of street art is it gives those who felt they didn’t have a voice a chance to express their feelings whether political or social. Street art has fostered an important sense of community. In particular, commissioned street art helps develop a positive interaction between businesses and members of a community.

The acceptance of street art by the public and other artists themselves has given street art value and worth that other art forms have. Street art is raising awareness of political and social issues. The definition of art may vary, but the purpose of art is to express the human mind and spirit, to communicate, to delight in beauty, and to commemorate human experiences.  

Street art is growing in popularity as museum directors try to learn the language of urban art. Even with street art’s association with freedom, galleries are seeking to snatch up pieces from murals on public spaces. As street art makes its way into galleries, its very appearance is a contribution to the art world as it educates people about its history.


5 of the Top Cities in the World to See Street Art

1.     New York City, USA – Started in the seventies, experts believe street art got its start in NYC as a response to the city’s crime ridden situation. It began with graffiti tags on subway cars but has since found its way to NYC galleries and museums. The Bronx, the Bowery, and Bed Stuyvesant are just a few places you can see some infamous street art.

2.     Berlin, Germany – Street art in Berlin is a storyteller, relating the anguish and revolution this amazing town has gone through. If you can only make one stop, make it the Old Berlin wall also referred to as the east side gallery. Plan for a leisurely and thought-provoking walk.

3.     Mexico City, Mexico – This city has art lovers and street art fans visiting just to see the street art – and it’s everywhere. An array of murals depicts local and global ideas. Today you can take guided tour, called the Art Walk, which promotes urban art while keeping visitors from getting lost in this large and often seen as chaotic city.

4.     Paris, France – Like everything else in Paris, every street artist has their own individual style. Paris is home one of the most famous street artists, Mister Pee, who is the creator of the free bird. Influenced by the Hip Hop movement, Sin Glin Gling gallery in the city has an exhibit dedicated to his work.

5.     Bristol, United Kingdom – While there are many street artists becoming prominent, the world’s most famous street artist is the unpredictable artist Banksy. No place better than Bristol tells the story of how street art went from something disapproved of to an art form accepted by society. The streets of Bristol offer cutting edge street art on buildings, walls of bridges and alleys. The Bristol street art tour offers a glimpse into its most famous artists’ life Banksy while also be home to more than two hundred street artists and graffiti writers.

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