The Difference Between Street Art vs Graffiti Art


What makes great art? There’s a fine line between street art vs graffiti art, and many famous artists have danced on both sides of the blurry line. Expression, emotion, creativeness, activism, and rebelliousness make up this amazing contrast between art, street, and urban culture.

The major difference between street art vs graffiti is that street art is usually done with permission. Sometimes it can even be commissioned. Graffiti is usually word-based art, and street art is most commonly image-based. There are a million reasons why graffiti exists, and just as many for street art. A few common themes exist between the two, and they are a desire to be heard, seen, and remembered, even if just for a night.

Street Art Vs Graffiti

Some of the most famous artists of all time are well-known graffiti artists. Basquiat, Banksy, Keith Harring. These are legends in the art world who started on the streets.

Sometimes, the subtle difference in street art vs graffiti art lies in the eyes of the general public or surrounding neighborhoods. While graffiti art is mostly illegal works done on property not belonging to the artists, some would argue it brings a cultural flavor to a neighborhood that it would otherwise lack. There’s an argument to be made that talented artists creating amazing images on an abandoned building is not always the worst thing for an urban area.

And what about the artist? The history of graffiti includes talented people who had no other way to communicate their gifts other than a blank wall on the side of a building. He would describe the rat as the “only free animal in the city.” In 2011, Blek, also known as Xavier Prou, was seen adding his twist to a mural begun a year earlier by Banksy in San Francisco.

Graffiti Origins

The word Graffiti comes from the Italian word, “Graffio” meaning “a scratch.” Before there was written language, there was graffiti. Cave drawings with graffiti found in Santa Cruz, Argentina, date back to the beginning of human civilization sometime around 15,000 BCE. “Cuvea de las Manos” is a famous cave drawing from this location known as “The Cave of Hands.”

Ancient Greek cities near modern-day Turkey feature graffiti thousands of years old. Ancient Romans carved graffiti on walls and monuments depicting important events of the time period. As you can see, graffiti is not a new concept.

Graffiti Sweeps Across the Nation

Modern-day graffiti culture began in the late 1960s on the east coast of the United States. Philadelphia and New York subways began to emerge as graffiti hotbeds. An artist known as “Taki” began tagging New York City with his name in the early 1970s. The more he tagged his name around the city, the more well-known he became.

Eventually, the New York Times published an article about Taki in 1971, launching him into celebrity status. What happened next was somewhat predictable. Graffiti spread throughout the subway system and urban area like wildfire.

Now the game was on. The graffiti movement was underway. Who could make the most unique and colorful tag and place it around the city for everyone to notice. As law enforcement cracked down on subway trains, graffiti artists spread into the city. Nothing was off-limits, walls of buildings, private property, abandoned buildings, and street signs. The main goal of the graffiti art community was to capture a wider audience.

A documentary on New York City Graffiti from 1976 titled, “Watching My Name Go By.” Incredible footage from New York City.

Famous Graffiti Drawings

The evolution of graffiti in the 1970s went from simple names to colorful and vibrant names to entire scenes. World-famous artist Jean-Michel Basquiat began as a graffiti artist on the streets of New York City. Basquiat wisely recognized the power of marketing when he created his well-known slogan, “SAMO.”

In 1978, he received his big break when The Village Voice, a popular newspaper, published an article profiling his SAMO graffiti. Basquiat had realized the same celebrity status as Taki; only Basquiat would take things to an entirely new level.

Famous Street Art

One of the most well-known street artists is Shepard Fairey. He’s also known as a skateboarder, graphic artist, activist, and illustrator. His popularity rocketed during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign with his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Fairey created the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker in 1989.

He was quoted as saying, “the sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.”

In 2014, Fairey painted a 9 story high mural featuring Nelson Madela on the 25 anniversary of the Purple Rain Protest.

Unbelievable street art. You have to see it to believe it.

Street Art and Graffiti Artists

Darryl McCray is known as one of the first modern graffiti artists. In the early days, people knew him by his street name, Cornbread. McCray got his start in the late 1960s near Philadelphia and rose quickly to fame by pulling a legendary stunt at the age of 17. Cornbread jumped a fence at the Philadelphia Zoo and spraypainted the side of an elephant with the phrase, “Cornbread Lives.”

Another well-known graffiti artist who rose to fame in the early 1980s was Tracy 168. Michael Tracy had a unique style to his writing, which inspired others to copy his angeled and curved lettering.

One of the first hip hop movies produced in 1983 titled Wild Style used the name of a Tracy creation. Tracy was known as a mentor to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and later had his own work shown in major art institutions.

Street Art, Murals, and Graffiti of Banksy

There’s no way you can discuss graffiti, street art, and murals without mentioning Banksy. The artist is officially anonymous, although rumors identify him as Robin Gunningham. Whoever they are, their works have created a phenomenon throughout London and the art world for years.

Banksy creations have sold for six figures and even millions of dollars, creating huge interest in other street art by collectors and investors. This heightened interest in street art has been referred to as the “Banksy Effect.”

street art vs graffiti
The unforgettable images from Banksy. Call them whatever you want, street art, murals, graffiti. It doesn’t matter what you call them because many of the works from Banksy are just plain beautiful.

Even Paris had its own famous graffiti artist known as Blek le Rat. He was one of the first French graffiti artists who began in 1981 painting stencils of rats on building walls around Paris.

The World of Street Artist

Los Angeles has had a vibrant street art scene for decades. But now, entire neighborhoods encourage artists and visitors to show their art outdoors and in public spaces. Young artists have taken to the urban landscape not far from the Skid Row area to display huge murals. Venice Beach is another area where street art is prominently displayed.

Street art in Los Angeles is still found in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes well-known artists will be officially commissioned for large scale murals. Other times, small guerilla style street art and graffiti will pop up in the middle of the night at random locations across the urban environment.

In 2002, Los Angeles decided to ban any signage on public buildings except in certain districts. The law allowed commercial billboards but spelled out details that restricted murals and independent artists from displaying their work. Even after the street art laws were lifted in 2013, artists were frustrated by the lengthy permitting process.

The West Coast Struggle for Graffiti and Street Art

Entire graffiti groups formed to combine talents and fight legal issues together. The Seventh letter Crew, a well-known graffiti group from Los Angeles, had over 100 members. The group was founded in 1999 by an artist known as Eklips, who played a part in joining two previous groups, the Mad Society Kings and the Art Work Rebels.

Popular members included Saber, Revok, Zes, and Push. The group’s primary focus was to bring the graffiti form of art beyond illegal activity and vandalism. They attempted to positively impact the community by setting examples for kids through urban art.

street art vs graffiti
It’s tough to tell if this is an actual photo from street art, or a computer generated image. There’s only one thing I think of when I look at something like this and that is there sure are some amazingly talented people in this world.

What Do the Law Books Say?

I’m sure property owners don’t have any problem distinguishing street art vs graffiti art. Whatever is on their property without permission is vandalism. It’s a pretty straightforward concept. But the lines blur a little more when considering a public property, public spaces, and property that has no owner.

Getting Tough on Graffiti

For example, take subway art; they have been a common place for aspiring graffiti artists to hone their craft. But they have also been abused by vandals. The use of spray paint is not a petty offense, and after years of loose crime laws regarding graffiti, in 1984, New York City decided to crack down hard.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority chief Bob Kiley decided to go after vandals. Mayor Ed Koch has encouraged transit authorities to crack down on graffiti in the subway system. The MTA placed guard dogs in the train yards to deter potential taggers, but raising the steaks on punishment was the next tactic.

It was definitely time to clean up the New York City subway system. After a few years of trial and error, the transit police got tough on vandals.

Cleaning Up New York City

After a failed experiment of painting some subway cars white, the MTA decided to go underground. Transit police began learning what the graffiti actually said and the real names of who was attached. By asking other kids to describe the writing or translate it, police began building profiles of prolific vandals.

Now law enforcement had the true identity of the offenders, and word began spreading to criminals. They even began attending art shows if evidence was leading them in that direction. Oftentimes, transit police would make a special visit to the suspected graffiti writers’ home and question parents about empty cans of spray paint.

The most hard-core subway graffiti offenders would face jail time or even prison time. The crack-down worked, and aspiring street artists decided it was not worth the risk. By 1990, the New York City subway system was basically graffiti-free.

Style Wars Trailer from Henry Chalfant on Vimeo.

Above is the incredible movie trailer for ‘Style Wars.’ Directed by Tony Silver, the movie was awarded the Grand Prize for documentaries at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival. The film documents New York City Street culture in the early 1980s and gives incredible insight into street art, graffiti, and the youthful creativity that emerged from the streets of New York.

Street Art Vs Graffiti

Expression through street art and graffiti has always been a part of culture. Whether it was on the walls of a cave, the side of an abandoned building, or across the back of a subway train, people will always find ways to express themselves. Embracing the study of street art, murals, and the creative instincts of graffiti is a fascinating study of human psychology and art history.