Both graffiti and street art use the spray can as their main medium and the city walls as their main canvas. Therefore, for many passersby, these expressions can look quite similar in the urban landscape. There are of course several similarities among them, but graffiti and street art are – in fact – two different art forms. With this article we aim to shed light on the understanding of these two art forms, from their origins to their major similarities and differences. By clarifying these features, we hope to inspire you to look at graffiti and street art on the streets and in institutions – such as our opening exhibition Quote from the streets – with fresh eyes.
Before we dive in, it's important to mention that there is extensive discussion about the best ways to define graffiti and street art. This has been a hot topic among several artists, academics, critics and art lovers for a very long time. Taking this into account, as well as the fact that we are referring to worldwide scenes which evolve on a daily basis, both terms cannot be conclusively defined. In order to be as accurate as possible, we used information based on the practice of most artists, acknowledged by key experts in the field.
Origin of graffiti and street art
While graffiti is a millennia-old term, contemporary graffiti emerged in Philadelphia in 1967. It started as a creative pastime based on repeatedly writing one’s name in the public space for the sake of notoriety. The street art movement was born in the mid 1970s, directly from the graffiti flow  . This development happened due to artists’ pursuit of accessible messages and forms, together with the revival of some art techniques – such as spray-painted stencils and paper paste-ups . More about these movements’ history can be found in our series of timeline articles about the 1960s – 1970s, 1980s – 1990s and 2000s – 2010s.
Rebellious, anonymous and independent
Graffiti and street artists fully incorporate the ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality by claiming their spot in the city anonymously and without the need of any previous approval . As part of their rebellious roots, these subcultures are grounded on an anti-authoritarian. anti-commercial and independent discourse. Particularly in the case of graffiti, the degree of illegality matters as much as the aesthetic composition itself . The teamwork of graffiti crews before, during and after illegal interventions is essential for their success.
Unlike other art forms, graffiti and street art were born outside of the established art world, and ignored academic theory. Interestingly, by bringing art to the public space, these movements challenged the structures and boundaries in the art world itself .
Anonimity is huge factor in both graffiti and street art
Picture by Candice Seplow
Freedom of content
In the conception of an illegal or self-authorized piece, both graffiti writers and street artists experience freedom in relation to their content. This can give room for difficult images or messages. Originally, graffiti and street art are not limited by law or the taste of authorities like funding bodies, homeowners or the state . That’s very different from commissioned murals for example, where consent is always required .
Inhabited by people, cars, advertisements, public signage and much more, the streets are obviously not a blank canvas. For spontaneous graffiti and street art pieces, the location’s forms and meanings are working material. During the choice of location, artists seek a balance between visibility, durability and risk. At the same time, the final meaning of their work is strongly influenced by the elements that were already there .
Street art often explores this context bond even further, through site-specific works. However not all street art is site specific in the same way; there are different degrees of it. Some works are tailored for a location – like Banksy’s or Street Art Frankey’s – while others – like posters – could be placed anywhere on the streets .
One of the many interventions of Street Art Frankey in the streets of Amsterdam
Placing illegal interventions is highly time sensitive because artists create under time pressure and lots of adrenaline. Once completed, graffiti and street art are directly affected by time, as the artworks are abandoned to their fate. Depending on the location, a work can be cleaned by authorities or painted over by other artists in a matter of days. On the other hand, it’s possible that a work stands in place for years, witnessing huge changes around it, which can influence its meaning .
In order to document their temporary practices, many graffiti and street artists – anonymously or not – make a significant use of social media, contributing actively to the global web museum . Through these platforms, works created in remote locations can reach thousands of viewers in just a few hours. Social media is a powerful tool to share graffiti and street art to a vast and global audience, which contributes to the interest and value of these art forms. Undoubtedly, graffiti and street artists are far less dependent on artworld gatekeepers to build their fame in comparison to other contemporary art peers .
Due to, among other things, the volatility and illegal nature of graffiti and street art, their cultural value is not yet widely recognized. Many authorities and city dwellers tend to frame these practices as vandalism, a conception that can be understood through the Broken Windows discussion. This theory, introduced by criminologist George Kelling and conservative academic James Wilson in 1982, states that environments that are already polluted attract more dirt . In other words, this theory indicates that urban disorder and criminal activities are related to graffiti – which some may also interpret as street art – leading to a negative perception of these practices up to the present days.
Regarding the art world, although works by graffiti and street artists have been featured in galleries and museums all over the world since the 1970s, their legitimation is also not widely acknowledged. For some members of the traditional art world, the low-brow aspects of these art forms can be an obstacle . That is not really an issue to some ‘purist’ graffiti and street artists who have no ambition to reach the museum and gallery world and describe artists who do as ‘sell-outs’ .
Graffiti piece by Lush which states ‘Graffiti for sale! Street cred not included’
Photo by Mercyful Fate
A relevant difference between graffiti and street art is observed in the artists’ preparatory process. Graffiti writers execute their work directly in the streets, while some street artists – especially poster, stencil and sticker artists – create most of their work in the studio. They spend much more time preparing their interventions, than placing them in the streets. The act of leaving their work in the streets is separated from the creation of the work .
Besides usually being executed in the streets, street art is also inspired by the streets . There is often a direct engagement between street art and the postmodern city, as well as its specific locations, considering that artists and their works often dialogue with its material and symbolic aspects . Along these lines, street art interventions are often placed in highly emotive places to which locals feel a strong connection .
Although graffiti can also be placed in city streets, it is meant to function as a coded dialogue among members of this scene. Instead of looking for emotive places, graffiti writers choose a spot based on this subculture’s rules, which state that one’s reputation increases whenever a tag or a piece is performed in hardly accessible places. Therefore, graffiti writers also enjoy painting trains, subway railcars and their tunnels, places that probably only other writers will be able to access or notice.
Subway tunnel in New York covered with graffiti
Content & medium
According to Will Gompertz, the arts editor of the BBC, street art’s popularity is connected to the fact that it originally explores current issues, often political. This is possible because, differently from high-brow contemporary art, independent street art doesn’t have much to lose from the art market. Besides the content, street art’s particularity is reflected in the use of a wide spectrum of mediums, such as posters, stencils, stickers, installations and even sculptures .
Whether crudely executed or multi-colored elaborated, graffiti is, on the other hand, mostly about the stylizing and embellishing of the writer’s name – without the need of any deep message or thought. This topic has also been explored during our recent Kroonjuwelen Revisited Discussion Panel.
Most street art uses figurative elements that can be easily contemplated by people with any or no (arts) education background. Taking this into account, street art is considered a low-brow practice by the traditional art world; it communicates legible messages to the general public, which are not connected to (sub)cultural codes, as is the case with contemporary art and graffiti .
Graffiti seeks no interaction with the public on the streets and rarely connects with the masses. It works as an internal code, a secret language, aimed at the insiders of the graffiti scene, such as writers, crews and followers. The masses are not meant to read the majority of graffiti and therefore won’t be able to interpret and understand it. In contrast, street art works as ‘an open community’. For this reason, the general public may prefer street art over graffiti. However, most graffiti writers won’t care about this .
Passerby photographing a panel by Telmo Miel next to our museum, surrounded by many graffiti pieces
Photo by Rink Hof
In the street art realm, interaction with other street interventions isn’t per se something negative. Many street artists consider the possibility of anyone painting, destroying or even adding something to their works as part of the beauty of the art form. There are street artists who even encourage interaction with other players on the streets. Additionally, there is a recent kind of non-destructive participation that is becoming increasingly popular: a lot of street pieces leave blank space where people have the chance to pose with the artwork for photos .
In the graffiti realm, on the other hand, there are some strict (unwritten) rules about who is allowed to alter graffiti pieces. There is a hierarchy among graffiti writers which is expected to be respected. For instance, a ‘toy’ (beginner graffiti writer) is not allowed to cross a piece by a ‘king’ (a renowned graffiti writer with many years of practice).
In their core, graffiti and street art are very similar. Both movements share the same rebellious roots and independent discourse, which are translated into the public space. Graffiti and street art’s relation with the art world and social media are also comparable. However, their main difference continues to be the same ever since these art forms emerged: graffiti communicates to the movement’s insiders, whereas street art is there for each and everyone. These features resonate in different ways, from the movements’ rules to the artworks’ shapes.
Although graffiti and street art are constantly evolving, their core values are likely to remain intact, while the polarities about the use of their terminologies will also continue to exist. At STRAAT we acknowledge and embrace this context as part of the movements’ identities, and aim to keep our audience updated about the latest developments within these worldwide scenes. Your input in this is also very welcome, so if you have any remarks or questions about past or future articles, please email us here.
Article by Giovanna Di Giacomo
Thumbnail and banner picture: artwork by Cranio
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