What Is Graffiti Art?

Graffiti is a form of visual communication created in public places. Graffiti is differentiated from street art or graffiti art in that it is usually illegally produced and often involves the unauthorized marking of public or private spaces by individuals or groups. 

kobra graffiti mural nelson mandela

What Does Graffiti Mean?

The term Graffiti was originally a reference to ancient inscriptions. These could be words or figure drawings found on the walls of ancient sepulchers, public buildings, or ruins. Ancient Graffiti can be observed in the Catacombs of Rome or at the ruins of Pompeii.

The use of the word “Graffiti” has evolved over the centuries to refer to text or graphics applied to surfaces. For a long time, the term Graffiti was synonymous with vandalism.

Is Graffiti Art?

Graffiti, while once considered vandalism, is becoming more widely recognized as a type of artwork. However, it is still not always positively received or universally accepted as art by the general public.

Graffiti Art takes the techniques and methodologies behind street Graffiti and applies them to other mediums. At the same time, all Graffiti can be considered art. The distinction between Graffiti and Graffiti Art is usually used when Graffiti leaves city surfaces and moves to another more traditional art surface, such as a canvas. Graffiti Art takes Graffiti off the streets and allows it to be sold, exhibited, and displayed in other environments. 

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Graffiti is still a predominantly public and urban art form. However, recently, Graffiti artists and street artists such as Banksy and the artist Alec Monopoly, who is behind the infamous Richie Rich artworks, – have exhibited their graffiti-style paintings commercially in gallery and museum spaces.

How Graffiti Started

Forms of Graffiti can be found throughout history, dating back to the cavemen. The first drawings on walls could be called Graffiti; Lascaux cave paintings in France date back to thousands of years ago. The Ancient Greeks and Romans also graffitied their names and protest poems on public buildings, similar to modern taggers. 

angelo accardi painting wall art graffiti

American soldiers adopted a form of Graffiti throughout World War II by writing the phrase “Kilroy was here.” This message was accompanied by a simple sketch of a man peeking over a ledge. 

Soldiers would draw on surfaces along their route as a form of camaraderie with the soldiers who would follow. British and Australian soldiers used similar practices. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, this was a war error meme and a precursor to modern Graffiti and meme culture.

graffiti art colorful

While Graffiti has existed in many forms throughout history, it didn’t become a widely visible and well-known phenomenon until the 1960s. The modern and commonly recognized form of Graffiti started in the mid-sixties. This contemporary form of Graffiti is often referred to as hip-hop Graffiti. 

This form of hip-hop Graffiti started in urban America in the mid 20th century and was centered in Philadelphia and New York. The invention of aerosol spray paint in 1949 made spray cans the affordable, transportable medium of choice for modern Graffiti. 

Historical Graffiti was usually carved or painted, but contemporary Graffiti still typically uses spray paint. Graffiti Art also predominantly uses spray paints to recreate a Graffiti aesthetic into fine art forms.

Graffiti has always been about making the artist’s name or message visible, which is why it is created in public spaces. Graffiti artists of the late 20th-century were often individuals who didn’t have access to more traditional means or platforms of expression to get their name or message out. The culture of Graffiti and tagging revolves around leaving a mark so other artists and taggers can see your tag in the community.

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Who Started Graffiti Art?

It isn’t easy to pinpoint precisely which artist started the trend for Graffiti Art. Graffiti often doesn’t last long, so its origins can be hard to track. Graffiti artists are usually anonymous, other artists often tag over artworks, or artworks are removed or painted over by the city or building owners. 

However, one candidate is frequently referenced as the originator of Graffiti, and that is the artist Cornbread. The artist known as “Cornbread” – whose real name is Darryl McCray – is widely considered to be the first artist of the modern Graffiti scene. In 1965 Cornbread was just a 12-year-old teen in Philadelphia with a penchant for writing his nickname on every possible surface. 

But Cornbread started a movement that soon spread and grew in popularity. Cornbread’s most famous work was the infamous tagging of an Elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo. In response to false claims he had died, Cornbread painted “Cornbread Lives” on both sides of a live elephant. Modern Graffiti Artists like Alec Monopoly follow Cornbread’s example and tag a greater variety of other objects. 

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Alec Monopoly and Banksy are two of the first artists to take Graffiti off the streets and put it in one different artistic medium or setting. Sometimes these settings are traditional, like a canvas, but other times shocking and innovative, like helicopters, cars, handbags, escalators, and many other places. 

Where Graffiti Started

Graffiti flourished in major American cities, particularly in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and grew in popularity alongside hip-hop street subcultures. 

Most historians pinpoint either Philadelphia or New York as the birthplace of modern Graffiti. However, New York quickly became the undisputed epicenter of Graffiti culture. At its peak in the 1970s, the Graffiti tags found on New York subway trains were so prevalent that you could barely see through the subway car windows. 

Graffiti is now widespread, with bustling Graffiti scenes in Berlin, Mexico City, Lisbon, Melbourne, New Delhi, London, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and many other urban destinations. 

What Is a Graffiti Tag?

A Graffiti tag is the original, most common, and most basic of the Graffiti styles you see every day. A tag is essentially the Graffiti artist’s “signature” – although artists usually use a pseudonym. 

Alec Monopoly tagging helicopter

A tag is usually created using spray paint cans in a single color and uses the artist’s tag name or identifying symbol. More advanced forms of Graffiti, such as Throw Ups or Blockbusters, take tags to varying levels of artistic sophistication, but the artist’s moniker or tag is almost always included in the design. The repeated use of variations of the same tag or design differentiates Graffiti from other forms of street art. 

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. While Graffiti Art started in the modern art period, most Graffiti Art is being created by living contemporary artists. 

What Is the Purpose of Graffiti?

Graffiti aims to be seen without being caught or to spread an important message. The end purpose of Graffiti, like other art is to tell a story or express oneself. 

Graffiti allows artists to express themselves, even if it is not in a publicly acceptable manner. Graffiti can also be used to mark territories and is well established in gang culture. 

Graffiti can be criminal, political, humorous, or even beautiful. Graffiti challenges societal norms and laws, and it does not aim to be legal. The thrill and risk of creating Graffiti are part of the culture. 

What Does Graffiti Represent?

Graffiti often represents rebellion, so it is often the visual language of the unheard or disenfranchised. Graffiti can tell you a lot about the people, politics, subcultures, counter-cultures, and socio-economics of an area. 

Is Graffiti Good or Bad?

Once firmly regarded as vandalism, the public perception of Graffiti continues to move closer to appreciation. However, art is always subjective, and some people may never accept Graffiti as art.

Graffiti can be technically good artwork. Creating Graffiti takes a high level of skill, and some artists are exceptionally talented. There are many Graffiti and street artists whose artwork clearly shows an immense level of technical painting or artistic ability.

Eduardo Kobra graffiti mural mona lisa leonardo davinci

Not everyone thinks Graffiti art is good, but acceptance and appreciation are not the purposes of these artworks. Graffiti is a rebellious counter-culture statement that is created for self-expression, often by disenfranchised individuals. It is usually made primarily for other Graffiti artists in the community and does not usually seek public acceptance. 

What Is Light Graffiti?

Light Graffiti is a form of performative art. Light Graffiti is created by exposure and uses a light source to draw Graffiti in the air. You can make light Graffiti with a torch, a sparkler, a fire, or another light source. The light Graffiti can be viewed for a fleeting moment or captured in a photograph. 

Where Is Graffiti Most Popular?

The popularity of street art and Graffiti grows worldwide. There is now an increasing number of destinations where Graffiti is not actively removed by authorities so you can visit and view street art.

The top ten destinations where Graffiti is most popular and tourists can see world-famous Graffiti are:

  1. New York, USA: New York is the home of the Graffiti movement, and there are many pockets across the city where you can view exceptional artworks, including Brooklyn’s Bushwick, Hunts Point in the Bronx, Manhattan’s Chelsea, and the Graffiti Hall of Fame in Harlem.
  2. Bristol, UK: This English town is home to Banksy, one of the most famous street and Graffiti artists of the present day. The city has embraced its Graffiti scene and now hosts the See No Evil Festival, one of the biggest street art festivals in the world.
  3. Stockholm, Sweden: The Stockholm Metro Station has so much Graffiti is has been nicknamed the world’s longest art gallery. Most of this artwork was commissioned, not produced illegally.
  4. Berlin, Germany: Berlin has a long and well-established history of public artworks. Some, like the Berlin Wall, are public legal works that speak to the history of the city. But there is also a strong illegal Graffiti scene that speaks to the new Berlin.
  5. São Paulo, Brazil: São Paulo,has embraced public artworks and Graffiti. Many of the world’s most famous Graffiti and street artists, such as Eduardo Kobra, come from São Paulo.
  6. London, UK: London’s Brick Lane, The Village Underground, and the surrounding neighborhood of Shoreditch are home to many of the world’s famous Graffiti works. Look out for the works by Banksy, ROA, Reka, and MadC.
  7. Paris, France: Paris is home to a vivid urban scene with strong political roots. You can find some sharp political criticism and a sense of rebellion within the Graffiti found on the streets of Paris. Look out for the works by Invader, Kraken, Miss.Tic and the mysterious John Hamon.
  8. Los Angeles, USA: Los Angeles has a strong hip-hop culture, so it should come as no surprise that Graffiti culture is also prominent around the city. La Brea Boulevard, Culver City, Melrose Avenue, The Arts District, and Venice Beach are just a few of the places you can see exceptional street art around LA.
  9. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne is the Graffiti capital of Australia and Hosier Lane in particular has been attracting worldwide attention for its Graffiti and street art.
  10. Mexico City, Mexico: Modern Mexican art is traditionally well known for the prominence of murals, so it’s no surprise that the Mexican capital offers diverse street art styles and religious and political Graffiti. Must see neighborhoods include Avenida Reforma, The Museo del Juguete Antiguo México and Plaza Luis Cabrera.

Buying Graffiti Art

The line between Graffiti, Graffiti Art, and fine art continues to blur. Many well-known street artists have begun exhibiting in museums and galleries. Fine artists like F&G, Alec Monopoly, Clems, Noah Lubin, and Marco Battaglini now incorporate Graffiti styles and techniques into fine artworks to create something altogether new. You can now buy and display artwork that uses Graffiti styles and enjoy it in your own space.

 

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