The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti


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 that one receives from street art is due to its unexpected placement in public, where it 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 because of 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 (Pro and Adz 19).

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 acceptance of 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 entry into 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. Street art 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.

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. Retna is an example of a very successful graffiti-artist-turned-gallery-artist. He showed with other well-known graffiti and street artist at the Los Angeles The Museum of Contemporary Art’s show Art in the Streets, the first major U.S. museum exhibition of the history of graffiti and street art.

Public art frequently blurs the lines between various rebellious movements, with street art and graffiti being intertwined in the public's view. The distinction between street art and graffiti is still a point of contention. Nonetheless, many individuals support this type of work.

"As a fan of art, I find the contrast between street art and graffiti fascinating. The incorporation of recognizable symbols and the goal to engage the public in street art connects with me more than the sometimes obscure realm of graffiti tagging. It's about engaging the viewer in conversation and making art a shared experience." says Art Enthusiast Sarah Michael.

"From a community standpoint, the emphasis on connection and engagement in street art matches with our efforts to promote inclusivity and debate. Unlike graffiti, which may be isolating at times, street art has the ability to unite various groups via shared aesthetic experiences." says Community Activist Carlos Richter.

"Considering the financial aspect, street art's growing recognition and acceptance by mainstream entities highlight its potential for commercial viability. Companies are increasingly capitalizing on the aesthetic of street art for marketing campaigns. And it indicates a shift towards embracing its appeal among a broader audience." says Kathryn McCoach, Managing Editor & Expert Writer.

"As an architect, I admire how street art transforms urban environments into living, dynamic canvases. While graffiti may elicit a feeling of mystery, street art breathes new life into public spaces. It's fascinating to see how both artistic styles flourish within the urban fabric, changing how we perceive built spaces." says Architect Mile Bey.

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 King Publishing, 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.