What is Graffiti, where it came from
and what forms does it take today?

In America around the late 1960s, graffiti was used as a form of expression by political activists, and also by gangs such as the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads to mark territory. Towards the end of the 1960s, the signatures – tags – of Philadelphia graffiti writers Top Cat Cool Earl and Cornbread started to appear. Around 1970-1971, the center of graffiti innovation moved to where writers following in the wake of TAKI 183 and Tracy 168 would add their street number to their nickname, “bomb” a train with their work, and let the subway take it—and their fame, if it was impressive, or simply pervasive, enough—”all city”. Bubble lettering held sway initially among writers from the Bronx, though the elaborate Brooklyn style Tracy 168 dubbed “wildstyle” would come to define the art. The early trendsetters were joined in the 70s by artists like Dondi, Futura 2000, Daze, Blade, Lee, Zephyr, Rammellzee, Crash, Kel, NOC 167 and Lady Pink

The relationship between graffiti and hip-hop culture arises both from early graffiti artists practicing other aspects of hip-hop, and its being practiced in areas where other elements of hip-hop were evolving as art forms. Graffiti is recognized as a visual expression of rap music, just as breakdancing is viewed as a physical expression. The book Subway Art (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1984) and the TV program Style Wars (first shown on the PBS channel in 1984) were among the first ways the mainstream public were introduced to hip-hop graffiti.

The exact geographical location of the first “tagger” is difficult to pinpoint. Some sources identify New York (specifically taggers Julio 204 and Taki 183 of the Washington Heights area), and others identify Philadelphia (with tagger Corn Bread) as the point of origin. Yet, it goes more or less undisputed that New York “is where graffiti culture blossomed, matured, and most clearly distinguished itself from all prior forms of graffiti,” as Eric Felisbret, former graffiti artist (DEAL CIA)and lecturer, explains.

Soon after graffiti began appearing on city surfaces, subway cars and trains became major targets for New York City’s early graffiti writers and taggers, as they allowed the writer’s name to be seen by a wider audience. The subway rapidly became the most popular place to write, with many graffiti artists looking down upon those who wrote on walls. Sociologist Richard Lachmann e writes, “Much of the best graffiti was meant to be appreciated in motion, as it passed through dark and dingy stations or on elevated tracks. Photos and graffiti canvases cannot convey the energy and aura of giant artwork in motion.”

Graffiti on subway cars began as crude, simple tags, but as tagging became increasingly popular, writers had to find new ways to make their names stand out. Over the next few years, new calligraphic styles were developed and tags turned into large, colorful, elaborate pieces, aided by the realization that different spray can nozzles (also referred to as “caps”) from other household aerosol products (like oven cleaner) could be used on spray paint cans to create varying effects and line widths. It did not take long for the crude tags to grow in size, and to develop into artistic, colorful pieces that took up the length of entire subway cars.

It is important to note that contemporary graffiti has developed completely apart from traditional, institutionalized art forms. Art critic and curator Johannes Stahl writes that, “We have long since got accustomed to understanding art history as a succession of epochs […] But at the same time there has always existed something outside of official art history, a unruly and recalcitrant art, which takes place not in the sheltered environs of churches, collections or galleries, but out on the street.” Graffiti artists today draw inspiration from Art History at times, but it cannot be said that graffiti grew directly out of any such canon or typology. Modern graffiti did not begin as an art form at all, but rather, as a form of text-based urban communication that developed its own networks. As Lachmann notes, rather than submitting to the criteria of valuation upheld by the institutionalized art world, early graffiti writers developed an entirely new and separate art world, based on their own “qualitative conception of style” and the particular “aesthetic standards” developed within the community for judging writers’ content and technique.


Stencils (also known as stencil graffiti) are usually prepared beforehand out of paper or cardboard and then brought to the site of the work’s intended installation, attached to the wall with tape, and then spray painted over, resulting in the image or text being left behind once the stencil is removed. Many street artists favor the use of stencils as opposed to freehand graffiti because they allow for an image or text to be installed very easily in a matter of seconds, minimizing the chance of run-ins with the authorities. Stencils are also preferable as they are infinitely reusable and repeatable. Sometimes artists use multiple layers of stencils on the same image to add colors, details, and the illusion of depth

Wheat Paste 

Wheat paste (also known as flour paste) is a gel or liquid adhesive made from combining wheat flour or starch with water. Many street artists use wheat paste to adhere paper posters to walls. Much like stencils, wheat paste posters are preferable for street artists as it allows them to do most of the preparation at home or in the studio, with only a few moments needed at the site of installation, pasting the poster to the desired surface.

Street Art Interventions

Some street artists create three-dimensional sculptural interventions, which can be installed surreptitiously in public spaces, usually under the cover of darkness. This type of work differs from Public Art in that it is rebellious in nature and completed illegally, while Public Art is officially sanctioned/commissioned (and thus more palatable to a general audience). Unsanctioned Street Art interventions usually aim to shock viewers by presenting a visually realistic, yet simultaneously unbelievable situation.

Reverse Graffiti

Reverse graffiti (also known as clean tagging, dust tagging, grime writing, clean graffiti, green graffiti, or clean advertising) is a method by which artists create images on walls or other surfaces by removing dirt from a surface. 

Mixed Media

There are street artists who experiment with other media, such as Invader (Paris), who adheres ceramic tiles to city surfaces, recreating images from the popular Space Invaders video game of 1978. Invader says that tile is “a perfect material because it is permanent. Even after years of being outside the colors don’t fade.”

Many other artists use simple stickers, which they post on surfaces around the city. Often, these stickers are printed with the artist’s tag or a simple graphic. Others invite participation from the audience, like Ji Lee who pastes empty comic speech-bubbles onto advertisements, allowing passers-by to write in their own captions.

There are also artists who create Street Art interventions through the use of clay, chalk, charcoal, knitting, and projected photo/video. The possibilities for Street Art media are endless.

Later developments – Into the mainstream

Street Art continues to be a popular category of art all over the world, with many of its practitioners rising to fame and mainstream success (such as Bristol’s Banksy, Paris’ ZEVS, and L.A.’s Shepard Fairey). Street artists who experience commercial success are often criticized by their peers for “selling out” and becoming part of the system that they had formerly rebelled against by creating illegal public works. Communications professor Tracey Bowen sees the act of creating graffiti as both a “celebration of existence” and “a declaration of resistance.” Similarly, Slovenian Feminist author Tea Hvala views graffiti as “the most accessible medium of resistance” for oppressed people to use against dominant culture due to its tactical (non-institutional, decentralized) qualities. For both Bowen and Hvala these unique positive attributes of graffiti are heavily reliant on its location in urban public spaces. Art critic and curator Johannes Stahl argues that the public context is crucial for Street Art to be political, because “it happens in places that are accessible to all [and] it employs a means of expression that is not controlled by the government.” Street artist BOOKSIIII holds an opinion not uncommon of many of today’s street artists, that it is not inherently wrong for young artists to try to make money from galleries and corporations for their works, “as long as they do their job honestly, sell work, and represent careers,” yet at the same time he notes that “graffiti does not stay the same when transferred to the gallery from the street. A tag on canvas will never hold the same power as the exact same tag on the street.”

This movement from the street to the gallery also indicates a growing acceptance of graffiti and Street Art within the mainstream art world and art history. Some apply the label “post-graffiti” to the work of street artists that also participate in the mainstream art world, although this is somewhat of a misnomer, as many such artists continue to execute illegal public interventions at the same time as they participate in sanctioned exhibitions in galleries and museums. This phenomenon also presents difficulties for art historians, as the sheer number of street artists, as well as their tendency to maintain anonymity, makes it hard to engage with individual artists in any sort of profound way. Moreover, it is difficult to insert Street Art into the art historical canon, as it did not develop from any progression of artistic movements, but rather began independently, with early graffiti and street artists developing their own unique techniques and aesthetic styles. Today, street artists both inspire and are inspired by many other artistic movements and styles, with many artists’ works bearing elements of wide-ranging movements, from Pop Art to Renaissance Art.


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