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Graffiti: What Is Graffiti Art?

What Is Graffiti Art?
Graffiti means many things for different people. Some people associate graffiti with vandalism and the destruction of property. Others see graffiti as art. Currently, the word ‘graffiti' is used to describe everything from scribbles on bathroom walls and scratched names on bus windows to gang tags and graffiti-influenced paint on canvas.

However, when people refer to ‘graffiti art,' they are usually taking about a specific type of graffiti. Also called hip-hop graffiti or New York-style graffiti, graffiti art is closely linked with hip-hop culture and the production of elaborately designed and highly stylized tags, throw-ups, and pieces.

People first recognized graffiti as art during the 1970's and 80's when graffiti artists began coloring the NYC subway trains. The subway art movement of the 70's and 80's can be traced back to TAKI 183. During the 1960's, TAKI 183 wrote his name on street signs, subway cars, and buildings across the five NYC boroughs. The mysterious name and number appeared enough for the media to take notice, and as we say, the rest is history.

Inspired by TAKI's personal fame and notoriety, graffiti writers began writing their names (usually aliases) throughout NYC. Getting-up became a vocation. As competition increased, writers developed identifying logos to make their names stand out and experimented with size, color, and design. This was quickly followed by an emphasis on scale, with the first top-to-bottom subway being painted in 1975.

Subway trains became the surface of choice for NYC graffiti writers. With thousands of people riding daily, the subway trains provided maximum visibility for aspiring writers. In many ways, the NYC subways functioned as traveling galleries. There are many accounts of writers working on their pieces overnight in the train yards, or ‘ lay-ups.' In the morning, the trains would leave the yard decorated with names that would travel to all ends of the sprawling city.

The NYC Metro Transit Authorities (MTA) launched a campaign to rid the subway system of graffiti (‘No graffiti will run') in the late 1980's. Though this act in many ways ended the NYC subway art era, the idea of creating graffiti art had already expanded outside the NY area. Graffiti spread across the United States and into Canada and Western Europe. Today graffiti can also be found in South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia.

In many ways, graffiti art has become a global phenomenon. Contemporary graffiti artists' works can often be found in multiple cities around the world. Like the traveling galleries of the 70's and 80's, magazines, the World Wide Web, and temporary exhibitions have enabled writers to show their work and to view others' work across international lines. Graffiti's intimate link with hip-hop culture and the writing styles developed during the NYC subway era continue to unify graffiti writers across the globe.

Today, graffiti has expanded to include other forms of public art, including stencil graffiti, stickers, and sometimes public sculptures and mosaics. Many people label the conglomeration of these art forms street art or post-graffiti.


Graffiti has traditionally been associated with delinquency and disruptive urban street youth. Undeniably, this group has been associated with graffiti production. However, now that graffiti has spread outside the cities and is recognized as a legitimate form of art, people of varying ages, socio-economic backgrounds, heritage, and education participate in graffiti production.

Some advertising and marketing firms now commission graffiti artists to paint walls and to create logos that will appeal to an urban clientele. Museums and art galleries frequently host graffiti artists to paint exhibition walls or showcase graffiti that has been produced on transportable material. The web sitesBeautiful Crimes and Wooster Collective provide up-to-date information on current exhibitions.

Contemporary artists George Hunt, Justin Bua, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are all internationally renowned graffiti or graffiti-inspired artists. Many graffiti artists today credit Haring and Basquiat with inspiring their work. Dondi, Lady Pink, The Fabulous Five Crew, Futura 2000, Doze Green, and NOC 167 are graffiti writers who achieved fame during the NY graffiti movement. Almost all of these writers have gone on to become established artists and designers.

Contemporary post-graffiti writers include Banksy, D-face, Bask, Buff Monster, Swoon, Faile, Above, and Shepard Fairey.


Most writers create graffiti for personal fame and respect. Graffiti is also strongly linked with adventure and risk-taking. Many writers also strive for creative and artistic achievement. These writers often produce graffiti on legal mediums, such as canvas and commissioned walls.

Graffiti also has strong links with political protest. Political graffiti is especially prominent in Europe, where hip-hop is more closely linked with left-wing politics and activism. The Berlin wall and Palestinian Separation Wall have both been heavily graffitied with political messages.

Some people consider gang graffiti to be another form of political graffiti, though most gang graffiti deals only with the internal politics of gang life. Gang graffiti is closely associated with creating space and shaping territory. Its extremely cryptic style makes reading/deciphering gang graffiti impossible for non gang members.


Graffiti can be found in cities across the globe. Traditionally, graffiti has been intimately linked with urban spaces. However, the popularity of graffiti in mainstream media, such as DVD's, magazines, the Internet, and video games, has facilitated its spread into suburban cities and rural towns.

Hip-hop graffiti is often placed in high-risk places. Graffiti can be found on bridges and overpasses, inside abandoned, derelict buildings, and on traveling freight cars. Commissioned hip-hop graffiti can also be found adorning store-fronts and gallery walls, in advertisements, and on commercial products.


Because creating graffiti often carries the risk of hefty fines or jail time, writers have tended to choose their tools based on the convenience of the material. Before the invention of the spray-can, many people created graffiti with pieces of chalk or charcoal or would use pocket knives to scratch surfaces.

Edward Seymour invented spray-paint in 1949 and it has been the preferred tool for graffiti writers ever since. Spray-paint is easily transportable and concealed. It also accommodates writers' need for scale, visibility and speed. Writers can select from a variety of caps (nozzles) to create different effects. For example, the ‘fat' caps produce thick lines and are used for fills, whereas ‘thins' or ‘outlines' produce thin lines and are used to create outlines and detail.

Stencil graffiti is created by first selecting or creating an image. The image is then inked into a black and white design. The black parts are cut out using an exacto knife or box cutter. The stencil is then placed upon a surface and spray paint is applied.
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