More than 40 years have passed since the beginning of the modern graffiti movement, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Heightened security in train yards, and technological innovations such as graffiti-proof paints and metals, have moved the scene from subways to the streets. The first writers have either disappeared, or moved their craft from the streets to the art gallery. And an entire generation has grown up in a world that has always had graffiti showing up somewhere in their cities.
Graffiti as an art movement is a study in innovation and improvisation. So it’s not surprising that as writers became increasingly adept and artful in their vandalism, they attracted the attention of artists working in more traditional media looking for a way to break out of the galleries.
The technique and aesthetic that developed is most easily termed “street art,” but like everything else having to do with graffiti, even the name of this auxiliary art movement is a point of serious contention.
In fact, the term “street art” includes so much that it’s almost meaningless, encompassing legal public murals, those crazy perspective chalk drawings you’ve probably seen on the internet, stenciled graffiti, wheat pasting, and more conceptual public installation pieces. It seems the only real connection between all of these forms is that they appear outdoors.
But whatever the specific form, there have been a few street artists that have garnered considerable public notoriety, in a way that is largely unheard of in traditional graffiti. Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, got his start pasting prints of the wrestler Andre the Giant on city walls.
The always contentious Banksy started as a graffiti writer before moving on to an often bizarre, but always sharp, quilting of graffiti, performance art and installations.
Still, any rivalry that exists between street artists and graffiti writers is largely superficial. It’s probably true that the public looks more favorably upon street art than it does graffiti, but graffiti writers were never in it for acceptance. What is true about both is that they put color where before there was only concrete, each style asking the same questions: what is art, and where does it belong?