Street Art as a Way of Expression

With many art techniques, a few definite examples of “the early years” and “pioneers of the style” can be pointed out by art historians and enthusiasts. Even when specific genres of art are frowned upon by leading art experts, there is a beginning to commemorate. However, in street art we discover its use long before acknowledgment of the style as a form of expression. It has been a long and controversial road for this medium, and even now, mainly due to the issue of scale and location, it is overlooked by many outside of the art appreciation world.

Street Art or Graffiti?

Graffiti (plural, from the Italian word meaning scratched) are described as “…writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view.” They have been created in public locations since ancient times, and was often used as advertisements and declarations as well as public responses to the artwork also inscribed thereon. But the stigma of “vandalism” likely prevented this art form from taking off earlier. It took on a more public image in the 1970’s when young adults (and likely, disenchanted teenagers) took to public areas to express discontentment with the socio-economic environment at the time.

Early Years of Street Art

A creative method used by those outside of the art scene, who were without a recognized outlet for artistic and social communication, graffiti was seen by most cultural groups and leaders as an expression of anger, and a criminal act performed by gangs in large urban cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. However, as more accepted artistic expression began to take shape in the early 1980’s, and Martha Cooper’s book “Subway Art” and the film “Wild Style” contributed to recognition by the mainstream art world of the value and creativity of street art. Artists became inspired by graffiti and used techniques to create their own works of art, used often in political expression worldwide.


Burgeoning talents like Keith Haring used the genre as a way to express his activism, and artist Jean-Michel Baequiat, collaborating with none other than Andy Warhol, garnered the approval of the NYC art scene (even though he attempted to distance himself from the stigma of graffiti and graffiti artists). Haring’s use of NYC train stations provided him with notoriety, both positive and negative, as he took advantage of chalkboards to create some of the most well-known ephemeral art projects in the world.

Worldwide Occurrence of Street Art

Political unrest and dissatisfaction of the political culture found in many countries was expressed in street art. The Berlin Wall became a perfect canvas for graffiti-style artwork, expressing the volatility of the culture, and Thierry Noir tells his story of the game of “cat-and-mouse” he sometimes played with authorities on both sides of the wall. After Germany’s reunification and the destruction of the wall, more than 100 international artists were contracted to decorate the remains on Berlin’s Mühlenstraße.

In Brazil, illegal painting on walls, called Pixação, was used in protest of militarism in the government. Spray paint and stencils were used to allow art to be created quickly, avoiding arrest. In later years, artists would claim that this expression in the 1970’s, inspired the local street art movement. A similar atmosphere pervaded in Paris, where Blek le Rat used rat stencils to draw attention to the economic and cultural disparity in existence at the time, and in an effort to bring art outside of galleries, which proved successful as his works became more mainstream in the 2000’s.

Street Art Begins to Sell

In Britain, the artist Banksy (a moniker, as his identity has always remained a secret) was one of the first to sell works, including a piece auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2005. Works have been removed for sale, and buildings have been sold at exorbitant prices due to the presence of street art on their walls.

Now, street artists are selling photographs and canvases of their street art in galleries, cashing in on the popularity. Some of the grandfathers of street art, like Basquiat, are having old works discovered and sold for huge profits as well.

Notable Street Artists and Works

In addition to the street art leaders who have continued to front this phenomenon today, it is important to mention some other outstanding artists.

Banksy: This is perhaps the most notorious street artist, due to both his works as well as his anonymity. Much speculation has been raised about his identity, and there are several theories circulating as to who could be this elusive artist. He led the turning point in the commercialization of street art when his works began to sell and be exhibited in museums…some when he broke in and placed them himself in NYC, and others in Bristol, where he has works showcased in his hometown.

Shepard Fairey: This well-known artist and graphic designer has created street art which has become commercialized, including a mural for Barack Obama for his 2008 campaign, and several images which have gone on to become used for posters and other commercial products.

Street Art Now a Common Sight: Exhibitions and Initiatives

The popularity of street art has helped to birth other genres, like public installations and large-scale murals displayed in private enterprises and even on government buildings. The rise in popularity has allowed for the growth of gallery exhibitions and tours, and tourism has added to the success of large scale displays. So, are graffiti and street art borne of the same mother, or too distant to share familial ties? Street artists may want to distance themselves from the sentiment about graffiti artists but cannot deny their beginnings.

Today street art has garnered enough popularity to warrant worldwide display, from exhibitions to museums. Here is a brief list of places you can check out street art:

The Street Museum of Art (SMoA)—located in Brooklyn, a museum founded in the birthplace of street art

Les Bains, Paris—this hotel/restaurant/nightclub is an innovative new method for showcasing street art

Subliminal Projects—Founded by Shepard Fairey, this Los Angeles space is dedicated to contemporary art forms and holds other mediums worthy of visiting.

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