Street Art Vs Graffiti Essay

Street art and graffiti: Resources for online study

Michael DeNotto

Graffiti and street art are inextricably linked. The word graffiti comes from the Italian graffare meaning to scratch, as in on a surface. Yet, today the term graffiti means any sort of unsanctioned application of a substance, whether it is spray paint, pencil markings, or even stickers.

From the graffiti scrawled on the walls of the ancient city of Pompeii, socio-political murals in Northern Ireland from groups like the IRA and Sinn Féin, to communal projects like The Great Wall of Los Angeles, scholars have begun to recognize the importance of and value of these communications and political statements. Graffiti is now recognized as a legitimate source of academic study, and it is being studied as a reaction to injustice and disenfranchisement, a cry for revolution, a way to create awareness of socio-political issues, an expression of hope for the future, an effort to reclaim public spaces, or an attempt to beautify the urban environment, among others. In fact, some scholars have even studied graffiti specific to libraries, as Quinn Dombrowski did for her Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur project wherein she documented graffiti found in the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago from 2007 to 2011.

The present-day graffiti style began in the late 1970s in New York City, and the seminal documentary Style Wars (1983), does an excellent job of documenting graffiti’s proliferation in conjunction with the birth of hip hop. Graffiti also has deep connections to the Beat generation, as well as Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, in that graffiti rejects established standards, encourages experimentation, and draws from popular culture and advertising. Furthermore, Andy Warhol was instrumental in the rise of Jean-Michael Basquiat’s career, who alongside artists like Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Cornbread, and TAKI-183, among others, is recognized as being an influential pioneer in the graffiti world. Like many subcultures rooted in resistance, graffiti has a rich history in independently published media like the zines IGTimes, Can Control, and 12ozProphet.

The differences between graffiti and street art can be found in authorial intent, intended audience, and form. The most common form of graffiti is a tag. A tag is a graffiti artist’s signature. Tags are text based and largely indecipherable by those outside the graffiti community. The intention behind a tag is the rebellious proliferation of the artist’s signature, akin to brand name advertising. Street art is a sub-genre of graffiti. While graffiti operates within a closed community, street art is an open invitation for anyone to interact, consider, and discuss. Furthermore, street art is drawn with a pictorial focus rather than textual, and it is rebellious but not purposefully destructive as there is intent to beautify the urban environment.

The most recognized contemporary street artists include the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Banksy, who uses stencils in his street art, recently took the media by storm during his self-proclaimed month-long artist’s residency in New York City, where his works and social experiments drew hordes of fans, the ire of politicians, and intense media scrutiny regarding issues surrounding the nature of graffiti.

This, in turn, sparked national dialogue concerning larger structural questions, such as what constitutes art, what is public and what is private, and a variety of other sociopolitical issues. Banksy’s unique vision, self-referential style, and examination of the hypocritical capital “A” Arts scene, can be viewed in the award-winning documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010).

Fairey is best known for his Obama Hope poster, as well as his sticker art involving the image of former professional wrestler Andre the Giant alongside the phrase “Obey,” though Fairey has now focused more on fashion and the established gallery scene than his street art roots.

Street art’s immersion into the mainstream is not unique for a subculture. Graffiti has long been appropriated by advertising enterprises due to graffiti’s popular appeal. Street art-related pieces have increasingly garnered institutional affirmation through gallery exhibits, which has caused prices of works to skyrocket when sold at auction. Street art and graffiti artists have become so popular that even renowned hip hop mogul Jay-Z rapped about his love of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as references to Shepard Fairey, in his most recent album Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Street art is ephemeral. Authorities often eradicate street art because it is perceived as vandalism. Additionally, street art often asks questions that the authorities would prefer not be asked. Another aspect of street art’s ephemeral nature is that it exists in the public for the public, thus it is exposed to not only the elements, but potential vandalism, as well. Street art’s emphasis on communal engagement, value to scholarship, and its temporal and fragile nature demonstrate the importance of street art curation and distribution in both online and print collections and archives.

Crowdsourced archives

Art Crimes

This collection began in 1994 and was one of the few websites to even exist at that point in time. Art Crimes is unique in that its longevity has resulted in an unmatched historical collection of street art and graffiti-related images. Additionally, an impressive collection of research, essays, and interviews with graffiti artists, street artists, and scholars are available. Also included is an expansive directory of links to websites of graffiti artists, street artists, and websites that focus on the related topics. Access:

Fat Cap

This resource started as a basic image gallery in 1998. Then, in 2001, it became a portal that allowed artists to have their own individual pages. Since then, this resource’s coverage of street art-related materials has expanded globally, while featuring street art-related news, articles, and events. Fat Cap is actively seeking article submissions related to street art to publish on their website. Users can browse street art images by type like sketch or tag, by support like walls or trains, or by style like wildstyle or realistic. Access:

Global Street Art

The operators of Global Street Art, started in 2012 and based in London, express their desire to create a digital, as well as physical, museum for street art to highlight the work of international street artists. Images are organized by the artist’s profile and a location, character, and technique-based tagging system. Aside from the plethora of street art images in the collection, the resource’s strongest asset is the multitude of interviews with street artists contained within. Additionally, Global Street Art is well known for its Walls Project, which works on locating walls for potential mural and street art projects while garnering appropriate permissions beforehand. Access:

International Graffiti Archive

This archive is solely focused on illegal graffiti with the goal being to collect, preserve, and provide accessible and continuing evidence of the existence of illegal graffiti, which the curators feel is often underappreciated. With more than 25,000 photos from 13 countries and 146 different cities, this is a strong archive that evolved from the IGTimes zine. Access:

Street Art Utopia

This very popular resource is similar to other crowdsourced websites in that it allows users to submit images of street art to be included on the site or posted on one of many social media platforms. However, Street Art Utopia is notable for its immense global popularity and because it focuses solely on street art from across the world, including paintings, stenciling, stickers, and even yarn bombing. Access:

Street Museum of Art

This museum’s inaugural exhibition was held on the streets of Brooklyn in the fall of 2012. The museum has sponsored guerrilla-style exhibitions curating street art, by renowned street artists like Sweet Toof, in London, New York City, and most recently Montreal. The exhibitions are accompanied by interactive online maps showing potential viewers where to locate the pieces being exhibited. Access:

Wooster Collective

Founded in 2001 and online since 2003, this collective based in New York City has been very influential in the city’s Art scene. The couple behind the Wooster Collective, Marc and Sarah Schiller organized the 11 Spring Street Project in 2006, where they temporarily turned a local building into an art gallery featuring works of renowned street artists like Shepard Fairey and Swoon, among others. Representatives of the Wooster Collective have been involved in lectures relating to street art at the Tate Modern, Haverford College, and the School of Visual Arts. The Wooster Collective aggregates works of street art from across the globe, interviews with street artists, exhibitions and gallery events, as well as videos highlighting street art related projects like Art Connect Liverpool which helped promote self-awareness in youths and the differently abled. The Wooster Collective also has a directory of links to websites of artists. Access:

Institutional archive

The Cornell Hip Hop Collection

Some of this collection’s highlights include the complete collection of the influential graffiti zine IGTimes (1983–1994), many drawings and photographs detailing infamous subway train paintings from the artist Richie “SEEN” Mirando, and tons of original material from director and artist Charlie Ahearn’s film Wildstyle (1983) including audio, video, testimonials, flyers, posters, and photographs. The Cornell Hip Hop Collection is the best library collection of street art, graffiti, and hip hop-related physical material. Access:



The strength of this resource that began in 2010 is its blog, which does an excellent job of keeping up with street art-related news, trends, and gallery events around the globe. Additionally, exclusive interviews with artists are included as transcriptions and video. Access:


Begun in 2008, this is a well-maintained blog that not only displays high-quality, street art-related images, but provides insightful commentary providing context and information about the artists’ styles, history, and methods. Vandalog’s founder RJ Rushmore is a recognized authority on street art and has twice presented at Living Walls, The City Speaks, the preeminent street art conference. Access:

Nonprofit organizations

City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

Originally part of an effort to rid the city of Philadelphia of graffiti, this program began in 1984 as a way to get graffiti artists to work on communal art projects as opposed to vandalism. For 30 years, they have been beautifying the city’s neighborhoods with murals while providing the inhabitants with a voice, fostering a sense of community, and providing a positive creative outlet for artists and youths. The program has helped create more than 3,000 murals, and it serves as an excellent example of how street art programs can have a positive impact on people and their surroundings. Access:

Living Walls

This Atlanta based nonprofit organization was founded in 2009. Its annual conference Living Walls, The City Speaks was first held in 2010. Every year the conference is held in Atlanta. The 2012 conference was unique in that only female street artists were invited to exhibit. The conference includes film screenings, lectures, and exhibitions. With a goal of creating a dialogue about public art, Living Walls doesn’t just showcase art, but provides a platform for open and healthy conversation regarding issues and problems that many cities are facing. Access:

Mobile app


This mobile app, that is currently only available for use with iOS, allows users to upload and tag images of street art, while also providing users with the locations of, and directions to, street art nearby. The mobile app was created by the San Francisco organization 1AM, which began in 2008. 1AM stands for the first amendment and signifies the organization’s goals of teaching, exhibiting, creating, and curating street art as a form of free artistic expression. Access:

Copyright © 2014 Michael DeNotto

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On July 25, Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver Partners Against Graffiti and 200-plus volunteers took to the streets of Capitol Hill to "buff out" some of the graffiti surrounding East High School. This was the sixth annual "Brush Off Graffiti" event, celebrating another year of working to keep Denver beautiful, as DPAG's sister program is titled. Both Keep Denver Beautiful and DPAG are offshoots of Denver Waste Management, whose goal is to rid the city of trash — including graffiti. It will even provide you free paint so that you can wipe it out yourself.

DPAG works under the common assumption that the presence of graffiti "creates an environment that breeds bigger crimes." But to the untrained eye, graffiti is not so far off from street art, a hot commodity in the Mile High — and for that matter, trained eyes often don't separate the two, either.

"To me, it's like asking what's the difference between two different forms of art," says graffiti and street-art photographer Gary Glasser."We see art in all forms. I shoot murals, large and small. Colorful and not so colorful. Some of it may be considered graffiti.. all of it is art."

"In essence, they are both the same," says street artist Victoriano Rivera. "Each realm is a vessel that acts against the establishment, illegally applying paint or medium to an urban landscape. The difference being that one is a cultural movement; the other, a derivative of that movement, is now a commodity." 

"What I feel is that street art is basically gentrified graffiti," says another artist. "I used to be obsessed with graffiti, but I didn't have anyone to do it with so my efforts fizzled out pretty early. I used to spend hours looking at graffiti online and in books. Now that I paint on the street, I think that traditional, letter-based graffiti is too constricting for me — but I still really love and respect it. Those guys risk everything for what they do."

"To me, they are all the same, honestly," says artist PJ Sierra. "But graffiti is more so a 'name/tag' skill which involves crews and rattlecans. Street art is a hybrid of what graffiti is today. The difference, in my opinion, is the times. Because eventually, graffiti and street art will both be known as self-expression. And whether you're a graff writer or a street artist, your goal is the same: To prove we existed on this earth by leaving our mark."

Still, that leaves a dilemma: Some residents of the city view these marks as vandalism, while many consider them art. But there are ways to distinguish the difference — and least legally, historically and culturally — and here are ten of them.

10) Graffiti Artists Have Crews

Most graffiti artists crew up. In "Tagging Up," Westword explored the complex relationships within the graffiti world, as well as the massive size of the community: An estimated forty crews are working in Denver; the three largest are TKO, RTD and SWS. But then again, there are graffiti writers who don't identify with a crew at all. Rogue writers who tag on their own include some of the most prolific graffiti writers in Denver. Unlike graffiti writers, street artists don't tend to work their way up the hierarchy of a crew; they often come straight from the studio into the street-art scene.

9) Graffiti Is Harder to Read

There are many types of graffiti. Wildstyle is the most difficult graffiti signature to read; it has its own language. Then there is the tag, a signature using just one color, and the most common type of graffiti seen in Denver. A throw-up is a signature that uses two or three colors, but is still done quickly. There are also wheat pastes, stencils, slaps (stickers), bubble graffiti, block busters and "bombing," which refers to the speed with which the work is done and focuses on quantity over quality. 

8) Graffiti Gets "Dissed"

The hierarchy within the graffiti world is also a factor, reflecting years of conflict that include instances of artists tagging over other artists, or "dissing" the graffiti on the wall, because of long-standing rivalries between their respective crews. Sanctioned murals are less likely to get dissed: When murals are authorized by the city or businesses — particularly on "problem walls," places where graffiti tends to pop up the most — 99 percent of the time graffiti writers will respect the art that is put there. If it's beautiful and complex, taggers leave it alone.

7) Street Artists Use Different Modes of Painting, Graffiti Artists Use Aerosol

Aerosol is one of the major factors that separates graffiti writers from other artists. Although street artists may use aerosol, they also employ everything from acrylic and oil paint to projectors, wood or metal, and multimodal materials. Graffiti is all about the freehand use of aerosol. That's the art's defining factor, and as most aerosol artists will tell you, it takes years to perfect.

6) Street Artists Paint in Broad Daylight

If you see artists painting during the day or early evening hours in Denver, they are probably creating street art. Street artists are also sometimes given lifts by the company that hired them. Graffiti writers almost always paint in the middle of the night or early morning to insure not getting caught. 

5) Street Art Is Abstract

The above piece by Holis and Lana is a great example of the abstract form that sanctioned street art can take. Many local street artists have the ability to move from the studio to the street without limitations; they simply consider themselves artists. Similarly, street art is often called urban art, public art or outdoor art, all politically correct terms that attempt to distance street art from graffiti's bad reputation. 

4) Street Artists Use and Sign With Full Name

A great sign that you're looking at street art rather than graffiti is the signature on the bottom right corner of the piece. Often including an Instagram username or the creator's full name, it is like a modern version of an artist's signature on a canvas. Sometimes you'll see a haphazardly placed stencil that says "Denver Arts + Venues," showing that it was sanctioned by the city.

Graffiti writers in Denver work under pseudonyms, often "Super Hero" identities. Street artists who were once graff writers usually pick a new name or begin working under their real name.

3) Street Artists Talk to the  Press

If you can Google an artist whose work is on the streets, that person is usually a street artist. Graffiti writers are reluctant to talk to the press, because most of the work they have done is illegal and they run the risk of being apprehended for work they may have done years ago. Artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Hope poster for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, was recently arrested in Los Angeles after the Detroit Police Department issued warrants for his arrest on two counts of malicious destruction of property — for acts he allegedly committed years before.

2) Graffiti is Ever-Changing 

You are less likely to see a graffiti piece survive the test of time — and not just because DPAG will buff it out. Even on permission walls, graffiti is constantly being adding to and painted over: It is the most temporary form of artwork. In contrast, much of the famous street art in Denver will be remain untouched for at least a year, and some celebrated murals will be kept intact for years. The Willie Matthews piece entitled "A Fine Old Martin" has been preserved on its LoDo wall for almost two decades.  

1. Street Art Is Sanctioned, Graffiti Is Not

Street art and graffiti both make Denver more colorful; they make artistic and political statements that reflect the culture of our city. In the end, the biggest difference between the two is not style, but the fact that graffiti is illegal while street art is sanctioned. "Street art is the evolution of graffiti," concludes artist Anthony Garcia Sr., a Westword MasterMind. "Public art is legal street art."

Lindsey Bartlett is a Denver native, writer, photographer and lover of street art. Creep it real on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.


Mayor Michael B. Hancock at annual "Brush Off" graffiti event.

Denver.Gov on Facebook

"Knowledge is power": Graffiti on permission walls in the Arts District on Santa Fe.

Lindsey Bartlett


The old Jewell Graffiti Wall at Jewell Avenue and Broadway.

Lindsey Bartlett


Artist Jason Theikle painting a sanctioned mural at Avanti Food & Beverage.

Lindsey Bartlett


Mario Zoots, Kevin Hennessy and Mike Wiess working on their mural at 2700 Larimer Street.

Lindsey Bartlett


Holis and Lana mural on South Broadway and Jewell Avenue.

Lindsey Bartlett


Sanctioned mural by international artist Martin Whatson on the Cherry Creek Bikepath.

Lindsey Bartlett


Angelina Christina working on her mural at 2100 Larimer Street in winter 2014.

Lindsey Bartlett


"Save paper, write on walls" graffiti found in 2013 at the former permission wall ot Jewell and Broadway.

Lindsey Bartlett

Hari Panciker and Deepti Nair working on their mural at 21st Street and Market Street.

Lindsey Bartlett

Lindsey Bartlett is a writer, photographer, artist, Denver native and weed-snob. Her work has been published in Vanity Fair, High Times and Leafly, to name a few.

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