Art Term Tuesday: Graffiti Art v Street Art

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

The human impulse to leave a mark, to tell the world “I was here”, is a tale as old as time. Graffiti art shows up in every place and on every space, from names painted on walls in Pompeii to spray painted train cars and bridge overpasses. Graffiti is the start of a long history of visual civic expression, a transgressive act that has evolved from illegal tagging to poster art (think Alphonse Mucha and Chuck Sperry) to murals. While public art can re-vitalize a neighborhood it can also promote gentrification, by popularizing a previously “unsafe” neighborhood, and be cost-prohibitive to artists just starting. How do we differentiate between these two outlets of artistic expression?

Chuck Sperry, American, b. 1962. Royal Tenenbaums, ‘Margot’. 12 color screenprint, 2010. Gift of the Artist, CS.051.a&.b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Simply, to capture a wider audience graffiti uses word-based artistic expressions that are (usually) done without permission while street art is image-based artwork done with the permission of the owner or city. From the Italian word graffio, meaning a scratch, graffiti evolved over the 1960s and 1970s from simple name-tagging to entire, complete scenes. It became a competition: who could make the most colorful tag and place it around the city for everyone to see. The written words became a language unto themselves, representing a group or community, both covertly and in plain sight. Due to the illegal nature of the placement–on walls of buildings, private property, abandoned buildings, street signs, and alleys–these tags became pseudonyms. First showing up in New York and Philadelphia subways, it is now synonymous with artistic icons like Basquiat, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy. Many graffiti artists remain unknown, however, because of the illegality of their art; being under the radar is integral to both their art and their message: it isn’t about the who but the what. Tagging is also associated with gangs, a way to mark a territory, and this has furthered its negative connotation. In recent years, though, the “Banksy Effect” has elevated graffiti art even further, from the streets to the gallery, from eyesore vandalism to cultural revitalization à la street art.

Street art is an off-shoot of graffiti that is similar to installation art: it explicitly uses a specific space in its conception, whether an alley or the side of a building. Less a defiant act, street art is displayed on publicly viewable surfaces and sometimes referred to as “smart vandalism” because it doesn’t involve tagging. Like graffiti, IT can be done using spray paint, but also LED art, mosaic tiles, stencils, yarn bombing, and various other materials. While both art forms share public visibility, graffiti tends to be viewed negatively while street art is seen in a more positive light. One the work of vandals or teens and the other of “real” fine artists. A sight to see, murals can attract crowds of people, creating an outdoor museum through public tours and garnering top spots on “must see” lists. Some muralists contend that people don’t live in museums, so why should our art be held behind heavy glass doors and ticket windows?

A view of Heather Day’s mural, painted on the gallery wall at FMWoA. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

The popularity, and subsequent acceptance of street art, is recent, even more so in museums. Set apart from graffiti art by the mindful repurposing of a space, street art is now included in many revitalization programs, including in Fort Wayne. Here at home, Art this Way has strategically placed murals by local, national, and international artists in downtown alleys to brighten those spaces and make them safer. Instead of purposefully staying away from those areas, both locals and tourists alike make it a point to sneak down to them, taking photos for their Instagram. In other cities, where these programs have taken place in neighborhoods, as opposed to downtown districts, it has led to accusations of gentrification. These run-down neighborhoods have seen an influx of younger, upper-middle class partners and families move in, often displacing the original inhabitants and changing the culture of the area. While street art can reinvent a neighborhood by making it more desirable, it can have the adverse effect of out-pricing original owners and tenants.

Art that is by the people and for the people, murals can help show the public the value of art while also bringing attention to local artists; no ticket or booking time required. Many museums have joined the street art renaissance, inviting muralists to create works inside. Heather Day, a contemporary artist who visited FWMoA in 2020, painted a mural on one of our gallery walls. The FWMoA Learning Center features a mural by Nosego, The Teacher, whose other mural in Fort Wayne can be found in the alley by Pint & Slice, Untitled, (see below). Currently on display, the Art of the Skateboard looks at how the visual arts impacted the culture of skateboarding and vice versa. Whether street or studio, the drive to leave a mark won’t fade, much like the graffiti on the side of a train.

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