What is Street Art? Vandalism, graffiti or public art – Part I


In recent years there has been an increasing interest in an ephemeral and viral form of art that is marking urban settings around the world, and has developed a flourishing sub-culture all its own. Now though, street art is going mainstream. Auctioneers, collectors and museum directors are scrabbling to learn urban art vocabulary and develop positions on the big street art issues. In this primer post Art Radar gives you a heads up on what you need to know.

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What is Street Art?

There is as yet no simple definition of street art. It is an amorphous beast encompassing art which is found in or inspired by the urban environment. With anti-capitalist and rebellious undertones, it is a democratic form of popular public art probably best understood by seeing it in situ. It is not limited to the gallery nor easily collected or possessed by those who may turn art into a trophy.

Considered by some a nuisance, for others street art is a tool for communicating views of dissent, asking difficult questions and expressing political concerns.

Its definition and uses are changing: originally a tool to mark territorial boundaries of urban youth today it is even seen in some cases as a means of  urban beautification and regeneration.

Whether it is regarded as vandalism or public art, street art has caught the interest of the art world and its lovers of beauty.

Is street art vandalism?

In an interview with the Queens Tribune, New York City’s Queens Museum of Art Executive Director Tom Finkelpearl said public art “is the best way for people to express themselves in this city.” Finkelpearl, who helps organize socially conscious art exhibitions, added, “Art gets dialogue going. That’s very good.” However, he doesn’t find  graffiti to be art, and says, “I can’t condone vandalism… It’s really upsetting to me that people would need to write their name over and over again in public space. It’s this culture of fame. I really think it’s regrettable that they think that’s the only way to become famous.”

Is street art illegal?

The legal distinction between permanent graffiti and art is permission, but the topic becomes even more complex regarding impermanent, nondestructive forms of graffiti (yarn bombing, video projection, and street installation.)

With permission, traditional painted graffiti is technically considered public art. Without permission, painters of public and private property are committing vandalism and are, by definition, criminals. However, it still stands that most street art is unsanctioned, and many artists who have painted without permission, (Banksy, Shepard Fairey)  have been glorified as legitimate and socially conscious artists.

Although it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clearly define what unsanctioned imagery is art and what is not, the effects of such images can be observed and conclusions can be reached regarding images’ function within a public environment.

Banksy, North London

Broken Window Theory: Vandalism vs. Street Art

Vandalism is inexcusable destruction of property, and has been shown to have negative repercussions on its setting. It has also been observed by criminologists to have a ‘snowball effect’ of generating more negativity within its vicinity. Dr. James Q. Wilson and Dr. George Kelling studied the effects of disorder (in this case, a broken window) in an urban setting, and found that one instance of neglect increases the likelihood of more broken windows and graffiti will appear. Then, there is an observable increase in actual violent crime. The researchers concluded there is a direct link between vandalism, street violence, and the general decline of a society.

Their theory, named the Broken Window Theory and first published in 1982, argues that crime is the inevitable result of disorder, and that if neglect is present in a place, whether it is disrepair or thoughtless graffiti, people walking by will think no one cares about that place, and the unfavorable damage is therefore acceptable.

Street Art and Gentrification

Thoughtful and attractive street art, however, has been suggested to have regenerative effects on a neighborhood. In fact, the popular street artist Banksy, who has catapulted his guerilla street art pastime into a profitable career as an auctionable contemporary artist, has come under criticism for his art contributing to the gentrification of neighborhoods. Appropriate Media claims that:

“Banksy… sells his lazy polemics to Hollywood movie stars for big bucks… Graffiti artists are the performing spray-can monkeys for gentrification. In collusion with property developers, they paint deprived areas bright colours to indicate the latest funky inner city area ripe for regeneration. Pushing out low income families in their wake, to be replaced by middle class metrosexuals with their urban art collections.” [Times Online]

Banksy himself has received requests from residents in the neighborhoods he paints, which ask that he stop painting so they can continue to afford homes in the neighborhoods where they grew up.  A letter received by Banksy reads:

“My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives, but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here that neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore. Your graffities are undoubtably part of what makes these [people] think our area is cool. You’re obviously not from around here, and after you’ve driven up the house prices you’ll just move on. Do us a favor and go do your stuff somewhere else like Brixton.”

Forms of Street Art

1. Traditional

Painting on the surfaces of public or private property that is visible to the public, commonly with a can of spray paint or roll-on paint. It may be comprised of just simple words (commonly the writer’s name) or be more artful and elaborate, covering a surface with a mural image.

2. Stencil

Painting with the use of a homemade stencil, usually a paper or cardboard cutout, to create an image that can be easily reproduced. The desired design is cut out of a selected medium, and the image is transferred to a surface through the use of spray paint or roll-on paint.

3. Sticker (aka sticker bombing, slap tagging, and sticker tagging)

Propagatesan image or message in public spaces using homemade stickers. These stickers commonly promote a political agenda, comment on a policy or issue, or comprise an avantgarde art campaign. Sticker art is considered a subcategory of postmodern art.

4. Mosaic

Mosaic is the art of creating images with an assemblage of smaller parts or pieces, to resemble a single giant piece of art.

5. Video Projection

Digitally projecting a computer-manipulated image onto a surface via a light and projection system.

6. Street installation

Street installations are a growing trend within the ‘street art’ movement. Whereas conventional street art and graffiti is done on surfaces or walls, ‘street installations’ use 3-D objects and space to interfere with the urban environment. Like graffiti, it is non-permission based and once the object or sculpture is installed it is left there by the artist.

7. Wood blocking

Artwork painted on a small portion of plywood or similar inexpensive material and attached to street signs with bolts. Often the bolts are bent at the back to prevent removal. It has become a form of graffiti used to cover a sign, poster, or any piece of advertisement that stands or hangs.

8. Flash mobbing

A large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse. The term flash mob is generally applied only to gatherings organized via telecommunications, social networking, and viral emails. The term is generally not applied to events organized by public relations firms or as publicity stunts. This can also be considered mass public performance art.

9. Yarn bombing

Yarn Bombing is a type of street art that employs colourful displays of knitted or crocheted cloth rather than paint or chalk. The practice is believed to have originated in the U.S. with Texas knitters trying to find a creative way to use their leftover and unfinished knitting projects, but has since spread worldwide. While other forms of graffiti may be expressive, decorative, territorial, socio-political commentary, advertising or vandalism, yarn bombing is almost exclusively about beautification and creativity.

Erin Wooters Yip

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What is Street Art? Vandalism, graffiti or public art – Part I — 56 Comments

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  26. Hello Im currently in year twelve, and as a major work project students must comprise a 5000 word research topic on something they are passionate in. I have chose street art as my topic, but more specifically, why there aren’t many female street artists and I was wondering if art radar could provide their opinion on the topic.

  27. i really loved this article, as a lover of fine art i agree with this, i think street art is beautiful in any form, it is a form of self expression and i love seeing it, i don’t understand why there are so many people against it though, whats the problem? you don’t have to look at it, it isn’t hurting you, what i think is, it makes the cities look brighter and a lot more beautiful and i love seeing this form of art because i know what time goes into it and how fast they do it aswell. :) xx

  28. Dear Sir/Madam

    I too am currently writing a dissertation surrounding the topic of street art. If possible, it would be greatly appreciated to have a few sentences of your time to get your views and opinions on the matter. I would offer the same in return but judging by the date of your post, I must assume that you are already completed your work, in which case, I am most interested in reading it.

    I look forward to your response.

    Kind Regard
    Peter Green
    4th Year International Tourism Management student
    Robert Gordon University

  29. Hi, we don’t give out information on our writers, but feel free to credit Art Radar. Thanks for reading.

  30. Who is an author of that article? I am writing a dissertation on a subject and I would like to quote/paraphrase the views presented above. Need to know the author tho. Please help :)

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  36. hello my name is andreea and together with 3 friends of mine started a semester project about introducing street art in Aalborg, Denmark. can you please help us to get a little bit deeper in this concept? I mean can you tell us how hard is to make a street art festival happen? Thank you for your time and for the great article above. Best ,

  37. Good evening,

    Much to the disagreement of modern society, I strongly agree that these less artful “tags” are in fact necessary for the ongoing development of Graffiti art. While it may in fact be an eyesore to some, the world (or those who give a f–k anyway) need to understand that a quick tag or throw-up is like the flag that gets put on the moon. It signifies, hey “I’m alive.. I was here.. I exist”.

    Not all Graffiti writers know how to piece and only a select few know how to burn. So yes, there are those who will only add to the nuisance or keep the “broken window” theory alive. Then you have the hardcore “never say die” artists that will spend countless hours devising super complex wild style letters in a fifteenth dimension with background visions of Heaven and hell for the enjoyment of others.

    As the art form has evolved & become more accepted by the contemporary mainstream world – it has entered galleries and even museums all over the globe. I myself have painted murals in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Having been paid by those who are mesmerized by our NY 80s style and passion. So yes, I would agree this has branched off as a derivative of its original product. (Note, LEN ONE and I prefer the rush of getting over – while TOPIC prefers not to have to run!..lol)

    As previously mentioned, “legal walls” offer the added time to inject more detail & creativity into the pieces – time which is not readily available when you are illegally in a yard subjected to “raids” and even conflicts with other writers (well this is the way it used to be anyway!). While yes, it does allow time for the “perfect” piece — it can never EVER replace the feeling of having executed a near perfect creation done in the darkness, while standing in between two parked cars in a nauseous cloud of paint vapors!


  38. Thank you for your response! It is truly insightful to get the artistic perspective of an original 80’s New York train bomber, where it seems the contemporary urban graffiti movement all began. There are so many questions to address, but here’s a start…

    Would you agree the less artful ‘tags’ that are quickly thrown up are necessary for the process and development of graffiti art as a visual language? And although these markings are sometimes misconstrued as vandalism or a nuisance, they are necessary because they provide the basis for more elaborate graffiti art?

    Also, would you even categorise ‘legal’ graffiti or graffiti-style art that is created on canvasses and sold in galleries as ‘graffiti’, or rather as a new and separate derivative of this art form? The art world is still grappling with how to understand, classify and discuss this relatively young art form and style, which has recently become so popular in commercial galleries and even the contemporary art auction market. For instance, the question remains of whether graffiti ‘reenactments’ are considered to be graffiti. At the Sotheby’s Ullens Collection Sale on October 2nd in Hong Kong, 3 works by Tsang Tsou Choi (the “King of Kowloon”) sold, with one excellent example fetching a hammer price of HKD650K / USD83K. These works were ‘recreations’ of bombings executed by the venerable graffiti artist, and created in his studio. So, it remains to be determined whether ‘graffiti’ is determined by its illicit creation, or has simply become an artistic style.

    And furthermore, do you feel that legal walls encourage creativity, or extinguish the true spirit of this irreverent art form?

    Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

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  40. Unfortunately, this onion has many layers. A true graffiti artist will know that bombing is just as an essential part of graf as is piecing.. The issue we face is that some people just choose to “bomb” and others are more into the artistic side (know as piecing). When we would paint trains back in the 80’s – there were nights when we were only in the mood to do 10 second throw-ups – then we had nights were 7 hour burners were on the menu. To be well rounded – you need to dominate to some extent every layer in this onion. Nowadays, the risks are much greater as we are older – so we enjoy the fun of a legal wall. But it isnt the same to be honest, there is always going to be that itch to flood a homemade and bomb insides….

  41. Thank you for your comment. Although graffiti and street art have gained respect in the art world in recent years, the practice remains a highly disputed medium of self-expression. The problem persists that some still see little technical distinction between inspirational, well-crafted graffiti artwork and the more common, destructive ‘tags’ which often have negative messages.

    As an artist, do you see these types of graffiti as fundamentally different, one as legitimate artistic expression and another as a nuisance? Where should communities draw the line in regards to accepting or tolerating thoughtful, skillfully executed graffiti art?

    These are tough questions with no easy answer!

  42. While society in general will continue to deem street art as a form of urban decay or vandalism. They need to have a closer look at where these big corporations from Nike to even cereal boxes obtain some of their advertising… The root itself comes from the so-called “nuisance” that creates an eyesore for some – yet inspires others. Graffiti is a “plague” that will never be stopped as a new writer emerges every day. As for those who have been running from the law to express their art for decades … remember …………….. KEEP RUNNIN!

    ..1983 NYC ..

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  44. @ DC
    But when art comes to art, there are no limitations. Regardless of the thoughts of others, the artist continues with their work and doesn’t bother to care about the disagreements of others, they do as they please thats how it works.

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  47. Having recently been to Berlin, I think that street art can affect the way people view their city and urban space. There are places where street art have regenerated run down areas and spaces and create pockets of new communities. If city councils know that people are going to tag or “deface” public property any way why don’t they create legitimate places where people can tag or better yet train those who are less skilled so at least when they can develop their creative abilities.

  48. The visuals are too biased as you only show the best of street art and choose to ignore how much of street marking is no better than animal/human piss marking territory.

    A comprimise would be that enlightened/eco conscious taggers adopt easily removable markers like chalk / washable paint

  49. As long as people don’t destroy things (then it becomes destruction not creation), any form of street art is okay.
    Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa

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