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The Difference Between Graffiti & Street Art.

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

Graffiti and street art can often be confused with being the same practice and in some cases both can simply be regarded as vandalism, so before this report looks at aspects such as the history, meanings, applications and influences of these art forms analysis will first be conducted in to what makes them similar and yet very different.

While graffiti and street art share a number of common aspects such as both being subversive art forms displayed in public and both can be produced using some of the same materials the similarities do not go much further. It has been argued that ‘the difference between graffiti writing and street art is as great as that between for example, jazz and techno music.’ (Lewisohn, 2008:15)

Others do not believe there is a difference between the two disciplines and the only aspect that separates one piece of work from another is commercial value ‘Some sell out to brands and make money, some don’t sell out and probably stay poor.’ Bradbeer (2014) however once an artist is commissioned to create the work limitations are put in place that would not exist with self initiated projects.

Figure 1. Tags by various graffiti writers.

Aesthetically graffiti and street art may appear to display similar characteristics due to the fact that artists and designers follow trends, whether consciously or subconsciously people are affected by popular culture and events in society, which comes across in the work they produce.

For this reason, there will inevitably be a crossover, which could be colours, letter style or the subject matter however just because things look similar should people assume they are the same? Sugar and salt share the same characteristics aesthetically however if someone were to put a spoon full of salt on their Weetabix they would notice the difference.

The only element that truly binds graffiti and street art together is that neither art form will allow the rules to stand in the way of creative freedom. Despite any associations made between the two, graffiti writers and street artists resent the idea of being labelled as the same and ‘are genres that stubbornly refuse rules of categorisation, but which do at the same time adhere to certain codes and fashions.’ (Lewisohn, 2008:9)

Street artists attempt to distance themselves from the word graffiti due to it’s association with vandalism however If people are unable to differentiate between the two then the negative stigmas will still be attached to their work as well ‘If art is defined by the artist’s intent then vandalism must be determined by the response of the owner of the thing vandalised.’ Akbar (2008)

Figure 2. Street art by MEEK.

One of the fundamental differences between the two art forms is the intended audience. Graffiti is intended to communicate with other graffiti writers, which accounts for the writing often being illegible to people not part of the culture. (Fig.1) Street art is intended to speak to the wider public and make a statement to entice engagement from the audience. (Fig.2) Often as the subjects are political in nature, street art is believed to be ‘a vessel for socio-political activism for those in power, and even more for those who resist.’ Maric (2014) Whilst graffiti can also have political elements to the work, it acts as more of a code to speak to other writers to gain notoriety, mark turf and make threats to rivals. This was apparent during the 1960’s particularly in Philadelphia when it was said that ‘youth gangs used graffiti to threaten and intimidate others. They marked the boundaries of their turf; these warnings came from the entire gang, not just the individual writer.’ (Stewart, 2009:13)

Whilst some street artists attempt to distance themselves from graffiti, graffiti writers too seek to distance themselves from any commercial elements associated with street art. When asked in relation to this report for his thoughts on street art, New York graffiti writer Louis Fontana stated ‘the freedom to create whatever you want is what graffiti has always been about, today we also see a lot of street art which should not be mistaken for graffiti a perfect example is the artist Banksy, he’s a street artist not a graffiti artist’. Fontana (2017)

Graffiti writers consider work with commercial value or placed in a museum to lack true creative freedom and street artists do not want the negative stigmas attached to graffiti to interfere with them making money from their art. I believe distinguishing between the two disciplines to be onerous and the factors which separate them are not abundantly obvious to individuals not part of the culture.

#streetart #graffiti #urbanart #mural #wallpainting

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