Graffiti Art: From the Streets to High-End Galleries


Graffiti art, and underground street culture in general, has long been seen as provocative and uncompromising. It has close connections to gang culture; originally vandalizing objects and places to mark their territory. Today, graffiti art is now a respected and new art form, a rich medium with no restrictions and plenty of freedom to work with.

Graffiti is a subjective art form. Some regard it as a new and rising art form, and others regard it as plain vandalism. In most countries it is regarded illegal. Thus graffiti art is sometimes referred to as ‘underground art’. Artists are forced to create their works in the dark, hiding from the police, officials and the common city dwellers.

Colorful graffiti art (Image from Jade Robinson 828)

Graffiti artists prefer to keep their identities anonymous, preferring to stay ‘hidden’ and unattached from their works, whilst marveling at their graffiti art from afar. While they do ‘sign’ their names on their works, they hide it in plain view, including it in their spray paint masterpieces and thus protecting their identities in this outsider art form.

Image from the New York Times

Graffiti’s Origins and History

The word graffiti actually came from the Italian word ‘graffio’, which means ‘scratch’. It is interesting to know that graffiti has been around since the dawn of human civilization, when the prehistoric man learned how to make colored powder and created images. Ancient cavemen scrawled and painted images on the cave walls. Romans wrote on the walls of the buildings of their conquered cities. Ancient cities such as Pompeii has revealed graffiti, election slogans, and even obscene drawings. Graffiti was a popular propaganda medium during the World War II, both from the Nazis and anti-Nazi groups.

Graffiti art’s modern history came from low origins. World War II seems to be the starting point of graffiti art. “Kilroy was here” became a popular American expression, along with a drawing of Kilroy peeking over a wall.’What, No?….’ was another popular graffiti subject during the 40s, referring to the lack of commodities during the war.

Back then, graffiti started as merely tagging or vandalism, writing names in public signs to mark territory. The century saw the great move from the rural areas to the big, urban cities, and thus gangs thrived. Gangs would mark public property with their gang names, tags and titles.

Art on the Streets

Not long after, the art form improved, and graffiti was no longer restricted to gangs. Graffiti has become almost beautiful (albeit still largely illegal). It was the medium for young artists to express themselves without restriction.

One early artist called himself ‘Cornbread’, who resided in Philadelphia. He is considered the ‘father of modern graffiti’, who started in 1967. He has written his name on an elephant at a Philadelphia zoo, and even on the side of the Jackson 5’s jet.

Another was Cool ‘Disco’ Dan, who resided in the Washington DC area. His trademark is a unique rendering of his name, seen around the Washington DC metropolis, especially along the route of Washington Metro Red Line.

And of course, we cannot write an article on graffiti art without mentioning Banksy. Banksy is a graffiti artist, painter and film director. His style is satirical with a bit of dark humor, with his trademark stenciling technique. His graffiti works often have social and political themes, usually on anti-war, anti-capitalism.

Little is known of Banksy. No one knows his real name, his friends, what he does for a living, etc. But almost everyone in the art world is familiar with his style. Aside from addressing political and social issues in his pieces, his work often has a certain wit to it, a keen sense of humor that will make you laugh or at least smirk. Even celebrities and renowned artists have praised his works.

Banksy seems to be quite a traveler, for his works have been seen around the world: aside from his homeland England, he is busy creating graffiti pieces in Australia, USA, France, Spain, Greece and even Palestine.

Banksy has gained a huge following around the world, but also garnered a few enemies and critics. Some reject his works, saying it is just, essentially, vandalism. Whether you’re a fan or a foe, there is no doubt that Banksy is among the most influential artists in the modern art world.

A Move to the High End Galleries

Jean-Michel Basquiat was among the few graffiti artists who made the jump from the streets to the galleries. Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist in New York City, before jumping into fine art. He is considered to be one of the most influential artists in the 21st century. Coincidentally, he was also good friends with Andy Warhol, another influential artist of our time.

Basquiat’s graffiti works also had political poetical overtones. He used the pseudonym ‘SAMO’ as a graffiti artist, and often drew on random surfaces and objects.

Basquiat’s style is neo-expressionism. He still used some styles he learned when he was merely a graffiti artists, like incorporating words, letters, pictograms, map symbols, logos, numbers, diagrams and codes into his paintings.

Basquiat and Warhol often collaborated, especially during the years 1984 to 1985. However this was not very well received in the art world. The two held a huge influence in each others works. But unlike Basquiat, Warhol never took drugs, and he was appalled and fascinated by Basquiat’s excessive uses. Their friendship continued until the death of the latter, in 1987. The death of his friend greatly affected Basquiat, and soon afterwards his depression and drug addiction began to spiral.

Sadly for Basquiat’s story, there was no happy ending. He spiraled down to depression and drug abuse, which later became the cause of his death.

Graffiti in Art Exhibits Today

Today, the art world and the general public is more open toward graffiti art. The public has become more tolerant and appreciative of this underground art. In Los Angeles, for example: The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) organized an exhibit celebrating urban graffiti on walls, subways and buses; and it proved to be a hugely successful show.

The ‘Art in the Streets Exhibit’ featured prominent street artists like Taki 183, Banksy, Keith Haring, Henry Chalfant, etc. This is actually the first major US museum exhibit on graffiti and street art. The exhibition traces the development of graffiti art from the 70s to the international movement it’s become today. It featured installations, paintings, sculptures and mixed media that helped shape the evolution of graffiti art.

Barry McGee, Houston Street & the Bowery, New York (photo by Farzad Owran)

Graffiti Ice Cream Truck on Exhibition

Graffiti art is widely recognized around the world. There have been exhibits and galleries worldwide dedicated to the celebration of graffiti art. Another prestigious exhibition is ‘Born in the Streets’, at the Fondation Center in Paris, France.

Image by Creative Review

Image by Creative Review

But outside, graffiti is still illegal and could land you a ticket to jail. While admirers applauded graffiti, the police are calling it an increasing problem. The LA Police said that a wave of graffiti in the city has been encouraged by ‘Art in the Streets’. Up until this day, the four decade debate on whether graffiti art is legal or not is still a hot topic between artists and legal groups.

Whether you like graffiti art or not, we know that graffiti art is here to stay. Maybe in later years, the rise of this new art form will bring about new laws legalizing them. Some people may be for it, while some adamantly against it. Whatever will happen, we are sure that graffiti’s here to stay; for the boundaries of art are constantly changing. We can only wonder where graffiti’s place will be in the next ten years.

Graffiti by Mohammad Khodashenas, Iranian graffiti artist