Graffiti and Street Art An Insight on New York City’s Graffiti and Street Art and the Tensions Between Them

By Sofija Ninness, April 24th, 2017

“It’s not just a wall.”

A man, clad in black, steps out onto the street. Perched on his shoulder is a bag filled with various cans of spray paint. Underneath his hood is a glowing smile, one that shines out of excitement. He walks for a while before arriving at his destination: a blank, gray wall. To anyone else that may have passed this wall, it’s just a wall. The man sets down his worn bag by his feet. “It’s not just a wall,” he thinks to himself. “It’s so much more.” Eying his blank canvas, he gets to work. His supplies are removed from the bag and set by his feet. Pulling out his neatly folded earbuds from his front, left pocket, he quickly pops them into his ears, opens his phone, scrolls through the many songs on his playlist, and randomly chooses one.

A couple of hours go by and the man has finished his work. Bobbing his head to his music, he steps back to admire his piece. A woman stares back at him. The eyes of the woman look lifeless, as if something had destroyed her countless times over. Her skin picks up the dull grays of the wall behind her, but her hijab flows with powerful reds, soothing yellows, and beautiful blues, blending in a mixture of color and diversity. The man sighs with content, packs up his things, and photographs the mural. The man has an extra skip in his step on his walk home.

The following day, the man is curious to see his work in the morning light. He strolls down multiple avenues, stops for coffee, and enjoys the buzz of New York. He watches the people walk the streets, like him, when his stroll abruptly ends as he finds himself standing in front of his artwork–only it’s not his artwork anymore. Slashes of black paint and markings cover his masterpiece. His smile fades as he catches sight of two words, “Team Robbo.” Only tiny specks of color peek through the black mask, anxiously begging to reveal themselves and breathe in the fresh, New York air. But what has been done is done–there is no saving his message. Only the black destruction shows. The man curls his fists and narrows his eyes. Why would someone destroy his beautiful mural?

Examples of the tension between graffiti artists and street artists in New York City.
Street art holds messages that influence the cultural values and diversity in New York City while clashing with an alternate art form: graffiti.

New York has an enormous influx of creativity, considering the levels of diversity and cultural differences. Street art and graffiti are hand in hand, two unique art forms found in New York City. On the streets, art is everywhere. In the people, in nature, on the walls. The term “street art” is used to define the art found on the streets, but it is often confused with “graffiti,” as the two art forms coexist and blend together to provide neighborhoods with visually pleasing pieces of artwork. Dasic Fernandez, a renowned street artist based in New York, says, “The graffiti and street art communities are totally different and there are lots of differences. But if you ask me, it’s all graffiti because that’s what I’ve always been doing with my friends back in my neighborhood” (qtd. in Litvin 170). Most inhabitants of large cities don’t even know the difference between street art and graffiti, but these differences cause humongous disputes between the artists–disputes that lead to the destruction of other artists’ work. Specifically in New York, gentrification, the process of rapid change and improvement in a district or neighborhood, affects the mutual layers of hatred that street and graffiti artists share. Numerous artists have similar stories of how they decorated their neighborhood while simultaneously gentrifying the area, causing the value of the neighborhood to rise. Eventually, the artists were unable to stay because their rent gradually rose. Street art holds messages that influence the cultural values and diversity in New York City while clashing with an alternate art form: graffiti. This clash between street artists and graffiti artists sparks tensions in both the artists and the city around them.

The explosion of graffiti began in the 1970s when commercial artists found the streets to be a sufficient canvas for their work. The “graffiti movement,” however, is believed to have begun with Cornbread, a high-school student intent on catching the attention of a girl. Teenagers were inspired by Cornbread because his markings–also known as tagging–on the city were rebellious and original (De Melker). From him, graffiti has expanded into a self-taught art form that expresses emotion and hidden meaning. Unlike most street art, graffiti is 100% illegal. Many teenagers turn to graffiti because the levels of excitement they will receive act as a release. Specifically in the Bronx, New York, during the rise of hip-hop, self-expression, and creativity, people raved over graffiti. Stencil art, one of the many new styles, became one of the famous forms of graffiti because it was quicker, easier, and had a smoother, cleaner look. Graffiti rose as an art form to combat social and emotional anxiety in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, graffiti became a common art form found on the streets. (De Melker)

Street art was not a common art form during the graffiti movement, for “[g]raffiti predates street art and street art draws its inspiration from graffiti” (qtd. in Lu). Before the term “street art” became a common word in New York City, there was an age of experimentation with graffiti. Typical taggers began creating images and drawings instead of their name, and stencil work was introduced. Over time, many graffiti artists found that images held more meaning and words, so they ditched tagging all together to become real “artists.” Street art was originally inspired by graffiti because the streets looked like “blank canvases.” Many years went by before street art became a popular art form, but when looking at the backgrounds of these artists, you will notice that they tend to have exposure to the arts–whether they attended a design-based college, had family history in the arts, etc (Lu). Today, street art glows on the walls in New York City, gentrifying neighborhoods and displaying the talents of different cultures.

Street art by Dasic Fernandez
Examples of Banksy's artwork.

Placing labels on street art and graffiti is no easy task. Despite the obvious differences in style and design, street art and graffiti have many similarities that cross boundaries, creating new terms such as “graffiti art.” Graffiti is illegal because permission isn’t given, but street art is legal because permission is given. My understanding of street art and graffiti is that graffiti is mostly tagging and street art is mostly images and paintings, while the one difference that defines them is whether or not the act is legal (Lu). For example, Banksy, one of the most famous street artists in the world, should be classified as a “graffiti artist” because his work is illegal and not commissioned. People would label him as a street artist, however, because he is literally creating “art on the street.” Another way to compare street art and graffiti is by analyzing the meaning of the work created. Murals and paintings curated by street artists give meaning and value to both the artist and the viewer while graffiti brings down the value of neighborhoods and holds no value to anyone but the artist. Artists on the streets have difficulty classifying themselves because the general terms used to define them don’t always directly apply to their style.

The acceptance of street art and graffiti varies from person to person, but street art, having more creativity and design involved, is usually more accepted by the public.

Street art is appealing to the public because it’s relatable, beautiful, and used to gentrify neighborhoods. The public’s response to art found on the streets deeply affects the artists. An aspiring artist is desperate to prove himself, and if the public acts negatively towards their work, they’ll feel dejected. Typically, the public enjoys the visuals street artists provide, and the value their creativity brings to the neighborhood (Lu). A large amount of middle-upperclassmen want to live in the nicest and most expensive neighborhoods, so if street art raises the value of their homes, they’ll appreciate it more. On the other hand, graffiti artists have responded poorly to the public. From my understanding, graffiti is scorned because it’s considered as a vandalization in which the vandalizer is seeking attention. It lowers the value of homes, creates territorial contests between the artists, and, quite frankly, graffiti doesn’t grasp the same visual value as street art. If the public appreciated both graffiti and street art, most tensions between the two artists groups would disappear. Creativity brings out the best in people, but jealousy can create unnecessary tensions in a supposedly beautiful environment.

Artwork by Bishop 203

By definition, gentrification means change, and “the process of gentrification has been around for a while, bringing economic and demographic changes for residents” (Laura Malone). Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York, was one of the best hotspots for artists entering New York in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Impoverished neighborhoods gained an abundance of street artists in this time, changing the dynamic of the area. Naturally, these new artists took to the streets like ducks to water. Murals popped up, colors enveloped the sidewalks, and art surrounded the city. Gentrification, being a gradual process, slowly entered the boroughs of New York like a fog. Neighborhoods like Brooklyn experienced dramatic renovations. As the area began to undergo wealthy advancements, the artists found their money to be a little too tight. Rent prices skyrocketed and unfortunately, the artists who had painted the towns were forced to leave. Gentrification may bring up the value of neighborhoods, but low-income families and artists are forced to leave these areas because they can’t afford to live in a now wealthy area.

The artist’s profession involves years of creating nameless artwork for the public who doesn’t notice or appreciate the artist’s message, design, and creativity–until one day their work is seen, creating either a moment or lifetime of fame for the artist.

Banksy, one of the infamous England-based graffiti artists, found fame after years of participating in a graffiti gang named “DryBreadZ.” Overtime, “Banksy's artwork [was] characterized by striking images, often combined with slogans. His work often engages political themes, satirically critiquing war, capitalism, hypocrisy and greed. Common subjects include rats, apes, policemen, members of the royal family, and children” (Banksy). Today, Banksy creates simple and intricate pieces of work every day. Although his true identity remains unknown, Banksy is respected by all artists on the streets. I believe that through his street art and graffiti art, Banksy aims to raise awareness for issues in society that are either ignored or disregarded. Banksy’s secret identity adds to his quirky personality, and his unique style is inspiring to both struggling and successful artists.

More examples of Banksy's work.

Perhaps most infamous for his battle with well-known street artist Banksy, King Robbo stands as a notorious artist who roamed the streets of England and New York. As a teenager, King Robbo tagged the streets of London with his friends. After he was expelled from school at the age of 15, King Robbo–original name John Robertson–followed his passion for the arts by marking the blank walls of the city at night (“King Robbo - Obituary”). King Robbo was one of the starting graffiti artists in England who greatly influenced the style of graffiti in his area. At the age of 44, King Robbo passed away due to head injury and coma, leaving the future artists of the world some pretty big shoes to fill.

Banksy and King Robbo’s feud began 30 years after King Robbo painted his name on a wall in England’s Regent Canal in 1985 (“Banksy vs. King Robbo”). After nameless graffiti artists had tagged the mural, Banksy created a unique piece on top of it, incorporating King Robbo’s old painting underneath it. Since that first spark, Banksy and King Robbo kept coming back to this location to paint over the work of the other. This is just one of their unspoken battles. Their ongoing fights may have started due to jealousy, as King Robbo, the older and more experienced graffiti artist, was overshadowed by Banksy when he rose to fame. Bob Duggan, a journalist for Big Think, says:

For most people, there’s little difference between graffiti and street art. To those within that circle, however, there’s a whole world of difference—even enough to drive them to destroy the art of others. Part of that difference comes from the continued rejection of graffiti as a criminal act, whereas street art quickly rose up from the streets into the galleries, where it has become the hot, new genre eagerly bought up by younger collectors.

King Robbo, strictly a graffiti artist famous for tagging his name, gained fame in the early days up until street art “became the hot, new genre” (Duggan) on the streets. Banksy and King Robbo are both kings of England, for their work has changed the dynamic of street art today.

One example of a back and forth mural battle between Banksy and King Robbo.
“It’s more than what some would call vandalism, rather, it’s the first signs of battle in which street art is a weapon for gentrification against graffiti, and graffiti has finally launched its defense.”

The relationship of the street and graffiti artists is shown through the artwork enhancing the streets of New York. Like Banksy, many street artists find themselves stuck in battles with their graffiti artist rivals. The tension disrupts the energy of the artwork; The visual tension between Banksy and King Robbo is one example in which the artwork suffers the battle wounds. The Bushwick Collective, a section of blocks in Brooklyn, New York, features legal murals from artists all around the world. The BC’s goal is to legally provide artists with canvases for their choosing, but the BC is a symbol of gentrification to graffiti artists because, once again, the art actively raises the value of Bushwick, New York. Rebelliously, the upset graffiti artists have painted over the work of others, striking back against the effects of gentrification. “It’s more than what some would call vandalism, rather, it’s the first signs of battle in which street art is a weapon for gentrification against graffiti, and graffiti has finally launched its defense” (Lu). The battle of gentrification against the artists has leaked into the visible dimension, and graffiti artists use their spray-can-weapons as destructive tools against their enemy. In response to the vandalization of their own work, street artists applied artsy Band-Aids (Lu) to the “wounds,” in hopes of minimizing the tension. The tension, no matter how small, large, or visible it may be, will not stop. Street art and graffiti both inhabit New York City and although the two live on opposing sides, they both deserve respect.

Artworks (from left to right) by: Terrible Kid 170, Dasic Fernandez, and John Exit (Scrambledeggsit).

Street art is a form of expression, uniting the worlds of color, creativity, and culture. Street art serves as a voice for the voiceless, expressing the emotions that cannot be said with words. New York’s multicultural life is brought together through the visual design that street and graffiti artists exhibit. The tensions are unfortunate. It is upsetting that such talented individuals feel threatened by gentrification and other artists, leading them to disrupt the balance and attack each other’s work. Despite these feuds, the artwork pasted on the streets of New York City and the neighboring boroughs is actively influencing the cultural values of the people, and “like an animal left to fend for itself in the wild, art lives freely on the barren concrete walls of the city” (Litvin). Street art and graffiti both combine elements of beauty, linking the public to the hidden lives of the street and graffiti artists.

Street art by Swoon.


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Street art by David Choe

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