A Lesson in Street Art: how a movement morphed out of graffiti and into the art world (Part II)

A Lesson in Street Art: how a movement morphed out of graffiti and into the art world (Part II)
HENCE, 'Blind Whino.' Courtesy Flickr Commons.
Purpose of this lesson:

Street art is a relatively new movement that is becoming more and more prolific in the art world. In this lesson, we will explore the history of graffiti, which is what street art is born out of, and then explore how street art has become what it is today. Looking at the history of graffiti is critical to understand the nuances of graffiti vs. street art and to understanding the pros and cons of street art as a movement and how artists categorized as street artists have either embraced or responded to the movement.

In Part II, we explore what sets street art apart from graffiti and street art’s connection to counterculture. If you’re new, check out Part I of our lesson to have a better idea of what we’re discussing.

This lesson is best geared towards secondary or high school level students. Here, we have presented the topic as an art history lesson but it could easily be adapted into a studio art lesson, too.

Part II: Separating the street art from the graffiti
JR, date unknown. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

1) To start off this portion of the lesson you can use the following as prompts to start the class. Naturally, you can tailor these prompts to fit your students, or, if you’re reading for your own pleasure, consider the following to reflect on what you’ve read so far. Also, both studio and art historical prompts could be used interchangeably:

  • If you have a studio art class, have students present their tags from Part I of the lesson. Have a critique centred around the works. Explore how their works show characteristics of graffiti and/or street art. See which artists and graffiti writers influenced your students
  • If you have an art history class, ask your students to give you examples of street art as opposed to graffiti.
  • Both: outline the characteristics your students would say distinguish graffiti from street art.

2) Definitions to keep in mind: 

-Counterculture: A culture with values and mores that run counter to those of established society (Merriam-Webster).

3) Graffiti vs Street Art: where’s the line? Let’s dive right in to what the main three differences between graffiti and street art are! Included will be a number of works of street art and graffiti.

Within graffiti, the US Department of Justice of Community Oriented Police Services recognizes four types of graffiti: gang, tagger, conventional, and ideological. By these standards, street art falls into the ‘tagger graffiti’ category. Unfortunately, it isn’t simple and there is a lot of grey area around what is street art and what is graffiti.

As we touched on in the last lesson, street art blossomed out of the want to make graffiti for a larger audience. Audience, thus becomes one of three factors that tend to decide what is street art: intent, audience, and legality. Most agree that graffiti tags are made by graffiti writers for graffiti writers. Without knowing the vocabulary, you don’t really get the full picture of a tag, nor do you really get the intent. So, when someone tags a billboard, they’re letting other taggers know where they’ve been and signaling to fellow taggers that the bar has been raised. TAKI 183 and Cornbread are two good examples, who we mentioned in the last lesson, of taggers. They were both writing their tags to be known and to have people within their communities take note. When rumours spread that Cornbread had died, he spray painted ‘Cornbread lives’ on the side of an elephant in the Philadelphia zoo to make it known he was still alive and well. The tag’s atypical location also raised the bar for fellow taggers. 

Street artists, on the other hand, have typically been defined by who they are looking to reach with their works. With more conceptual, tongue in cheek, humorous works, street artists target a larger audience. For this reason, street artists have adopted other mediums and styles to best produce their work and make it more readily distributable. Artists like Blek le Rat, who started working in the 1980s, began using stencils to produce their works more quickly. Others like JR took to paper posters, which eventually wear away, while others used stickers, like Shepard Fairey who mailed his Andre the Giant stickers out to skateboarding communities to spread his work. As street artists began to take advantage of various mediums, their works were not only quicker to make but a more accessible for their audience. 

Use the following images to compare who the intended audience might be:

Going hand in hand with audience is the intention behind works. For a graffiti writer, their works were intended for a smaller group of people as a challenge. A tag in a difficult place (like Cornbread’s tagged elephant) might up the ante, so to speak, for other taggers. Their works were often made in stylized fonts that primarily other graffiti writers were familiar with and could easily understand. Retna is an artist who began as a graffiti artist before transitioning into galleries. Having grown up in Los Angeles going to a Catholic school, he began working with stylized fonts. Eventually Retna (whose name is Marquis Lewis) developed his own font that is prominent in his street artworks and canvases. He also, though, paints works that are in a more traditional graffiti lettering. Would you be able to tell that the following works are by the same artist?

Conversely, the intent behind a street artist’s work would have a broader appeal and might comment on an array of topics. In 1995, for example, KAWS obtained a key to an advertisement poster case. With that key, KAWS manipulated advertisements and replaced them. These posters would have been somewhat of an easter egg for people on their commute or for people who might not be the target audience of those advertisements. When Banksy’s stencil works began popping up in Bristol, England, they offered a comment on society, life, or the world, usually with a dark sense of humour.

Legality is another point that has sometimes helped separate graffiti and street art. Graffiti, by definition, requires a layer of prohibition. The identity of many graffiti writers and artists have often gone unknown, with the exception of their tags, so that they could evade authorities. The work of a graffiti writer challenges to the ownership of public property – their tags or pieces assert some kind of ownership over something that is not legally theirs. Their works also, for this reason, typically fall victim to the elements, others graffitiing over them, or they’re painted over by the property owners. If caught, graffiti writers can also face serious legal repercussions for their works.

In contrast, street artists often get on the straight and narrow, when it comes to terms of legality. As their work becomes more known and prolific, their works become accepted and even sought after. Over the years, some artists that began as graffiti artists, like KAWS, Retna, or Jean-Michel Basquiat (who was part of graffiti duo Samo), revealed their identity and made a full transition into life as gallery artists. In turn, street artists have become commissioned artists and been asked to create works for clients in site-specific places or in galleries. Although this is the norm, not all street artists always do this. Banksy, for one, is an artist who straddles the line of legality. While Banksy does make works that are not illegal, for instance his canvas work Devolved Parliament (2009), the artist does still like to create uncommissioned works that, over night, put a building and its owner on the map, like last Christmas when Banksy painted a garage in a small town in Wales.

Look as the following images, consider their legality and how that might impede on their status as graffiti or street art.

While these three categories offer some distinction between graffiti and street art, they aren’t an exact science. Legality is probably the most gray of the categories as not all street art is legal and not all graffiti is illegal.

Much in part to street art coming from graffiti, they both have an association in common: counterculture. Counterculture is when something goes against the usual grain of society and traditions. It is usually born out of new generations looking to make their mark. Many musical styles and art movements that have been adopted by mainstream society have countercultural roots. Graffiti, for instance, has close ties to Hip Hop, which in its own right was a countercultural movement in the music world. This is, though, where we will break from graffiti and begin to focus solely on street art as an entire book could be dedicated to graffiti’s relationship to counterculture.

4) Part II lesson wrap-up


  • For a studio class, have students begin sketching some ideas for a final graffiti or street art piece. They should begin to look into what mediums they might want to use, whether they want to use a freehand approach, or a stencil, or another type of style. Students should also explore some artists, either ones touched on in the lesson or ones they have found on their own.
  • For an art history class, have students get into preliminary research for an essay or presentation on an artist, a style of street art, or an aspect of the movement they are interested in – this could extend to legal issues around graffiti and street art to the art market’s reception of street art.
Mr. Brainwash, ‘Heart Wall’, 2015. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

Acclaimed Street Artist RETNA Reminisces On His Rise

Google Arts & Culture: Street Art

‘Mural’ vs. ‘Graffiti’ vs. ‘Street Art’: my definitions.

PBS NewsHour ‘The History of American Graffiti’: From Subway to Gallery’

TedEd ‘Is graffiti art? Or vandalism?’ by Kelly Wall

The Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti

Find Part I of this lesson here.