“Street Art” vs. “Graffiti”: What’s The Difference?

Now more than ever before, public art is on the rise. New murals crop up in cities, large and small, on what feels like an everyday basis, each one breathing new, vibrant life into the streets that were once blank canvases for creativity. The terms graffiti and street art have long been used interchangeably to describe these public art installations—but what should we really call them? Is there a difference?

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering if the way you refer to your favorite public art is accurate, you’re certainly not alone. Let’s explore the origins of graffiti and street art, the similarities the two share, and the key differences that set them apart.

What is graffiti

Depending on who you ask, graffiti is either a form of vandalism, or a form of art—or both, simultaneously. By definition, graffiti refers to markings, photos, words, initials, or drawings that have been spray-painted, sketched, or even scratched onto walls, sidewalks, or any other publicly accessible areas. It’s pretty common to hear someone refer to any and all of these instances as “graffiti,” but as it turns out, the word graffiti is actually a plural noun. So if there’s just one, it’s technically considered to be a single graffito.

Derived from the Italian word with the same spelling, graffito translates to “incised inscription or design,” and is a derivative of graffiare, which means “to scratch.” Though contemporary graffiti is most commonly created through spray-painting methods, historic works of graffiti—many of which can be traced as far back as the beginnings of human civilization— were scratched into cave walls and monuments with sharp objects like stones.

Graffiti over time 

The graffiti we’re familiar with today, such as tagging of names, first began appearing overnight on underground subway cars in major cities like New York and Philadelphia as early as the 1920s. Graffiti is most commonly created illegally, which contributes to the art form’s negative reputation rooted in crime, delinquency, and rebellion against authority.

Graffiti’s presence isn’t always negative, though. Throughout history, graffiti has been continually used as a vessel for political and social activism, especially among those who have long been silenced or purposefully omitted from larger societal conversations. In the 1980s Keith Haring used graffiti to comment on the drug epidemic and AIDS crisis, and more recently, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has created messages addressing gender inequality. While technically, such graffiti is a form of illegal vandalism, it arguably serves as a necessary disruption to daily life, forcing people to pay more attention to specific issues.

What is street art

In contrast, street art is, quite literally, art that can be found on the street. Defined as “public-space artwork that’s created for consumption outside of the typical art gallery setting,” street art is essentially synonymous with “public art” as it encompasses a variety of mediums like painting, sculpture, or stained glass.

This intentionally broad definition is key to understanding the scope of what street art covers, but public murals are by far the most common form of street art. These expansive, often larger-scale works of art typically painted on open walls or sides of buildings are most frequently created in partnership with companies, brands, or local organizations, but have also at times been commissioned by city officials to discourage and prevent illegal graffiti.

So, if a public mural is considered street art, does that mean graffiti is also a form of street art? The answer is: sort of.

Because they are so similar, graffiti and street art are often conflated and used interchangeably—even in some artistic circles. But technically, graffiti and street art are both subversive art movements on their own, and graffiti actually predates the modernized murals we generally see in cities today.

The exact origin of the term street art remains ambiguous, but the distinction between graffiti and street art became clearer within the mainstream art world during the 1970s and ’80s, possibly due to the fact emerging street artists who wanted a way to differentiate their work. In fact, many of the earliest street artists and muralists either drew inspiration from or started out as graffiti artists themselves before making the switch.

Today, these murals and other forms of sanctioned street art are still largely perceived as more socially acceptable and legitimate than graffiti, but their presence in cities around the world remains complicated.

What are the key differences between street art and graffiti?

Street art and graffiti overlap in many ways, but the key differences between the two lie in technique and intent.

In terms of technique, street art tends to be image-based, whereas graffiti is more commonly word-based. Tagging, for example, is the most basic output of traditional graffiti writing, where artists repeatedly use a single symbol, word, or series of letters as their own personalized signature or “tag.” These “urban autographs” were first used by gangs looking to mark their territory, but have since evolved and served as a springboard into newer, more intricate forms of graffiti.

The more elaborate imagery of street art—specifically murals—is often what makes it more appreciable in the eyes of businesses and community organizations, while graffiti can often be perceived as difficult to read or understand by people who are not familiar with it. Additionally, graffiti artists are often self-taught, while street art is generally created by trained artists (though that’s not always the case).

Regarding intent, graffiti artists are, in general, unconcerned with the public’s reaction to their work. Graffiti isn’t about pleasing or connecting with the masses—alongside its function as an internal language, it is largely a means of self-expression.

In contrast, street art is created with a specific public audience in mind, especially when it’s commissioned by businesses, local organizations, or city officials. Street artists and muralists often aim to provoke audience interest and interaction through their work, or at the very least, a certain degree of understanding or appreciation for whatever it is they’re trying to convey.

How to use the terms graffiti and street art

So, what is the difference between graffiti and street art? An exact, black-and-white answer might be difficult to pinpoint.

As tempting as it might be to try to separate street art and graffiti into two neat little boxes, the truth is that the two art forms have long been intertwined since the very beginning, and are often hard to untangle from situation to situation. Artists themselves may also have varying personal definitions for the two terms based on how they prefer their work to be categorized, or even intentionally create public art installations that have characteristics of both graffiti and street art.

Much of UK-based street art icon Banksy’s work is the perfect example of this. Known for his political and anti-war street art, the artist creates all of his work illegally while working under the alias of “Banksy” to avoid arrest. This alone would classify his creations as graffiti, but consider the fact that much of his work is also image-based, with the specific intention of engaging and speaking to the general public, and the lines are quickly blurred.

Art is, and always will be, subjective to some degree. Art isn’t confined to any strict definitions of language, but that is arguably the beauty of it. As American artist Raymond Salvatore Harmon nicely sums it up: “The shape of art and its role in society is constantly changing. At no point is art static. There are no rules.”


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