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Graffiti: Vandalism Or Street Art?

Updated on November 19, 2013
Graffiti painted on a bus at the "school bus graveyard."
Graffiti painted on a bus at the "school bus graveyard." | Source
  Pray For ATL Entrance to Krog tunnel, Little Five Points Atlanta
Pray For ATL Entrance to Krog tunnel, Little Five Points Atlanta | Source

History Of Graffiti

Graffiti has frustrated city officials for decades. In large cities around the world abandoned buildings, tunnels and outdoor walls have become the graffiti writer's canvas.

The word graffiti comes from the Latin word grafiato which means scratched. In this sense graffiti has been around for thousands of years. Cavemen, using bones and pigments,etched marks with meanings on cave walls.

The first known example of modern day graffiti can still be seen in the Greek city of Ephesus, which is now modern day Turkey. A hand-like heart and footprint along with a number, it is thought to have indicated directions to a brothel.

Graffiti or Street Art?
Graffiti or Street Art? | Source
Tagging is a name or slogan in one color with no artistic quality.
Tagging is a name or slogan in one color with no artistic quality. | Source

Graffiti Heirarchy

  • tagging: spray paint, done in one color. the graffiti writer's signature, gang or crew name sometimes added. sometimes done over someone else's graffiti.
  • throw up: a little more elaborate than a tag. 2-3 colors. often uses a bubble letter font. sometimes in one color and outlined in another.
  • wild style: complicated, hard to read form of writing that includes arrows, spikes and curves. has a 3D look.
  • 'piece: short for masterpiece. harder, more complex. more like true art and often commissioned from people who recognize graffiti as a true art form.
  • blockbuster: large block letters done to cover a large area in little time. uses paint roller, 2-3 colors. usually done to keep someone else from using that area.
  • heaven: put up in hard to reach locations such as rooftops, freeway signs or towers, rock cliffs on mountainsides. gets respect from other artists because of the danger involved.

Street, Or Urban Art

The latter part of the twentieth century saw a rise in subversive messages in graffiti writing. Activists for social, political, economic and environmental change began expressing opinions and criticizing government policy through graffiti. The terms street art, or urban art may distinguishe it from vandalism; however, graffiti is still considered vandalism if done on a building without the consent from the owner of the building. Tunnels, concrete overpasses and similar structures fall under the jurisdiction of local government and graffiti here is also considered vandalism. Whether considered graffiti writing or street art , the perpetrators have to take care not to get caught.

"Going out bombing" became an expression to describe the graffiti writer or street artist's activity. They use pseudonyms as names and paint them on their work like calling cards. In graffiti circles "getting up" is having your work seen. Crews are groups of associated street artists; their activity has become a world wide subculture. They communicate through the internet, connecting and sharing their work via blogs and websites.

Different Types Of Graffiti Art

Traditionally, graffiti writers have used aerosol spray paint cans to produce their work. A simple name, gang sign or an elaborate painting can be produced. It depends on the method used and varies from writer to writer. The hierarchy of graffiti writing begins with "tagging" and moves up to " 'piece "-short for masterpiece.

The majority of graffiti writing and street art is done without approval from building owners or city officials. There are methods perfected by true street artists that help them to create " 'pieces" that gain them respect in the art world. These methods help them to create high quality art work that can be displayed quickly.


The artist creates stencils from cardboard or other materials. They take the stencils and hold them against the wall, spray painting inside the stencils. True artistic talent can then be shown by the quality of stencils, use of colors, and placement of stencils to show depth.


The artist creates work on stickers such as "hello my name is" stickers or address labels. Time can be taken to produce quality work elsewhere and then later slapped on site quickly.

Wood blocking:

The artist works at leisure on pieces of plywood. He then takes it out to mount somewhere, taking care to use nails or screws that are not easily removed.

Wheat pasting:

Again, the artist can work at leisure elsewhere. A paste of wheat flour and water or mashed rice is used to quickly mount previously made posters.

Mosaics, sculptures and street installations:

Art work done on a 3D object that can be a street installation. The true street artist may be commissioned to create elaborate sculptures and mosaics. This is true art and involves no vandalism.

Graffiti or street art? Little Five Points, Atlanta
Graffiti or street art? Little Five Points, Atlanta | Source

Three "Known" Street Artists

Although street artists post their work at night or in disguise they have managed to become "known" in the art world through their distinctive work. They label their work with a chosen pseudonym. Some street artists have had their work displayed at museums such as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Images and prints of their work are available on-line.

  1. Bansky is a talented British graffiti artist. The son of a photocopier technician, he trained to be a butcher. He uses a stenciling technique that combines satirical street art, subversive epigrams and dark humor. He filmed Exit Through The Gift Shop, a documentary on street art. The documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011, was initiated by a French immigrant living in Los Angeles who was obsessed with street art. As he was attempting to film Bansky and other street artists, Banksy took over the camera.
  2. Jef Aerosol, a French stencil Graffiti artist, became popular after spray painting his first stencil in 1982 in Tours.His work has been presented by several art galleries around the world. He designed the cover of the first book ever published about street stencils titled Vite Fait, Bien Fait.
  3. Blek le Rat, another French street artist, is considered the "Father of Stencil Graffiti". His identity, Xavier prou, was revealed to French authorities when he was arrested in 1991 while stenciling. He is known for painting rats on the walls of Paris and declaring the rat as "the only free animal in the city."

The Difference Between Street Art And Vandalism

Where is the line drawn between street art and vandalism? Imagery and color to create a message through a work of art on an abandoned building on the dark side of town may not be considered vandalism by many. But a "tag" or "throw up" done by a crew or gang member is ugly destruction. Even on an ugly building, this level of graffiti writing just makes the building uglier. Perhaps we should answer the questions where and what. Where is the graffiti done and what is the quality of the work? This can help distinguish street art from vandalism.

Graffiti or Street Art? Little Five Points, Atlanta
Graffiti or Street Art? Little Five Points, Atlanta | Source

Little Five Points Location

Little Five Points Atlanta GA:
Little Five Points, Atlanta, GA 30307, USA

get directions


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    • techygran profile image


      16 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Rebecca, this is a very interesting article. I am sort of out-of-the-loop and quite often refer to the urban street art as "murals". I love reading about the culture that grows up around an art form. I would also recommend the street art in Montreal-- the best I've seen in Canada.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      North Georgia.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      where is the school bus graveyard

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Glad you like this, Jeffrey!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great article! We have been lived in a environment with graffiti for a long time, and I think it is an undeniable form of street arts. Graffiti Vandalism is quite annoying disgusting because it's just some mindless tagging that ruin the buildings. The images are beautiful by the way.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I agree! Thanks cclitgirl!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      5 years ago from Western NC

      Interesting read! I learned a lot about the idea of graffiti. Hmm...sometimes I really am like, "why not just embrace it?" haha.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      6 years ago from London

      A most interesting historical background of graffiti. Artists such as Basquiat elevated graffiti from an outsider practice into a form of art. As a form of street or urban art is also important as (in most cases) enriches urban surroundings. Great hub!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I will check yours out! Thanks for stopping by!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      6 years ago from Norfolk

      rebeccamealey, So nice to have found your Hub on Graffiti, a day after publishing my own one. Did not realize that there were so many people interested in this Art form. I am a big fan. Thanks for sharing. Voted up

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks, rajan. I suppose street art is here for a long while. An insightful comment!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      I consider this a work of art - street art. But maybe these graffiti artists do not have a viable outlet to express their creativity which can be seen by the world.

      A little more consideration for these gems, I would ask for!

      Interesting read. Up.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks! I know graffiti is here to stay. Hopefully we can keep more positives than negatives with it. I am glad you stopped by and found this of interest.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      6 years ago from sunny Florida

      this is interesting and well put, Rebecca...drawing the line is important as you pointed out.

      Where I live I do not see a lot of it but when I go into town it is everywhere. The only place I really see it is when I am showing my grandson the passing trains ...there is a lot of it on there ...both kinds. If we could channel the negative into goodness, that would be a game changer. So glad you shared this. ps

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for a most interesting comment, dieter dust! Graffiti is probably going to be around for a very long time, so we must make the best of it!

    • dieter dust profile image

      dieter dust 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting hub, we have some great street art in the UK, however the authorities are under great pressure to remove them quickly. A really shame as some definitely improve the immediate surroundings.

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks, Dude!

    • streetart profile image

      Sam Henry 

      7 years ago from The Real World

      Good stuff man. Love the Little five Points picture.

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 

      7 years ago from Oklahoma

      Terrific hub! I love street art and graffiti. Personally I think they ought to encourage graffiti artists to decorate ugly structures such as overpasses, bridges, tunnels, etc. In my opinion, if it belongs to any government, it belongs to the people, so why can't they decorate it? With the exception of doing it over someone else's art.

      The 'tagging' stuff is just ugly, but I guess we couldn't ban one form of graffiti and embrace another without causing some rebellions.

      Love the article though, I think with the photos added it really helps to showcase the beauty and talent of street art.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      7 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      If the item being "painted" doesn't belong to you, then it is vandalism. Plain and simple to me. If it belongs to you or you have permission, it can be art. Some graffiti is very good!

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 

      7 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      As a rebel and as a liberal I think it is art....

      Great and enlightening hub :)

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for another view from another culture. Very interesting!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      7 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      In the philippines it's more vandalism than art. Although there are some really talented people ouit there who share their political, environmental or other cause through their art.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed the read.

    • profile image

      Ginger Ruffles 

      7 years ago

      Refreshing hub Rebecca!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Good subject to cover rebecca. You've done a very fine write on graffitti or street art. Quite interesting with the terms and all. Going to share this; and the area you took the great pics in aren't totally unknown here--used to live in Avondale many moons ago.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks! I think it is great that the local art school did that!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      I didn't know that there were different types and styles of graffiti. Our downtown recently renovated some buildings and asked the local art school/college to do some art on the buildings. They are very nice and express a good deal about the urban style of living. Nice read and enjoyed it much.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very interesting. Thanks for sharing street art from other cultures!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 

      7 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      The styles are very different across countries too! In Japan, there is little outside the major towns, and then usually only tagging. Australia and Germany are typically more artistic, but also at times, more damaging. There's a lot of engraved tagging in Australia, not just with paint, especially train station equipment and shop window glass.

      I quite like the artistic styles, but they are often too quickly tagged over.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks, Teresa. I have been admiring some of the street art for awhile and I enjoyed learning about this.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Rebecca, great piece. I've seen lots of graffiti in Toronto, some very bad and some very beautiful but if done on private property I guess its vandalism just the same. I never knew of all the types of graffiti that existed. Well presented information and interesting!

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      In SF graffiti is free. If you paid, it is street art. :))

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Wow! How cool to live in Italy. I am stuck in Georgia forever I suppose. Maybe I will get over there some day. Nice to meet you, I love good graffiti!

    • CassyLu1981 profile image


      7 years ago from Spring Lake, NC

      I love graffiti!!! When we first moved to Italy that was the first cool thing we found. Granted it was under a bridge and hidden but it was so neat :) It's good to know the types! Voted up and Shared!!!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks Ardie. I am glad that you gleaned that from the Hub!

    • Ardie profile image


      7 years ago from Neverland

      Interesting stuff! I never really put any thought into whether graffiti was art of vandalism. I always thought in terms of "Oh that looks COOL!" or "Eh that looks like crud..." Now that I know the types I will pay more attention to the street art around Akron and Cleveland!! =)

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks! I had fun with it. You should have seen me climbing up that bank over on the highway to get the school bus pic! I am going over to check your murals hub out now!

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You know I thought about this last month when I wrote a hub about the murals and other public artwork in my own city. It's an interesting topic and you discuss it well. Thanks Rebecca, I vote up, interesting, and a *smile* too

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks romesitguy. During my research I learned that they are going to destroy Five Pointz in NYC. Hope they don't do that to the Big Peach!

    • romesitguy profile image


      7 years ago from Rome, Georgia in the United States

      Well done. Working around Atlanta I see street art everywhere. The pics from 5 points were nice. Plenty more all up and down Peachtree.


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