Street Art: Definition & History

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  • 0:04 Street Art
  • 0:49 Graffiti vs. Street Art
  • 1:41 History
  • 3:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen a mural on a building in your community? Ever notice graffiti on a highway overpass? In this lesson, find out what constitutes street art and learn about its history.

Street Art

Have you ever seen a striking image painted on a wall in your neighborhood? How about on the sidewalk?

Street art is art created on surfaces in public places like exterior building walls, highway overpasses, and sidewalks. Street art tends to happen in urban areas, and yes, it's connected in certain ways to graffiti. Street art is usually created as a means to convey a message connected to political ideas or social commentaries. Not all street art involves painting. It can be done with stickers spread over surfaces or by methods like yarn bombing, a process where artists cover things like trees and telephone poles with colorful fibers and knitting. Street art can also be done using stencils, where the creator repeats the image all over a surface to make a statement.

Graffiti vs. Street Art

But, how is street art different from graffiti? There's a lot of room for argument. While both forms of public expression aren't always done with the permission of property owners, which brings the issue of vandalism into the equation, street art has larger goals than graffiti. So you could say that one main difference between graffiti and street art is intent. Traditionally, graffiti artists don't intend for the public to understand their work, nor do they care. They're directing their messages to other individuals marking similar territory or to a specific group of people. By comparison, street artists take the ideas and tools associated with graffiti and use them to make art that sends a message. Street artists want people to see their work because their goal is to provoke discussion and reaction.

In truth, the definition of street art is still in the process of being written and continues to evolve. But where did street art come from?


The desire of people to leave their mark on walls has been around for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found graffiti scratched on walls in the city of Pompeii. But, in terms of contemporary street art, we can trace its beginnings to tagging, or scratching initials or a name on public property, in New York in the late 1960s. It also originated with the graffiti artists of the 1970s and 1980s who were looking for new places to make art, reacting and rebelling against society's rules.

Fine artists began to use similar methods, reacting to the decorum of the art world and the insular gallery scene. People like Lee Quinones, who painted vibrant graffiti murals on NYC handball courts, and Keith Haring, who drew hundreds of chalk images in the NYC subway in the 1980s, began to catch the art world's attention.

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