Street Art: Definition & History

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.

What is 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 sidewalks, exterior building walls, and highway overpasses. 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, social commentary, or confrontation. Now, 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 knitting and colorful fibers. Street art can also be done with stencils, where the creator repeats the image all over a surface to make a statement.

Street art stencil on a wall in Bergen, Norway. Image was taken in 2014.
street art stencil from Norway

But how is street art different from graffiti? There's a lot of room for argument. Both forms of public expression aren't always done with the permission of property owners, which brings the issue of vandalism into the equation. But street art has larger goals than graffiti, and you could say that one main difference is in intent. Traditionally, people who have made graffiti don't intend for the public to understand it, nor do they care. They're directing it to other individuals marking similar territory or to a specific group of people. Street artists take the tools and ideas of 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?

History of Street Art

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, scratching initials or a name on public property, in New York in the late 1960s. It also ties to 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.

Wall mural in Barcelona done by Keith Haring
Mural by Keith Haring

In some areas, mural painting became a very public way of expressing a point of view, as in the political wall murals of Northern Ireland, the earliest of which was painted in 1908. Today, some cities invest in such public displays of art. The city of Philadelphia, for example, has a very active mural arts program dedicated to covering the walls of buildings in the city with vibrant murals of city life and culture.

Loyalist wall mural in Northern Ireland, painted in 1974
Northern Ireland wall mural

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