Painting public spaces is illegal, so street artists often practice their craft under the secrecy of darkness.
But is that still true?
Relatively recently, this art form gained recognition on the world stage. And cities are now asking for these artists to decorate their streets, not so anonymously.
Join us as we explore some of the best!
What is a Street Artist?
Street art has a foundation in New York City subway graffiti in the 1970s. Called tagging, teenagers began putting their names, or chosen monikers, on public property.
Using spray paint, the tagging evolved into bigger and better images on trains and in subways. The images were illegal and technically vandalism. Often, the tagging reflected turf wars between gangs.
Street art arose alongside hip-hop culture and from the frustrated young and poor of New York City. They struggled for identity through illegal street art.
Visitors from all over the world exposed to graffiti art quickly adopted it. The practice spread across the U.S. and eventually established in major European cities.
As the art expanded, new techniques emerged beyond typography. Bigger, bolder murals with colors, images, and media began to tell the stories of the local artists and their communities. The street artist’s commentary became accepted in the art world in posh museums and galleries.
10 Famous Street Artists
We’re fascinated by some of the larger-than-life street exhibits. Here we throw down ten street artists who have made an impact.
Darryl McCray, aka Cornbread, is a graffiti writer in Philadelphia widely credited with starting the modern graffiti movement. In the 1960s, McCray and his friends began leaving their monikers on city walls. The practice quickly spread to other major cities, such as New York City.
McCray later helped the City of Philadelphia develop an inner-city youth program to stop illegal tagging. It eventually became The Mural Arts Program, the most extensive public art program in the United States.
Cornbread considers himself the world’s first writer by leaving his signature tag around the city. His tags adorn walls, signs, and postcards. Today, he’s a motivational speaker and youth advocate.
We don’t know who Banksy really is, and his identity is a subject of much speculation. We do know he’s a UK-based street artist, activist, and film director. He uses a distinctive stenciling technique in his graffiti that you can find worldwide.
Banksy’s popularity is primarily due to the political themes and social commentary his images evoke. His art is displayed on publicly visual surfaces like walls and physical props. People regularly remove the artworks and sell them.
One of his most famous images is a little girl stenciled in black, releasing a red-stenciled balloon. Created in 2002, Banksy stenciled the graffiti all over London, though none remain.
A version of Balloon Girl sold at auction for $1.4 million in 2018, then promptly self-shredded through a mini shredder installed in the frame and remote control. Initially a prank statement about the art market, the newly titled “Love is in the Bin” sold for $25.4 million in 2021.
#3 E.M. Zax
E.M. Zax is a California artists who breaks the mold of contemporary street art. His work is 3D.
Zax’s work takes on a dimension like no other artist. He uses well-placed folds and crinkles with a broad color palette and mixed media to fool your mind. Standing at one angle, you’ll see one image, and, from another direction, you can get a fresh take on the art, all in the same composition.
Street art goes wild when Zax incorporates LED illumination and mirrors. It all makes for a real treat to the eye.
#4 Lady Pink
Lady Pink is a leading lady in the street art world. Born in Ecuador and raised in New York City, she was well-known as one of the only women competing with the men in the graffiti subculture. She painted subway trains from 1979 to 1985.
With spray enamel and acrylics, Lady Pink creates train graffiti, paintings, and murals. Her work is vibrant, often expressing strength in women through her images.
She continues to create. Today, she shares her knowledge through workshops for kids and college lectures.
Pounding out drywall and carving on wooden doors or brick walls creates larger-than-life poetry in urban spaces. Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils, hails from Portugal. He grew up during the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and saw the destruction, which greatly influenced him.
Vhils uses chisels, drills, acid, hammers, bleach, and other processes to create his famous relief portraits on walls throughout the world. The portraits are often unknown people from the community.
We may have to put together a tour to see all these faces in relief.
#6 Mr. Brainwash
Thierry Guetta, known as Mr. Brainwash, creates innovative art combining raw street art skills and pop culture. Guetta learned his craft from filming and studying other street artists like Banksy and his cousin, Space Invader. He decided to try the art and became an almost instant sensation.
Mr. Brainwash’s murals make a statement on many levels. His enthusiasm for life exudes through his positive messages and vibrant color palette. To convey subtle commentary, he uses images of people and events that impacted the local community.
After immersing yourself in a Guetta street art installation, you may find yourself brainwashed.
Born in France in 1983, JR was just another kid with a passion for graffiti. His inspiration came from a lost camera on the subway and the riots in the banlieues. As a street artist, JR photographed the riots and pasted large prints of people’s faces around the city.
JR’s unique take on street art uses wheat paste to fix giant monochrome photographs on walls, rooftops, streets, and parking lots. He’s known worldwide, often going to dangerous locations where his street art makes a statement.
His illegal exhibitions also come with acclaim. In 2007, JR placed giant portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face in Palestinian and Israeli cities. He bravely engaged in unlawful street art by bypassing authorities on both sides.
#8 LA II
Graffiti artist Angel Ortiz, known as LA II, is of Puerto Rican heritage and is from the Lower East Side of New York. He started graffiti at the age of ten. Ortiz is most known for his collaborations with the Keith Haring circus. LA II’s trademark style is the infill squiggles he contributes to graphics.
LA II’s tangle with law enforcement started with arrests for tagging after his wife passed away. He said he used the streets as a way to express his grief.
Ortiz has not received recognition for his work with Haring. Supporter and artist Clayton Patterson has worked to elevate Ortiz’s work. Patterson blames the shunning from the art world on racism.
#9 Keith Haring
Keith Haring was a Pennsylvanian who moved to New York City. While attending the School of Visual Arts, he found interest in the alternative community in the streets and subways of the city. The artist favored using rhythmic line art and solid colors. One of Keith’s most famous creations is the geometric barking dog.
Haring became hugely famous in the 1980s. Throughout his career, he devoted much of his time to public works with social messages. In addition to his commercial interests, Keith created dozens of public artworks for charities around the world and opened a retail store to sell merch bearing his images.
In 1990, Haring died from the complications of AIDS. He left his legacy in The Keith Haring Foundation to support AIDS organizations and children’s programs.
Donald Joseph White, tag Dondi, was a biracial New Yorker. To avoid being attacked, he joined several gangs and earned his GED to get away from school. A government office job allowed him the freedom to indulge in his graffiti street art.
Dondi became serious in the mid-1970s as authorities tried to crack down on writers. His stylistic standard influenced graffiti writers for decades. One of Dondi’s most memorable pieces was Children of the Grave, which he wrote along three entire subway cars.
Eventually, Dondi’s work transitioned from the streets to galleries in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Like Haring, Dondi died of AIDS in 1998.
The Passion of Street Artists
Our selected street artists came from humble beginnings. Whether through hardship or inspiration, their obsession rose to new heights over the decades.
Their extensive and expressive social commentaries are a remarkable sight. Standing close or at a distance, you get a real feel for their passions. We highly recommend touring your own city’s street art or making it a tour of any cities you visit.
Who’s your favorite street artist? Tell us about them in the comments!