New York City’s street art exploded in the 1970s, though it’s been around for at least 60 years in the US and even longer in other countries.
Chances are you’ve seen it on underpasses, as part of civic beautification projects, or in political protests.
But what exactly is street art? Isn’t it just graffiti?
We’re taking a walk through history to learn all about street art.
What Is Folk Art?
When we discuss non-traditional art forms, defining some terms is helpful. Folk art is a form of arts and crafts that’s as old as society itself. The hallmarks of folk art include “untrained” artisans and craftspeople creating functional objects within a folk tradition.
These could include salt shakers, paper mache horses, 17th-century calendar sticks, and pottery. In the past, craftspeople created one object at a time.
Contemporary folk art includes mass-produced chiminea or more mass-produced objects in a folk style. Unlike Outsider Art, folk art comes from a specific cultural heritage and doesn’t usually aspire to fine art status. However, paintings have now become part of the genre, especially those with written messages from the artist.
What Is Street Art?
Street art, by definition, is visual art created in a public space for everyone to view. What we think of as street art today is much different than before. In the 1960s, graffiti rose to widespread awareness through the work of artists like Cornbread.
Before that, street gangs used graffiti to mark territory, or political activists used it to make a point. By the 1980s, fully painted subway car murals were commonplace.
We can trace the transition from graffiti to street art through the work of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and LA II. These artists aspired to create a public consensus around their work rather than just mark territory or leave a mark.
And while several offshoot forms (stencils, wheatpaste posters) developed alongside the painters, Haring and Basquiat had the most significant impact.
The first widely recognized piece of street art that transcends graffiti appeared in 1982. Keith Haring made the leap at the intersection of Houston Street and the Bowery on the northwest wall. Now called the Bowery Mural, Haring’s mural reached iconic status quickly.
Other street artists used the wall as a de facto gallery and put their own work there. Today, creatives such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Lady Pink continue to use the street as their canvas and gallery.
What’s the Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti?
Like the blurred edge of a spray paint stream, the line between street art and graffiti is hard to find. Graffiti artists use words that represent a community or individual in a public way.
Street art, by contrast, tends to use images, illustrations, and symbols to convey a message or meaning. These two art forms similarly express individuality and artistic vision using different visual elements.
Street artists usually hope to create an emotional reaction, attempting to achieve some artistic goal or make a political statement. Companies or building owners frequently contract them to add value to blank space on their buildings. Around the world, street art represents sophistication and diversity.
Why Is Street Art So Important?
Despite major commercial success, street artists continue to use the street as their canvas. Most cities now have public art programs that include street art and murals as part of their grant budgets. Street art, in most cases, serves as a “value-added” amenity. It adds a sense of culture, diversity, a civically engaged population, and freedom of expression.
For art lovers, street art adds a sense of discovery to a city. Each time they discover a stencil, mural, tag, or poster, a tingle of excitement follows. Social media adds another layer with augmented reality pieces and instant shareability.
Who Are Some Famous Street Artists?
Street art achieved mainstream recognition in the 1980s. The explosion of creators in the space made a career as a street artist an actuality. These artists are some of the most important of the last 50 years.
No one actually knows who Banksy is. He first appeared in his native Bristol, England, as an enigmatic figure in the art world. In the 1990s, Banksy’s signature stencil style appeared on the sides of buildings around the country. His work takes strong progressive political stances and involves commentary on police brutality, military issues, and immigration.
After an auction in which his painting self-destructed when the gavel fell, Banksy stopped selling reproductions of his work. You can buy Banksy’s pieces. Just make sure you have a space big enough to house the wall too.
Rising out of the Pittsburgh art scene, Keith Haring exploded on the New York City graffiti scene in 1980. Known for his simple line drawings chalked onto empty spaces left in subway ads, Haring’s works are iconic. He felt that art belonged in the public and used symbolism and simple images to impact his audiences.
From 1982 until he died in 1990 from AIDS, Haring appeared in over 100 solo shows and group exhibitions. Haring’s work infiltrated the public consciousness because of the universal nature of his images. You’ve likely seen barking dog, love, and Crack is Wack on shirts, coffee mugs, and walls.
Born in Ecuador in 1964, Sandra Fabara (Lady Pink) came to New York City with her parents in 1971. Following the death of a boyfriend, Lady Pink made her first appearance on the walls of New York City. Flying in the face of the male-dominated art form, Lady Pink created an all-female graffiti crew in 1980.
She achieved notoriety after the show Graffiti Art Success for America, where artists painted the walls of the gallery. In 1984, she had her first solo show at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. Now, Lady Pink primarily focuses on gallery shows and has work in the Whitney Museum, The Met, and the Brooklyn Museum, all in New York City.
Where Can I See More Street Art?
Most cities have some street art to find if you know where to look. But, the most prominent artists work in the largest metro areas. Check out these major street art centers and let us know if we missed something you love.
New York City
The birthplace of the modern graffiti and street art movements, New York City is the place to go to see street art. At least it was until real estate projects started tearing down or painting over some of the most iconic pieces. Bushwick in Brooklyn is the epicenter of the current street art movement, but Harlem also has some great artwork.
If you find yourself in Land Down Under, make your way to Melbourne for a smorgasbord of street art. The colorful streets have work from artists like Ghostpatrol and Meggs covering walls in the arts districts. After a battle to keep street art out, the city of Melbourne is now a major center for street art. Muralists and graffiti artists flock to the city from around the world.
Chicago’s street art is diverse and powerfully political. Artists here present giant wall murals along South Wabash, but there are hidden gems all over to discover. Latin artists practice guerrilla art in the Pilsen neighborhood and below the L tracks.
There are guides online that’ll take you to all of the murals in the major Chicago neighborhoods. The Second City is anything but that when it comes to street art.
Outsider Folk Art
Check out our Instagram for more pieces by great street artists. We’ve got a growing collection that includes some of the best. Outside Folk Art exists to amplify the voices of rising black, immigrant, Native, and working mother artists. We’re an online gallery for now but look for pop-up shows and collaborations with smaller galleries in the future.
Explore Your Town’s Public Art
Art is for public consumption, and the street art credo involves doing away with museums. By removing money and access as a barrier to their work, street art is the most democratic art form we know of.
Get outside in your town and see what kind of street art you can find! Make sure to take a picture and tag us on Instagram.