Home Magazine Urban Art, Street Art or Graffiti?

Transgressive Urban Art has become extremely popular and widespread. But what does Urban Art mean? Is it the same thing as Graffiti? Or Street Art? For all three the city is the central stage, but their differences change the way these art forms are seen by the public and the justice system, affecting their relation to the market and the art world in general.

Related articles: Endless: street art lands in Cortina d'Ampezzo - The $110.5 million Basquiat - An invasion of rats in Banksy's bathroom!

Understanding Urban Art: An Expression of the Forever-Changing City

Urban Art includes, and stems from Graffiti and Street Art. Originally an act of rebellion, based on the necessity to leave a mark, or comment on social and political events, Urban Art is a broad category encompassing, as well as the rebellious writers, even artists who work in galleries, with museums or with more traditional media. Nowadays, Urban Art is not only spray paint – or a ‘teen crime’; it takes many forms and uses various techniques.

Founded on the acknowledgement of Graffiti and Street Art as expressive art forms in their own right, the common themes of Urban Art evolve around political issues and the fast-paced metropolitan way of life. At the centre is everything which can be connected to ‘the urban’, comprising all those pieces which an artist would leave among the streets of a city, but also those which talk about our society from within the institutional contexts of galleries or museums. 

Originally the art of urban areas, it has expanded beyond the local now resonating as a global art movement which acts for the under-represented communities and strands up for the topics which are either overlooked or controversial. It is not a surprising that, thanks to a globalised network of communication, urban artists’ works interest and resonate with communities all-round the world. In fact, it represents the communities and forever-changing societies in which we all live.

Understanding Illegal Graffiti

Graffiti is an inscription left behind by someone – a ‘writer’. In fact, at first it was a technique which involved scratching or marking a surface. Contemporary Graffiti is strongly connected to the idea of criminality, but this type of Urban Art is not as superficial as it seems. 

The idea of a hooded man working at night to leave a mark on a city’s walls – an illegal artwork often to be painted over – has an origin which goes way back in human history. All over the world people have left writing on rocks, on walls or on monuments to communicate something. Since before Roman times, poems, prose or commentary were left behind by people. 

After the Second World War, graffiti became associated with Rock and Roll and Hip Hop. Even the student movements in the 60s and 70s played a big role. The fight for freedom and the re-evaluation of the family model, the rise of feminism and discussions about human rights had their influence on how society was felt and seen by the younger generations. But the role of rule-breaking contemporary Graffiti was especially reinforced in New York during the 70s and 80s, where spray paints were used to write messages and name tags on the walls.

The writers signs, messages and tags aim at communicating – especially with their own peers. The use of Graffiti shows that they wanted to be noticed and recognised. As a matter of fact, American artists Jean-Micheal Basquiat and Keith Haring used graffiti at the start of their artistic career. Before becoming a well-known artist Keith Haring left figures on the walls of the subway in New York. Jean-Micheal Basquiat’s 'SAMO’ tag was also found along the streets of this city - read about How Basquiat Became the Top-Selling American Artist.


n.d., Jean-Micheal Basquiat standing in front of one of his graffiti works, n.d., Courtesy of Musartboutique.com.


It is an act of vandalism. Drawing on the walls of the modern city of private property, the artist makes a statement – the ‘illegal’ aspect just strengthens it. But the use of a city wall is comparable to the use of a canvas. It is just a canvas which everyone can see. What better place to leave a mark than on the walls of the city in which the writers live? 

Graffiti is an art form of the streets and there it belongs. It is in its very nature to be illegal, as a product of a rebellious underground culture. But it cannot be reduced to a criminal act. In fact, by understanding Graffiti as a constant in history, we can see that humankind has always had an impulse to leave a mark, idea or memory on whatever surface is available.

Understanding Independent and Public Street Art

Another subcategory of Urban Art, Street Art began to be acknowledged in the 1970s. The necessity to capture a feeling, urge to document or comment on the world and society we live in stands behind the strong images, colours, satire, and irony of Street Art. It applies more varied techniques than Graffiti, using mosaic, posters, stencils, wheat pasting, LED lights, and even sculptures. And like the Graffiti writers proved, what better place to get these political opinions and fresh ideas noticed than the open gallery of city streets? 

Street Art is a public form of visual artwork, and not only understandable for the street art community – it is made with a broader audience in mind. Independent and sometimes defined as ‘Post-Graffiti’ or ‘Guerrilla Art’, it makes a statement about society. Often visually strong, Street Art is meant to attract the attention of the public, as it communicates values or acts as an artistic expression. It moves beyond the idea of vandalism. 

There are similarities with the Wall Art of muralists. The political and activist nature of the works is intrinsic to this type of art. But the unofficial status sets it apart from the public art of the official murals. It is not propaganda, as it hangs and displays the people’s views on city walls. The political message of this form of Urban Art represents the community’s voice and opinion. The rebellious core of Graffiti Art is elevated in Street Art thanks to the artist’s purpose of delivering the community’s thoughts to the public. 

The Berlin wall is an emblematic example. The political statement the street artists made with their works gave importance to the idea of freedom, the hypocrisy of the division and life and hopes of those people who were affected by the wall. The artworks on the Berlin Wall are now a testimony of the historical moment after the Second World War and what it meant for the people of Berlin. The global resounding effect of this symbol is still extremely important.


n.d., View from the West Berlin side of graffiti art on the Wall in 1986, n.d., Courtesy of Wikipedia.


The rebellious controversy of the early examples of Urban Art, soon gave way to the popularity of Street Art in the 2000s. In fact, the break with the anonymous concrete walls, in the overpopulated metropolitan city and invasion of public spaces, was to become increasingly popular. The freshness of this unofficial type of public art is now seen positively by young people as exciting, beautiful and shocking. The art which has no need for the official spaces of galleries and museums, became a tourist attraction.

Street Art is comparable to the work displayed inside these institutions, but the walls separate the two. And this distinct separation is a fundamental characteristic of Street Art. The independent nature of Street Art makes it seen by some as a form of public art, closer to the community than the Fine Art found in museums. It is impulsive and takes pride of the liberty and sense of belonging to the people of the city – people who do not feel included in the world of galleries and museums. 

Another important aspect is the temporary nature of these works. With the illegality and ever-changing scene of the city the wall is a strong statement, but one which the artists know will hardly survive as time passes. But this ephemeral nature of Street Art is often embraced by the artists, who are continually moving from city to city leaving their signs behind. 

The most exemplarily cooperative Street Art is probably the low-income housing of Tour Paris 13. The ten-story building which saw international artists completely transform it before its demolition in 2013. Gallery owner Mehdi Ben Cheikh took the opportunity to involve 100 renown international street artists from all over the world who gave the building a complete makeover, transforming the rooms, corridors, and outer wall of the building in the 13eme arrondissement in Paris – an incredible tri-dimensional artwork. The impressive project saw people queue up outside in the cold for hours to see the temporary works, forcing them to extend the ‘exhibition’ before the demolition. 


n.d., Tour Paris 13, 2013, Courtesy of lcdesign.fr ©Elodie Drouard / FRANCETV INFO, Pierre.


The outreach Street Art has proves that with the years, we have come to see these ‘forms of vandalism’ as real Art, and their temporary nature makes them even more precious in the fast-paced city – something worth stopping in the street to admire, photograph and share. The artists involved in Tour Paris 13, like other Street Art works by Banksy, Blu or Space Invader among others, create unforgettable truly urban artworks (read more about The street is Banksy's personal canvas on Kooness). Their works grasp the controversial issues of the forever-changing city life by building a resonating sense of community around their works. 


Giorgio Benvenuti. One of Blu’s murals while it is being covered up in Bologna, n.d., Courtesy of ilpost.it ©ANSA / Giorgio Benvenuti.


Urban Art – Against or with Institutions?

What does it mean to see Street Art as Art? How can we condemn an artist? The purpose of producing art, and the effects it has, in some ways gives back more than the harm it produces. The acknowledgement of Street art as Art is deserved, but it is a complex status for an anti-institutional art. 

But what does this imply for the justice system or art institutions it roses up against? Galleries, auction houses and museums started to collect Street Art, sell it, and display it - taking possession of something which cannot be owned because it belongs in the city. The controversy of illegally removing art, selling it, collecting or displaying it is apparent.

Tour Paris 13 did not need the art market to live on or to be recognised as art. Its memory remains in the digital, thanks to the photographs people took, a documentary and books about the building – but the offers of collectors were turned down. In 2016, Italian street artist Blu covered up many of his works in the city of Bologna when a cultural institution started to remove various street artists’ works without their consent in order to display them in the Palazzo Pepoli later that year. The artist took a strong stand against the institutionalisation of his works. 


Paul Hartnett, A stencilled image of two policemen kissing, n.d., Courtesy of edition.cnn.com. ©Paul Hartnett / PYMCA / Getty.


Another example of the clear opposition between institutions and this type of art is probably one of the most famous auction sales that Sotheby’s has ever seen. In 2018, Banksy’s ‘Girl with Red Balloon’ (2006) was sold at the well-known auction house - discover more about Banksy at Sotheby's online art auction on Kooness. But as soon as the hammer went down at £1 million pounds a shredder was activated. Although by many this is thought to be a stunt, the famous street artist amazed the world with the hidden shredder. It is not his first piece or last work by this artist to be sold at auction, but the message to the art world is clear.


n.d., Banksy’s ‘Girl with Red Balloon’ at Sotheby’s, 2018, Courtesy of Euusatoday.com.


Urban Art, the broader category, is more flexible. The themes and purpose are the same as those of Street Art, but it is not confined to the streets. The opposition between the art of ‘high culture’ is not as applicable for Urban Art. While Street Art belongs to the streets, Urban Art belongs to the city – and the city is made up by many different people.

Urban artist JR’s collaboration with institutions in more than 140 countries gave voice to those people who are often overlooked. His global participatory ‘Inside Out’ project (2011-ongoing). By displaying the faces and lives of those very people who live, and work behind the walls of the institutions, he had the idea of turning the institutions ‘inside out’ emphasising the idea of a community - read more about Art as Activism: discover 20 political artists on Kooness.


n.d., JR’s Inside Out Project New York City 2013, 2013, Courtesy of lareserve-mag.com.


Another recent work by JR was created in collaboration with Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence (read more about La Ferita by JR on Kooness). The art institution was literally opened up with a wound, ‘La Ferita’ (2021). A drawing seems to show an enormous hole in the wall of the museum. The empty rooms are revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it is hidden behind the walls, the institution is affected by the same things which affect the person passing by. It seems to be screaming out to the people passing by that it is still there, it belongs to them and it feels the same pain in a time of crisis. 

This collaboration shows how Urban Art has changed from the initial tags sprayed on city walls, or the anti-institutional Street Art. It has become a varied and rich category, one which reaches out to a broader audience and connects to the city by creating a community around its concrete walls. 

Urban Art is the art of the people, challenging and contributing to the forever evolving city.


n.d., JR’s ‘La Ferita’ a collaboration with Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, 2021, Courtesy of Lindro.it.


Cover image: James French, Leake Street Arches in London, n.d., Courtesy of Lonely Planet ©James French / Lonely Planet.

Written by Zoë Zanello

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.