“Street Art” = “Real Art”: What We Really Mean When Talking Public Art

“Street art” is a popular topic. It reaches beyond the art world and intersects with all walks of life. At its root there is a subversive element, making art in public without rigid stylistic or locational expectations, free for all to interact with and enjoy. Creative people have always made public work, but only recently has it been institutionally legitimized as a form of expression. Like much of the arts, “street art” continues to be defined by qualifiers. This starts with the terminology itself.

To start off, “street art” is put in quotation marks in this piece to keep its status in question. Its validity as meaningful work is not undermined very often, and thinking about this is integral to discussing the implications of the term.“Street art” is a relatively new term and concept. It surfaced in the eighties during the art world’s corporate boom. This period saw the simultaneous explosion of Hip-Hop in mainstream popular culture. This goes beyond the music itself. While the emcee and the DJ are the most easily marketed, b-boy/girl dancers and graf writers were also broken down and sold. Hip-Hop and mainstream art collided when artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat shifted from making work on the street to showing in galleries and becoming globally valued “street artists.”


Kyle Hemming

As with all things that go corporate, only a handful of Hip-Hoppers got their recognition. Hip-Hop began with collectives of artists, friends, and community members. It was, and is, interdependent and focused on positivity. Its meanings are lost when corporate powers define Hip-Hop in blanket aesthetics. For many people, Hip-Hop draws to mind a distinct set of images that are informed by media depictions. The images are impacted by long-standing stereotypes and perceptions that reach beyond Hip-Hop into what defines blackness. These stereotypes in turn inform the public about who makes up Hip-Hop, where it lives, and what it is supposed to mean. Hip-Hop exists in negative terms in the public imagination, but not because it is inherently bad. Rather, the image forced by larger powers is limited, inaccurate, and serves to justify “bootstrap” rhetoric that absolves responsibility for the conditions to which Hip-Hop responds.

When Hip-Hop as a whole is dismissed, its artists are also pushed aside. This is why graffiti is understood to be an act of vandalism rather than an art, why it is pitted against “street art” as a lesser form. “Street art” uses the subversive edge of public works but almost always adheres to institutional art world conventions. It lives in publicly funded projects for “troubled inner-city youth” and splashes itself across gentrified spaces in homage to the history of the area.

“Street art” of this kind demands respect and generally gets it. Respect as in not having to validate itself as art. Respect as in knowing it will not be painted over because it was done by a traveling “street artist” or publicly commissioned. Respect as in its fans have enough sway to make sure anyone who adds to it will have their “vandalism” removed. The “street art” phenomenon has graf writers to thank for its existence. It would not be here without Hip-Hop, but its praise comes at graffiti’s expense.

The imbalance of power among “street artists” and graf writers has much to do with why graffiti is treated as a lesser entity. “Street art” is internationally heralded and commercially successful, and it has more supporters than typical local graf writers. Yes, local graffiti artists have their local fans, but“street art” exists on local, national, and international levels. If an artwork is too closely associated with Hip-Hop, then it will probably not do as well as a mural that celebrates local history in an abstract way or Andre the Giant.

In Hip-Hop’s early days, graffiti blossomed on a large scale. United Graffiti Artists founder Hugo Martinez says in Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,“‘Graffiti writing is a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have identity.’” Jeff Chang elaborates this point: “Your name was your currency, and you created value by making your mark in the niches…Here was the logic of reverse colonization” (118). Graffiti has aesthetic beauty, but it is also beautiful for its power: unapologetic existence, ownership of space, and making something greater than oneself.

This power scared officials and outsiders as it crept beyond the confines of artists’ neighborhoods and forced itself into the consciousness of the masses. STONEY, a female writer, tagged the Statue of Liberty in 1972 (Chang 119), the same year that Mayor John Lindsay launched his War on Graffiti (Chang 134). Instead of putting money into youth activities, local revitalization efforts, or funding art programs, New York prioritized scrubbing subway cars, monitoring train yards, and arresting writers. As reprehensible as those priorities were, they were widely accepted, practiced, and praised. These priorities were justified in popular literature and legitimized by academic studies. It is said hard facts cannot be argued with, but where are these hard facts coming from? Who is deciding what makes up the truth?

James Q. Wilson and George Kelling constructed some of the truths that justify fear of graffiti. In 1982 they came up with the broken windows theory, which argues that environmental aesthetics are indicative of the temperament and social worth of community members. Field work in the Bronx and other poor, black and brown areas led white researchers to conclude that maintaining order by apprehending “disorderly people” was the police’s most important job (Wilson and Kelling 1). “Disorderly people” are “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed” (Wilson and Kelling 2). This theory posits that socially undesirable people and elements need to be controlled because any expression that conveys humanity and positivity or promotes unity is a threat and will be criminalized.

Graffiti is just one of many art forms that can perform this function. Criminalization of graffiti is intentional, historical, and necessary in maintaining a comfortable hegemonic social order.

Keeping all of this in mind is crucial when talking about “street art” and graffiti, as is the fact that this is an ongoing process. Hip-Hop’s four elements still exist and they are continually discounted. “Street art” does not accurately encompass everything there is, nor do mainstream representations of an incredibly important movement.

The overlaps between the institutional art world and Hip-Hop, “street art” and graffiti need to be defined. Basquiat, one of the earliest acknowledged “street artists,” will be the example for explaining these overlaps.

The first thing that defines graf writers as “street artists” is objectification.

The concept of a “graffiti artist” draws the attention of the art world. Basquiat existed as SAMO on the streets for a while, tagging his name and giving work to Andy Warhol and his other artistic inspirations, eventually stumbling into fame. Once drawn into the mainstream art world, his blackness, and the ideas of what that entails, intrigued audiences. Discussions about his work have pigeonholed him. He is spoken of only in relation to “a continuum of contemporary American art with a genealogy traced through white males,” (hooks 36) instead of a diasporic “cultural and ancestral memory” (hooks 38). Basquiat continues to be misrepresented and misinterpreted. Objectification also includes putting people of color in work to seem more “urban” or “authentic,” which is most often seen in commemorative murals in gentrified areas.

The second is assimilation. Basquiat’s work became highly valuable when placed on canvas in a gallery or a museum. He was made comfortable for his audience, not because he was trying to make himself acceptable, but because the art world drew the line in the sand. Basquiat did not matter because he was talented. His work was not alluring because of its many levels or references–those things were discounted because they challenged the comforts of the white audiences that made him famous. He was allowed to be famous as long as it was possible to suppress his identity and his words. When Basquiat wanted more meaningful connections with the people around him and tried to fully engage them, he was pushed aside. bell hooks get straight to the point: “assimilation and participation in a bourgeois white paradigm can lead to a process of self-objectification that is just as dehumanizing as any racist assault by white culture” (39).

The third is deification. Basquiat is given immense recognition in death. He stands apart from many immortalized artists because he was extremely famous in his lifetime, and he could also still be with us today. The circumstances of his passing could have been avoided had he been respected for his entire being and given the support he needed. Basquiat struggled with depression and drug addiction. He dealt with this on his own: his relationship with his parents was strained, Andy Warhol–one of his closest supporters–was dead, and the gallerists and collectors had distanced themselves from him. After attempting to get clean he died at 27 from a heroin overdose. Now Basquiat’s death is dramatized and his image is immortalized. Shirts are sold with his crowns and his portrait, seen on everyone from Kanye to suburban white kids. It’s great to be inspired, and it is wonderful to see his work and his memory live on; however, it is also necessary to remember that many of the products that commemorate Basquiat feed institutions that are profiting from his death. In the corporate world, deification does not happen just because an artist or their work is powerful or beautiful. The main goal is to make money, even if the artists themselves would be vehemently opposed to the products (see: Frida Kahlo). Who is really benefitting?

This process netted Basquiat success and left a lasting impact on the art world. Beyond that, it built an industry that spans from art to media to popular culture. “Street art” and Hip Hop are parts of cultural literacy because of their profitability. While it is easy to see where institutional involvement goes wrong, recognizing the gray areas and positive outcomes is important. Despite the misrepresentations and imbalances of power, these entities are not inherently negative, just as “street art” is not automatically subversive or democratic. Recognition and success are wonderful things. People should be promoted and lift each other up. But when success requires individuals to compromise themselves or erases names in the process it is not genuine. Shedding light on the history, nuances, and ramifications is meant to create awareness so the same mistakes will not be made in the future. Rather than being disillusioned, it is important to integrate this knowledge with hope for the future and a willingness to make changes. Being informed is the first step in forging new paths. Integrating that information with discussion and action is the next.


These are the works referenced. Each one is a great way to start having new conversations.

  • Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador/St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.
  • hooks, bell. “Altars of Sacrifice: Re-membering Basquiat.” in Art On My Mind: Visual Politics (35-48). New York: The New Press, 1995. Print.
  • Wilson, James Q.; Kelling, George R. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Manhattan Institute, 1982. Web. 19 September 2015.  https://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/_atlantic_monthly-broken_windows.pdf