Street Art

“Grafffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.” Banksy 2011


Street art is any form of artistic intervention in a public space. These spaces are often urban, but can also be in rural areas. Depending on where it is, why and how it is made, and your particular perspective can be welcome or a public nuisance. It is often temporary or ephemeral, but may also be designed to be long-lasting. 

Artwork ranges from murals to stencils, stickers to posters, spray can graffiti to impromptu sculptures. It can encompass figurative illustrations and/or stylised abstraction and/or conceptual ideas.

Ancient sculpted reliefs and frescos were a form of public street art. Graffiti as an anti-establishment activity has existed for centuries in many societies. When paper was less easy to come by, writing on walls was very common as a public way of expressing opinions. It was also common in houses eg Elizabethan era as a private way of remembering verses.

Other antecedents include chalk artists busking on the street, murals and commercial signage. In African and Asian cultures women have often decorated their houses with different motifs in paint or materials like coloured rice paste . In some countries street art is a prominent part of political propaganda by the authorities trying to reach particularly constituencies with low levels of literacy. Public illustrations on buildings, trees and other sites is commonly used by NGOs and development agencies to promote a message. Street Art has been increasingly commissioned by public and also corporate companies to beautify surfaces that otherwise might be defaced by graffiti.

Lisbon has embraced street art, proudly incorporating the images of giant illustrations as a marketing tool, turning derelict buildings into an asset.

Street Art in Lisbon

See also promotion os street art in Tehran.

Street Art may be the work of one individual artist, or a more collaborative exercise between artists, or include participation of the general public. Or any combination of these.

More recently Street Art has been a prominent feature of many social movements in Latin America and the Middle East as a way of publicising protest and social messages.

Street Art as ‘Art’

Recently there have been an increasing number or artists interesting in using public spaces as a location for their art. These artists have generally had an anti-establishment focus, but their aims are arguably more artistic than political. However often they are still doing it without permission. Consequently much of street art’s placing is playful, temporary or overtly challenging. There’s something very liberating about the idea of seeing the world as a canvas in which any surface is up for grabs and an audience for your work is guaranteed, but this artistic freedom comes at a price for those artists engaged in what is essentially a criminal act of defacing. Many street artists have started to deal with this issue by working with communities and arts organisations to sanction their work and provide spaces to work on legally.

These artists often develop a trademark approach,  using different spaces  but with repetition of themes and motifs, or variations on these, replicated across cities, but a similar motif, such as Street art has allowed artists from outside the art world to have a platform for their work, while for established artists the idea of producing site-specific work has been an alternative to working inside the gallery. Street art today is multi-disciplinary, drawing on lots of different media and arts traditions.. Although street art has continued to use spray cans and stencils it has also seen the transfer of traditional art materials.

Street Art Utopia: A blog documenting street art from around
the world


Wooster Collective Celebrating street art

Scrawl Collective: A network of grafitti and street artists
working on paper

Spray paint art murals


Banksy: The artist Bansky has used a combination of stencils and spray paint to start a satirical and often political commentary on the streets of his native Bristol and beyond.

Largescale art on buildings

Blu: Large-scale illustrations spanning wall pieces, animations and sketchbook work

Lucy McLauchlan: Contemporary artist working on large-scale illustrative pieces

Sam3: Large-scale murals

Jorge Rodriguez Gerada: Large-scale drawings

Crono Project: Large-scale street art project in Lisbon

Ben Eine:  Large-scale typography drawing on the typographic tradition of signage

Ericailcane: Large-scale illustrative work

Photographic street art and posters

JR: Giant photography pieces – giant portraits of residents onto the walls of poor neighbourhoods around the world.

Camilla Watson: Photography printed directly onto the surface of walls.

Photocopy/poster artist

Bast: Street collage and posters

Other media

Invader: Space invader-inspired mini-mosaics which are stuck unobtrusively in corners of cities across the globe.

Slinkachu: The Little People Project

Knitta: In Texas, a group of women under the collective identity of Knitta have challenged the often male environment of street art with their guerilla knitting movement. Website documenting guerilla knitting around the world

Edgar Mueller: disorientating 3D chalk drawings on the pavement that play with visual reality.

The idea of making art with a specific place in mind is not solely linked to street art. Sculpture, performance and mural artists, amongst others, have engaged with the idea of how you respond to and change an actual place by making art to be placed within it. 

further reading

Gavin, Francesca (2007) Street Renegades: New Underground Art
London: Laurence King.

Street art covered by The Guardian

Research point

 Depending on your point of view, street art is either a scourge of our cities or it’s part of the cultural fabric that makes city living interesting. Street art may be seen as an eyesore as developing artists vie for attention. The street is a shared space, so who gives street artists the right to try and interfere? Certainly many people see street art and graffiti as an unwanted interference. Others see the street as a place where dialogue can take place and believe that people can and should comment within the social, institutional and commercial spaces around them. Artists don’t always get it right and their work doesn’t last forever. Even Banksy’s pieces are routinely cleaned up and painted over.

Identify examples of street art on the walls near you. If you live in a rural community this might be a problem as street art tends to be largely an urban phenomenon. If necessary, pick some examples from the references below or through your own research.
Write a short commentary about how this work interacts with the environment. How important is the context to understanding what the work is trying to do? Reflect on whether you think a particular piece of graffiti is ‘art’ or just vandalism.
Use your learning log to document your reflections.

The images below are of spray paintings by unknown ‘antisocials’ under a bridge near me. These change over time and are a response to other paintings by university student rowing teams. The location, reflections in water and their anger make them and the location eerily beautiful. If they were more ‘artistic’ they would not have the same impact.