Contemplating Street Art Subcultures

WiseTwo © Krisztian Portscher

One of the things I’ve always wondered is: What is the difference between Street Art and Graffiti? Let me begin by saying the term is not interchangeable particularly when one is in conversation with artists from either or both categories.

Albeit a subset of street art, graffiti writing is a movement that is derived from the streets of New York and Philadelphia as far a back as mid 1960’s and has evolved as it spread across the world. It has always been closely associated with hip hop and has since become the visual representation of the culture.

© Melissa Cucci
Artwork by Mars the Spray Guy. © Melissa Cucci

Street art is not only seen in the form of painting public murals, it encompasses a variety of mediums and techniques, including: stencil art, mosaic tiling and projections onto large city buildings. It has always been a potent form of social expression.

© Raphael Federici
© Raphael Federici

The history of street art and graffiti in South Africa can be traced from its humble beginnings in the early 1980’s, on the Cape Flats (the low-income peripheral areas of Cape Town). Rooted in hip hop culture and boosted by a racially divided society; graffiti became a form self-expression and a political outcry.

© Raphael Federici
Artwork by Raphael Federici and Clement Mougel

Aesthetically, graffiti writers practice a more elaborate style of letters blended with different colors, while street art takes on many forms.  Within this subculture there exists one main delineation between graffiti writers and street artists; ostensibly marked by the intention of the artist and distinguished in technique.

© Melissa Cucci
Artwork by MakOne1 © Melissa Cucci

“street artists might be insulted when called graffiti writers and vice versa”

© Claude Chandler
Artwork by Claude Chandler

Some would say that street artists have taken on Dadaist concepts that iconic images of popular culture or even underwhelming objects can be elevated into symbols of expression. Street art is often depicted as urban adornment to decaying buildings, motivated by a preference on the part of the artist to communicate directly with the public; free from perceived confines of the formalities of the “art world”.

© Melissa Cucci
© Melissa Cucci

Some street artists use “smart vandalism” as a way to raise awareness of social and political issues. Other street artists simply see urban space as an untapped format for personal artwork – taking the gallery to the streets. Both graffiti writers and street artist may appreciate the challenges and risks that are associated with installing illicit artwork in public places.

Courtesy of IPAF
Artwork by Julia Mary Grey

I have subsequently learned that whether it be graffiti art or street art, I believe that for some, it is a way of life – it is part of their cultural DNA.

© Raphael Federici
Artwork by Raphael Federici

“I have a saying that removing the grayness from the soul of the city is the job of artists, musicians and poets. I believe that colour creates energy, energy creates inspiration and inspiration creates change. Its not art that’s going to fix things; creativity is the main ingredient” – Freddy Sam