Graffiti vs. Street Art

The Bushwick Collective is the name given to several blocks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick where street artists have free permission to paint murals on building walls. The area has become so well known that artists from around the world come to take part. Recently, however, something out of place have appeared on the murals ⎯ neon colored smiley faces that dot the elaborately painted images. To the casual passerby, they will either go unnoticed or thought the work of some quirky artist. But in fact, these smiley faces are artsy Band-Aids, applied by the street artists that painted the walls to cover up a spate of tagging by graffiti writers, who targeted these walls specifically. It’s more than what some would call vandalism, rather, it’s the first signs of battle in which street art is a weapon for gentrification against graffiti, and graffiti has finally launched its defense.

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At the Bushwick Collective, street artists paint smiley faces over graffiti tags on their murals.

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen it this bad,” said a shocked Lois Stavsky, long time curator of StreetArtNYC, a popular blog that tracks and archives both graffiti and street art in the five boroughs. Stavsky regularly visits hotspots around the city to capture the ephemeral works on the walls and is well known within New York City’s graffiti and street art communities.

A tagger by the name of ZEXOR began tagging the murals at the beginning of this year, and his actions have encouraged others to do the same. Alongside the pressure of gentrification are the long simmering tensions between graffiti writers and street artists, and their constant struggle for recognition, credibility, and space on the city’s walls.

Graffiti before Street Art

To most of the public, it’s easy to conflate graffiti and street art. Even in artistic circles, the two terms are used interchangeably, and refer to a fluid concept of literally and simply “art on the street”. Yet, however singular or cohesive the two may seem to the mainstream as a subculture, there are significant differences that separate the two.

“Graffiti predates street art and street art draws its inspiration from graffiti,” states Stavsky. Graffiti is word-based and its ‘writers’ are mostly self-taught. The art form emerged from inner city neighborhoods as a type of self-expression for urban youth. It’s egoistic because its “tags” are acts of personal branding by the writers. Graffiti is illegal, but it is precisely this illegal risk that gives it its counter-cultural edge. Street art, on the other hand, is most often done by artists who have received formal training. In the beginning, the artists took their cue from graffiti in making the streets their canvass as a statement against existing establishment, and their works usually carry some overarching message for the public. Street art is usually painted with permission or commissioned.

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Graffiti (left) is word-based, whereas Street Art (right) is image-based.

“Graffiti art”, if one had to, would be the name Stavsky gives to the two form’s artistic overlap. This describes elaborate graffiti that is more figurative, using images and colors akin to most street art paintings. “A lot of really famous graffiti artists will do this for someone legally because maybe their illegal work received a lot of attention, like Meres,” said Stavsky.

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Graffiti Art is elaborate and figurative graffiti combined with images.

Meres was the curator of 5Pointz, an industrial complex turned outdoor art gallery. Once known as the “mecca” of graffiti and street art, it was one of the few spaces in the city that artists could freely paint. When 5Pointz closed for real estate redevelopment in 2013, artists had to turn elsewhere for legal walls. Property owners were willing to give permission, but on one caveat ⎯ street art only.

Street Art over Graffiti

“I call it an appropriation of the walls,” said Bishop (his street name), a graffiti writer turned street artist. Bishop owns LowBrow Artique in Brooklyn, the borough’s largest aerosol supply shop, frequented by graffiti and street artists alike.

At the Bushwick Collective, Joseph Ficalora, the organizer of the Collective and owner of several of the area’s properties, does not permit words on the paintings. “Joe doesn’t allow graffiti,” said Bishop. “People are mad because none of the artists that paint here are from here…Most artists that live in Bushwick are graffiti artists, and they feel like they are getting pushed out.”

Where to see Graffiti & Street Art in NYC

NYC median income: $50,711

"Graffiti" median: $21,379 - $36,344

"Street Art" median: $36,344 - $47,229

Data from the 2010-2012 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and the WNYC median income map

The acceptance of art on the street but rejection of its underlying graffiti form is a trend happening all over the city. The LISA project in Little Italy accepts murals and approved phrases only. The East Harlem Preservation Group looks for historically representative images. The 100 Gates Project in the Lower East Side, a project that launched just this year, commissions public art on grants from the city. It’s mandate: to combat illegal graffiti through the installation of painted murals on roll-down security gates.

“We wanted to deter graffiti and beautify the neighborhood at the same time,” said Natalie Raben, director of communications at the Lower East Side Business Improvement Disctrict, the community business organization running the project. “We got a grant for $30,000 to see the program through.” In March, the organization held an open call for artists, who had to submit a proposal for what they hoped to paint ⎯ something that would be meaningful for the community, according to Raben. So far, 25 artists have signed onto the project, and another 25 are further expected. Artists receive a $300 stipend for their work.

“The artists have ties to the graffiti community, and the idea is that when graffiti taggers come and see it’s the work of veteran artists, they know better than to tag out of respect,” explained Raben. “It’s like an unwritten code.”

Perhaps, but a shared code hinges upon the presumption that the graffiti and street art communities are one, which isn’t the case. “If you really want to know, there isn’t any communication between the real graffiti artists and the street artists,” declared Bishop. This is why ZEXOR and others like him haven’t followed this supposed code in the case of the Bushwick Collective.

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Graffiti by ZEXOR.

Art or Acceptability

The preference for street art over graffiti art is understandable. “Street art is relatable, graffiti isn’t,” says Kate Murphy, coordinator of Graff Tours, a tour company that runs graffiti and street art tours in several cities in the US. “So even though street art is an extension of graffiti it’s more acceptable.” The more appreciable imagery of street art is what lends it to the favor of businesses and community organizations. The subject of street art can be molded, whereas graffiti art ⎯ no matter how artistic ⎯ is inherently opposed to being directed by someone other than the artists themselves.

“Sure, public art is being put toward the good of the community, but it’s also being put toward commercial and corporate interests, says gallery director Abby Ronner of City Lore, a New York City non-profit for the preservation of urban traditions and art. “This is where you get the forces of gentrification.” Indeed, street art is not only being used to gentrify the city’s streets, it could itself be seen as a gentrified form of graffiti. In its role as graffiti’s “antidote”, it is an inspired form used as a weapon against its own inspiration.

The success of street art commissioned through programs like the 100 Gates Project are leading communities around the city to consider doing the same. “The city gave us the grant because it saw this as an initiative other neighborhoods could replicate, and we think a lot will,” said Raben.

For many artists, this represents legitimate ways to showcase their art as well as the opportunity to receive recognition and payment for their work. For others, however, it comes at the sacrifice of street art’s graffiti roots, and in struggle with artists who view graffiti not as a form of art, but a way of life.

“There’s always been room for both in this city,” said Amuze (his street name), a graffiti artist, “but it feels like now street artists don’t want to leave any for anybody else.”