Art News

Ten Ways to Tell the Difference Between Street Art and Graffiti

On July 25, Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver Partners Against Graffiti and 200-plus volunteers took to the streets of Capitol Hill to "buff out" some of the graffiti surrounding East High School. This was the sixth annual "Brush Off Graffiti" event, celebrating another year of working to keep Denver beautiful, as DPAG's sister program is titled. Both Keep Denver Beautiful and DPAG are offshoots of Denver Waste Management, whose goal is to rid the city of trash — including graffiti. It will even provide you free paint so that you can wipe it out yourself.

But how, exactly, do you distinguish between graffiti and street art?DPAG works under the common assumption that the presence of graffiti "creates an environment that breeds bigger crimes." But to the untrained eye, graffiti is not so far off from street art, a hot commodity in the Mile High — and for that matter, trained eyes often don't separate the two, either.

"To me, it's like asking what's the difference between two different forms of art," says graffiti and street-art photographer Gary Glasser."We see art in all forms. I shoot murals, large and small. Colorful and not so colorful. Some of it may be considered graffiti.. all of it is art."

"In essence, they are both the same," says street artist Victoriano Rivera. "Each realm is a vessel that acts against the establishment, illegally applying paint or medium to an urban landscape. The difference being that one is a cultural movement; the other, a derivative of that movement, is now a commodity." 

"What I feel is that street art is basically gentrified graffiti," says another artist. "I used to be obsessed with graffiti, but I didn't have anyone to do it with so my efforts fizzled out pretty early. I used to spend hours looking at graffiti online and in books. Now that I paint on the street, I think that traditional, letter-based graffiti is too constricting for me — but I still really love and respect it. Those guys risk everything for what they do."

"To me, they are all the same, honestly," says artist PJ Sierra. "But graffiti is more so a 'name/tag' skill which involves crews and rattlecans. Street art is a hybrid of what graffiti is today. The difference, in my opinion, is the times. Because eventually, graffiti and street art will both be known as self-expression. And whether you're a graff writer or a street artist, your goal is the same: To prove we existed on this earth by leaving our mark."

Still, that leaves a dilemma: Some residents of the city view these marks as vandalism, while many consider them art. But there are ways to distinguish the difference — and least legally, historically and culturally — and here are ten of them.
10) Graffiti Artists Have Crews

Most graffiti artists crew up. In "Tagging Up," Westword explored the complex relationships within the graffiti world, as well as the massive size of the community: An estimated forty crews are working in Denver; the three largest are TKO, RTD and SWS. But then again, there are graffiti writers who don't identify with a crew at all. Rogue writers who tag on their own include some of the most prolific graffiti writers in Denver. Unlike graffiti writers, street artists don't tend to work their way up the hierarchy of a crew; they often come straight from the studio into the street-art scene.
9) Graffiti Is Harder to Read

There are many types of graffiti. Wildstyle is the most difficult graffiti signature to read; it has its own language. Then there is the tag, a signature using just one color, and the most common type of graffiti seen in Denver. A throw-up is a signature that uses two or three colors, but is still done quickly. There are also wheat pastes, stencils, slaps (stickers), bubble graffiti, block busters and "bombing," which refers to the speed with which the work is done and focuses on quantity over quality. 

8) Graffiti Gets "Dissed"

The hierarchy within the graffiti world is also a factor, reflecting years of conflict that include instances of artists tagging over other artists, or "dissing" the graffiti on the wall, because of long-standing rivalries between their respective crews. Sanctioned murals are less likely to get dissed: When murals are authorized by the city or businesses — particularly on "problem walls," places where graffiti tends to pop up the most — 99 percent of the time graffiti writers will respect the art that is put there. If it's beautiful and complex, taggers leave it alone.
7) Street Artists Use Different Modes of Painting, Graffiti Artists Use Aerosol

Aerosol is one of the major factors that separates graffiti writers from other artists. Although street artists may use aerosol, they also employ everything from acrylic and oil paint to projectors, wood or metal, and multimodal materials. Graffiti is all about the freehand use of aerosol. That's the art's defining factor, and as most aerosol artists will tell you, it takes years to perfect.
6) Street Artists Paint in Broad Daylight

If you see artists painting during the day or early evening hours in Denver, they are probably creating street art. Street artists are also sometimes given lifts by the company that hired them. Graffiti writers almost always paint in the middle of the night or early morning to insure not getting caught. 

5) Street Art Is Abstract

The above piece by Holis and Lana is a great example of the abstract form that sanctioned street art can take. Many local street artists have the ability to move from the studio to the street without limitations; they simply consider themselves artists. Similarly, street art is often called urban art, public art or outdoor art, all politically correct terms that attempt to distance street art from graffiti's bad reputation. 

4) Street Artists Use and Sign With Full Name

A great sign that you're looking at street art rather than graffiti is the signature on the bottom right corner of the piece. Often including an Instagram username or the creator's full name, it is like a modern version of an artist's signature on a canvas. Sometimes you'll see a haphazardly placed stencil that says "Denver Arts + Venues," showing that it was sanctioned by the city.

Graffiti writers in Denver work under pseudonyms, often "Super Hero" identities. Street artists who were once graff writers usually pick a new name or begin working under their real name.
3) Street Artists Talk to the  Press

If you can Google an artist whose work is on the streets, that person is usually a street artist. Graffiti writers are reluctant to talk to the press, because most of the work they have done is illegal and they run the risk of being apprehended for work they may have done years ago. Artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Hope poster for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, was recently arrested in Los Angeles after the Detroit Police Department issued warrants for his arrest on two counts of malicious destruction of property — for acts he allegedly committed years before.2) Graffiti is Ever-Changing 

You are less likely to see a graffiti piece survive the test of time — and not just because DPAG will buff it out. Even on permission walls, graffiti is constantly being adding to and painted over: It is the most temporary form of artwork. In contrast, much of the famous street art in Denver will be remain untouched for at least a year, and some celebrated murals will be kept intact for years. The Willie Matthews piece entitled "A Fine Old Martin" has been preserved on its LoDo wall for almost two decades.  

1. Street Art Is Sanctioned, Graffiti Is Not

Street art and graffiti both make Denver more colorful; they make artistic and political statements that reflect the culture of our city. In the end, the biggest difference between the two is not style, but the fact that graffiti is illegal while street art is sanctioned. "Street art is the evolution of graffiti," concludes artist Anthony Garcia Sr., a Westword MasterMind. "Public art is legal street art."

Lindsey Bartlett is a Denver native, writer, photographer and lover of street art. Creep it real on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
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Lindsey Bartlett is a writer, photographer, artist, Denver native and weed-snob. Her work has been published in Vanity Fair, High Times and Leafly, to name a few.
Contact: Lindsey Bartlett