NYC Street Art

Many people think that the first modern graffiti artist was a high school student from Philadelphia. He went by the name "Cornbread," and he started tagging walls in 1967 to get the attention of a girl he liked. He wrote "Cornbread Loves Cynthia" all over North Philadelphia, and it worked: He got the girl. He and a friend called "Cool Earl" kept writing their names all over the city, and their work started a movement. That movement spread to New York City in the 1970s, when another young artist, called "Topcat-176," adopted their style. Graffiti then gave birth to street art. Street art and graffiti are now seen all over the world, from the Middle East to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Painting graffiti started out as an act of defiance. Much of its roots came from teenagers painting their nicknames and messages on subway cars in NYC. Over time, their methods became more complex, planning for police lookouts and escape routes to keep the artists out of jail. In many ways, street art took this act of rebellion and expanded upon it. People from many different subcultures meshed with the rap, hip-hop, and punk communities to use new techniques of expression and move beyond the initial tagging and wild-style forms of painting.

Many people who do graffiti are self-taught. Graffiti in its purest form is still seen as vandalism and is illegal. On the other hand, many people who are doing street art are formally trained, and in many cases (but not all), street art is done with permission. There are many examples of commissioned street art, as it has become increasingly commodified. Graffiti usually uses text, and street art is dominated by imagery.

In a twist, street art is now sometimes used to cover up graffiti. In fact, in many corners of NYC, street art is being used to deter tagging: A blank wall can be a tempting space for graffiti, but taggers are less likely to deface a wall that's already covered with art.

Some have seen the push toward street art and away from graffiti as a symptom of gentrification that has taken NYC by storm. And yet, street art is being used as a political force and can carry many messages. For instance, Chilean artist Otto Schade painted a bald eagle made of assault weapons and knives in Chinatown as a commentary on America's problem with gun violence. Adam Fu and Dirty Bandits simply wrote "Everything is NOT OK" in Bushwick as a mural. And Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has painted a series of works drawing attention to the problem of the street harassment of women.

In many ways, street art can serve to keep populations talking and thinking about the issues that affect them and the world. Often, the artist painting the mural has a personal connection to the community and can interact artistically with the local population in a way that no one else can.

By taking a walk through the different communities of New York City, you can learn a lot about the history and current issues of that particular area just by looking at the art painted on the walls. The city draws artists from all over the world to paint here, and some of these artists even take their work off of the streets and into the galleries from time to time.

Notable Graffiti and Street Artists

Where to Find Great Street Art

More About NYC Street Art