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What Is Urban Art?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term urban art refers to a wide variety of art forms that are grouped together because they are created in city areas, depict city life, or make a statement about urban issues. Urban art began as graffiti, which was the spray-painting of the sides of buildings, bridges, and other structures and was considered by many to be vandalism. From its humble, controversial, and often illegal beginnings, urban art has grown into an art form that uses a wide variety of media and ranges from simple graffiti to publicly commissioned large-scale murals and sculptures.

Urban artists began by spray-painting words, symbols, and images to make public statements, artistic expressions, or, in the case of gangs, claim territory. As graffiti artists defaced public property permanently in the name of art, public opinion on graffiti was sharply divided and remains highly controversial. Many people who considered graffiti to be vandalism and a nuisance responded by creating movements to remove it. Graffiti supporters were often attracted by the quality of artistic expression and the excitement of knowing that the artist risked legal penalties when caught.

Some urban artists have been so prolific and have such a distinctive style that they have achieved worldwide notoriety and oftentimes infamy. They often protect their identities and avoid legal detection by assuming street names that are frequently related to their preference of types of media, subject matter, or a distinctive style. Many well-known urban artists have branched into more legitimate artistic endeavors to cash in on their success, like creating paintings on more traditional canvas media or creating sculptures that can be sold. The works of some popular urban artists have been rescued from buildings and sold.

Many street artists have responded to the negative reputation of urban art as vandalism by using less permanent or temporary materials to create urban art. The use of posters, stickers, and LED art are all less destructive ways to create art in public areas. Their subject matter frequently relates to various aspects of street life. Sometimes meaning is subjective or nonexistent, as some artists employ liberal use of optical illusion or stretch artistic concepts of perspective and scale, even using permanent existing structures as props in the artwork itself.

There are organizations cropping up that seek to legitimize and protect urban art in its various forms. Some cities are commissioning urban artists to create large-scale community murals on the blank sides of buildings or sculptural installations for use as a focal point and to celebrate city history and heritage. Others hold sidewalk chalk art contests during city festivals as a way to allow residents to temporarily decorate walkways.

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Discussion Comments

By indigomoth — On Feb 06, 2014

@irontoenail - You can have a romantic view of it. I'll admit that some urban contemporary art has merit, but it is destruction of private property. Someone has to pay to remove it, and it might actually hurt the integrity of the building.

If someone wants to create art, they should do it on a canvas, or on their own wall, not someone else's wall.

By irontoenail — On Feb 06, 2014

@pleonasm - Well, graffiti can be done in an artistic spirit, rather than just to mark territory. And it can also be done in an unusual way. I have seen moss graffiti before, where someone figured out how to paint a wall with a mixture that encouraged moss to grow in the places he covered, so that he had a living picture after a few weeks.

I've got to admit I follow a few urban art blogs and I particularly love clever stencils. They are just small and unobtrusive, but they add something to your day when you spot one.

By pleonasm — On Feb 05, 2014

I think different forms of urban art are really interesting. There are some that keep popping up around my town, like knit-bombing, where they basically knit a covering for a statue or a tree. I've heard that there are places where this is done with the intention of letting people use the knitting (like scarves and hats) when they are caught outside in the cold.

I also always loved the idea of what they call guerrilla gardening, which is when a group will tidy up a scrap piece of land overnight, planting vegetables or flowers there. I guess I like it when the notion is artistic or altruistic, but not so much when it's urban wall art, like graffiti.

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