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Out of the Shadows: The Evolution of Graffiti Into Street Art

A popular spot for street art in New York's Greenwich village in 2007
A popular spot for street art in New York's Greenwich village in 2007

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BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with Explorations in VOA Special English. Today, we travel through city streets all over the world to explore street art, a popular and lively art movement.


BARBARA KLEIN: Street art can be found on buildings, sidewalks, street signs and even trashcans from Tokyo to Paris to New York City. This special kind of art can take the form of paintings, sculptures, cloth or even stickers.

Its international presence is supported by Web sites, artist communities, books and magazines. Street art has become part of a global visual culture. Now, even art museums and galleries are collecting the work of street artists.

STEVE EMBER: It is not easy to provide an exact history of the street art movement. This kind of art has developed in many kinds of ways in places all over the world. Also, street artists usually work secretly because it is illegal to paint public and private property without permission.

This secretive nature of street art and its countless forms make it hard to define exactly. And people have different opinions about the movement. Some think street art is a crime and destroys property. But others see this art as a rich form of nontraditional cultural expression.

BARBARA KLEIN: Many experts say the movement began in New York City in the nineteen sixties. Young adults would use paint in special cans to spray their “tag” on walls and train cars around the city.

This tag was a name they created to identify themselves and their artwork. This colorful style of writing is also called graffiti. It is visually exciting and energetic. Some graffiti paintings were signs marking the territories of city gangs or illegal crime groups.

STEVE EMBER: Graffiti also became a separate movement expressing the street culture of young people living in big cities. Graffiti art represented social and political rebellion. This art rejected the accepted rules of culture and power.

These artists could travel around areas of the city making creative paintings for everyone to see. The artists could become famous without being officially recognized. Sometimes this street art created a dispute between artists and city officials. Graffiti artists created their images and city officials quickly painted over them.

During the nineteen eighties two New York painters who began as street artists became very famous. Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat started creating their paintings on the streets. But soon they began showing their work in art galleries and museums. This is when street art started to become part of the popular culture.


BARBARA KLEIN: Street art today takes many forms. One well known New York City street artist goes by the name of Swoon. Swoon creates detailed paper cutouts of people that she observes around her. She places these life-size images on walls in different areas of New York.

For example, one of her artworks is of a little boy playing. He is turning his smiling face and seems to be running into the distance. The lines of Swoon’s drawing give energy and movement to the picture. She placed the picture of the boy next to other large graffiti images. It looks like he is running around between the different pieces of artwork.

Swoon did not start her career making street art. She studied fine art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. But she says she lost interest in the official workings of art galleries. She soon started taking her art into the streets.

Swoon likes how her work changes slowly after it is outside for a while. The art slowly disappears because of the effects of time, sun and rain. She also enjoys the freedom of expression which street art permits. And people enjoy Swoon’s strong and imaginative pictures. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has bought several of her works.

STEVE EMBER: Many street corners in Paris, France show the work of an artist known as Space Invader. Space Invader was the name of a video game that was very popular in the nineteen eighties. This French artist uses small colorful squares of glass to make an image of a space creature.

He then places these creations on buildings all around Paris. He has been arrested several times. But this does not stop him from working. He says that he is leaving a gift to the city with his art.

On Space Invader’s website, you can see the many other cities where he has placed his art. Space Invader has traveled to places like Dhaka, Bangladesh; Mombasa, Kenya, and Istanbul, Turkey.

BARBARA KLEIN: The streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil are also rich with artwork. For example, you can find the work of two brothers who go by the name Os Gemeos. They paint images of funny flat-faced people with orange-yellow skin. Their imaginative characters have many different forms and expressions. Art galleries all over the world have shown the artwork of Os Gemeos.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, visitors can take a street art tour organized by the company Graffitimundo. The tour guides help visitors explore many kinds of exciting street art in different areas of the city.

The street art movement in this city was influenced by the economic collapse in Argentina in two thousand one. Many artists went into the streets and began making playful and colorful art to lift the spirits of people in the city.


STEVE EMBER: Street artists have different reasons for choosing this special kind of creative act. Some artists do not approve of the profit-making business of galleries and museums. They think that these organizations disconnect art from everyday life. They also like the fact that street art stays part of the city environment.

Other artists express their political beliefs with their art. Some see street art as protesting the culture of big business and corporations. They do not like the city walls covered with advertisements that sell products. These artists see these advertisements as examples of corporate aggression. They think that if an advertisement can be on a wall, so can their art. Still other artists like the excitement of working in the streets and trying not to get caught.

BARBARA KLEIN: But some people pay a price for making street art. Shepard Fairey is a street artist who became famous for his image of Barack Obama that became popular during the last presidential campaign.

But Fairey has been arrested several times for making his art. In two thousand nine, Fairey was arrested as he arrived at a party to celebrate an exhibit of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

Police arrested him on several graffiti charges. Fairey said he was being punished for suggesting that public space should be filled with more than just advertising for companies.

STEVE EMBER: Shepard Fairey has also been involved in legal action with the Associated Press. The AP accused him of using one of its photographs of Barack Obama without permission. He used it to create his famous campaign poster in two thousand eight. Fairey says he used the AP photograph as a reference, but then changed it greatly for his own idealized and colorful picture of the future president.

Last week, Fairey and the AP reached a settlement. Fairey agreed to share profits from the poster and other objects with his image of Barack Obama. And he agreed not to use another AP photo without permission. Fairey and the AP agreed to work on a series of images that the artist will create based on other AP photos.

A movie about street art called “Exit Through the Gift Shop was released in two thousand ten. The movie tells about a French-born shopkeeper in Los Angeles, California. Thierry Guetta loves street art and becomes friends with its artists.

He films the artists as they work. He meets the famous and secretive street artist who goes by the name Banksy. Banksy takes the many hours of film created by Guetta and makes this movie.

Guetta later becomes an artist who shows his work at a very successful gallery exhibit. Critics have questioned whether parts of the movie are true. But the movie gives an interesting view of the world of street art.


BARBARA KLEIN: The Internet has had a big influence on street art. Street artists can show their work to people all over the world. Web sites like and have thousands of pictures of street art from all over the world. Also, artists and fans can communicate with each other and exchange ideas.

However, people say the Internet is not a replacement for the experience of seeing street art live. To really understand this art you have to see it in its environment. The street art movement depends on the energy and life of the city. And like cities, this imaginative and exciting art will continue to change and grow.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. You can see examples of street art at I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.