From the Street to Art Galleries: How Graffiti Became a Legitimate Art Form

Categories: Art

While some believe that graffiti/street art does not belong in galleries it does for several reasons. This essay will explain why that is, as it is something that is often misunderstood by people both inside and outside of the art world.

To explain the many reasons why graffiti/street art should be in galleries we must first get a clear understanding of the differences between the two. “Artist Sanction and Street Works”, written by Shelby Moser provides some good examples of the distinctions between street art and graffiti.

One example of this is when it is stated “ Does it matter that a work of street art is located on a legalized graffiti wall versus illegal? Or is it important to the meaning of a work if it is found in a hard-to-reach location versus an assessable one?”(Moser 19). This suggests that the variation between art being viewed as street art or graffiti could be based largely on the location of the work.

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If it is found in a hard to reach area it could be seen as being meant only for the small graffiti community as most people don’t tend to go to abandoned areas and also don’t care if the walls of these abandoned buildings get painted. Another school of thought that the article talks about is the theory that the artist’s intent has an effect on the way that the art should be viewed by people. “This line of thought suggests that knowledge of the artists’ intentions bring us a more acceptable framework to determine a work’s meaning, more than if we were to merely rely on our responses to works.

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However, the intent is also problematic because, as ideal, as it sounds, it is believed that the intentions of artists are often impossible to know”(Moser 19-20). What this is saying is that while you may look at a work and believe that it was made with an intent of crime and of defacing property the artist may not have had that intent at all. The artist may have been attempting to create a nice work of art that they believed would add to space.

One of the main arguments against graffiti, in general, is that “People do not like going to parks or through streets that have graffiti around them.”

In “When Graffiti Paintings Sell For Thousands, The Art World Sees The Writing On The Wall” by Michael Scott several positive reasons for why graffiti paintings should be placed in galleries are revealed. One of the many reasons that graffiti should be in galleries is that instead of artists defacing property they are allowed to instead express themselves in an environment that will not cause them to get in trouble or conduct any illegal activity (50). This allows great artistic potential to not only be wasted but instead be capitalized on. In 1979 Claudio Bruni sponsored the first European Graffiti show. This was the first time that graffiti had ever been seen in the gallery setting. By taking the art and placing it in this new setting the art was able to be seen as “not just vandalism” but rather as a “new expression of art” that is “unsophisticated but very real”(50). Bruni was able to see the graffiti as what it is, art, and was able to separate that from the often illegal nature that it has. This allowed people to view graffiti in a way that they had never seen it before. They had to look at graffiti as art created with art as the sole purpose rather than as art created with vandalism as an ulterior motive as they had surely viewed it in the past.

In 2008 the Smithsonian held its first-ever graffiti exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (Blumberg 28). One of the exhibition’s curators Frank H. Goodyear III had this to say about the exhibit “we are not glorifying the illegal activity, but we are acknowledging the larger impact this street tradition has had in contemporary art”(28). This is yet another reason that street art/graffiti should be included in the gallery setting. While some may still view the art negatively they will also be able to see all of the good that it has done and the many ways that it has had a positive impact on the contemporary art movement. While spray paintings first appeared in major galleries in the 1980’s and have been growing in size since this exhibit in the Smithsonian is still seen as “an important step” said Tumelo Mosaka who is the Associate Curator for Exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum (28). This allowed the art to “exist outside conventional canons”(Mosaka in Blumberg 28). By extending beyond the art world and into the more mainstream Smithsonian graffiti/street art gains a lot of acceptance in the general public and shows that while it may not seem conventional for graffiti to leave the street and enter galleries it is still a way that people can successfully express themselves.

Through artists seeking to change both the public and art world’s perception of graffiti as vandalism “The art world has taken notice.”(Graffiti to Galleries 4). Many artists have taken what they learned from artwork in the streets and have used it as inspiration for creating new artworks for inside. One example of this is artists like Barry McGee who attempt to “…recreate the chaos of the street…” by having indoor installations (4). With elements like “graffiti-covered vans, trucks, and cars”, and surrounding walls “covered with bright geometric patterns” the viewer’s attention is vied for “the same way that the neon lights, signs, and traffic of busy city streets do.”(4). This allows the viewer to get the same kind of experience as when they view graffiti in the streets but in a much safer environment for everyone. The artists don’t have to commit a crime to express their artistic views and the viewers don’t have to go to the often run-down and unsafe parts of the city to see the works. This is truly a win-win situation for everyone and it is a great example of a reason that graffiti/street art should be shown in galleries.

One of the many positives of street artists gaining exposure to the gallery scene is the effect that it has on both the artist’s fame and their positive exposure both inside and outside of the art community. In “The Street Art Plague – How Graffiti is Framed by The Press” by Tatyana Varshavsky it is stated that “Over time, art that once could only be found on subway cars and street corners started showing up in high-priced galleries, bringing a legitimate kind of fame for artists the art world chose to showcase. Some such as Banksy, who is internationally renowned, has made a new name for urban art, bringing an underground appreciation to what authorities often treat as worthless vandalism. By way of formal exhibitions, innovative multimedia projects forged by established media channels, and of course, illumination via popular culture, street, and graffiti art has moved into the mainstream.”(70). This suggests that while some urban art is just seen as vandalism there is some of it that are gaining a greater appreciation from not only the art community but also the public. Artist such as Banksy has taken the art that originally was meant just for the street and adapted it so that it could be shown in galleries. This allows graffiti and urban art as a whole to get a greater appreciation as it is now seen as something of value to people outside of the small community that it is coming from. This greater appreciation allows people to see that what is being created on the streets is in fact art and that it should be seen in that way. The inclusion of graffiti/street art in the gallery scene allows people who would not normally be exposed to this kind of art to see what it is in an environment where they feel comfortable. They don’t have to go out and search for the art in hard to find and unsafe locations, they rather can just see them while strolling through their local gallery.

One of the many great ways to “break down the negative stigma associated with graffiti” is by “curating and hosting art exhibitions and art events that fit this genre.”(Gould 54). This allows people from outside of the community to get a feel for what graffiti/street art is all about and understand that it is an art like any other and the viewing of it in galleries is something that should be accepted by all. Breaking the negative stigma allows for the education of many people. “Educating the artist is one step, educating the collector is another step, and educating the community is a huge step.”(54). This infers that if you are able to educate the community as a whole people will be able to see where other people are coming from and why they feel the way that they do about these forms of art. The best way to educate people is for them to see the art in a setting that is familiar to them and where art is normally viewed. This location is of course the gallery. So placing graffiti in galleries will allow for the art to be viewed successfully by many, and people from all viewpoints will become educated on it.

When artists get into galleries they often will see their lives change for the better. Artists like Greg Auerbach have seen great success through the sale of artwork. “Within eight months of making my first piece, I paid off my debt.”(Auerbach 47). This is just one example of the many people who have seen their lives change for the better due to their art being in galleries. If just a portion of the many graffiti/street artists out there were able to get their art into galleries you would see many lives change. These people who are currently considered criminals will now be able to have some cash and not feel like they have to use the walls of the streets as a canvas. They will be able to purchase actual canvases or other materials and be able to show their artworks in a different setting. The advent of graffiti/street art in galleries will allow for a decrease in illegal activity and an overall better environment for artists who conduct this type of art.

In conclusion, if graffiti/street art is able to become accepted as an art form worthy of being in the gallery setting great things could happen for many people. Not only would there be a decrease in crime as those artists would no longer feel the need to use the streets, but there also would be an increase in the knowledge of graffiti/street art of all kinds. People would be able to get a greater understanding of the works and see that just like all other forms of art, graffiti is just that, art, and it should be accepted as that by more people throughout the world.

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From the Street to Art Galleries: How Graffiti Became a Legitimate Art Form. (2020, Nov 21). Retrieved from

From the Street to Art Galleries: How Graffiti Became a Legitimate Art Form

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