Graffiti vs. Street Art

What’s the difference? There’s no easy answer. Or rather, almost everybody has an easy answer, but they’re all a little different.

For some, graffiti has to be illegal. For others, it has to be letter-based. Others say it has to come out of a spray can. Still others say graffiti, whatever it is, has grit while street art is pretty and bland. The taxonomy gets more intricate from there: What if a business owner commissions some old-school, NYC-style spray paint lettering, and then another artist illegally slaps a provocative, wheat-pasted poster across the street? Which is closer to graffiti?

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Specswizard (Michael Hall), a highly respected graffiti writer, comic book artist and musician who started painting graffiti in 1982, isn’t having it.

“Art is art,” he said. “Who knows what to put where or what to call everything? I’ll let other people argue about what’s street art and what’s graffiti. I’m not that interested.”

Where it goes

Graffiti has a few basic rules about placement — which, of course, not everybody obeys. But some areas (churches, houses, schools) are generally considered off-limits for self-respecting graffiti writers. “Some people think that if graffiti got a green light, people would just paint other people’s houses,” said longtime graffiti artist Graves (Desmond Hansen). “That’s not how it would happen.”

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And artists generally don’t go over murals or other people’s work — unless they’re trying to insult the artist or get famous quickly by stirring up controversy.

What to look for

Looking at graffiti isn’t that different than looking at anything else in the art world — with a few twists. Generally, artists say they’re looking for work with a strong foundation (letter forms, basics of hand style), confident composition and use of color, originality and style.

Strong choices don’t necessarily mean brash choices. “Never underestimate the power of neutral colors,” said 179 (Angelina Villalobos), a large-scale muralist who got her start with street graffiti. “I think of it in terms of basketball — neutral colors are the assist to bright colors.”

But graffiti has its unique criteria: placement, risk and working with obstacles. During a visit to Dozer’s Warehouse on Beacon Hill, Dozer (Crick Lont) pointed to two pieces painted on a wall that had electrical boxes and utility tubing. For each, the thing to notice was the piece itself — the obstacles melted right into it — and the crispness of the lines.

A piece at Dozer’s Warehouse on Beacon Hill shows the artist’s skills, painting over obstacles (electrical boxes, wiring) so they melt into the image. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A piece at Dozer’s Warehouse on Beacon Hill shows the artist’s skills, painting over obstacles (electrical boxes, wiring) so they melt into the image. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“You can see the time and experience with the can,” Dozer said. Then he pointed at another piece nearby, where the wall’s obstacles immediately popped out. “That’s a young buck, still wild, still a little sloppy,” he said. “That’s OK. He’s working.”

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(Dozer’s Warehouse is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic.)

Then there’s risk: Graffiti at scary heights that look impossible to get to, or in such a well-trafficked area you don’t know how the artists didn’t get caught.

The artist Baso Fibonacci, who got his start in tagging, says that’s one place where graffiti and street art diverge.

“Graffiti is more a martial-art thing than a fine-art thing,” he said. “You’ve got to be a ninja to get away with it.”

Looking for more graffiti/street art? This summer through Sept. 5, Schack Art Center (2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett; schack.org) hosts “American Graffiti,” featuring work by graffiti writers from around the country on large canvases. On Aug. 29, 206 Zulu (206zulu.org) hosts it 10th annual Off the Wall graffiti battle with live painting and cash prizes. Due to coronavirus concerns, public attendance is discouraged this year, but Off the Wall will be livestreamed on facebook.com/206universal.