What Is Urban Art?

The term “urban art” refers to a diverse range of art forms that have been grouped together because they were created in urban areas, depict city life, or make a statement about urban issues. Graffiti began as spray-painting on the sides of buildings, bridges, and other structures, and was widely considered vandalism many. Urban art has evolved from its humble, controversial, and often illegal beginnings into a multi-media art form that includes everything from simple graffiti to publicly commissioned large-scale murals and sculptures.

Spray-painting words, symbols, and images on walls began as a way for urban artists to make public statements, artistic expressions, or, in the case of gangs, claim territory. Public opinion on graffiti was sharply divided and remains highly controversial as graffiti artists permanently defaced public property in the name of art. Many people who considered graffiti to be vandalism and a nuisance organized anti-graffiti campaigns. Graffiti supporters were often drawn to the high quality of artistic expression and the thrill of knowing that if caught, the artist would face legal consequences.

Some urban artists have achieved worldwide notoriety and, in some cases, infamy as a result of their prolific output and distinct style. They frequently use street names that are related to their preferred types of media, subject matter, or distinctive style to conceal their identities and avoid legal detection. To cash in on their success, many well-known urban artists have branched out into more legitimate artistic endeavors, such as painting on more traditional canvas media or creating sellable sculptures. Some well-known urban artists’ works have been rescued from buildings and sold.

Many street artists have reacted to the negative perception of urban art as vandalism creating urban art with less permanent or temporary materials. Posters, stickers, and LED art are all less destructive methods of creating art in public spaces. Their topics frequently revolve around various aspects of street life. 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, meaning can be subjective or nonexistent.

There are a growing number of organizations attempting to legitimize and protect urban art in its various forms. Some cities are commissioning urban artists to paint large-scale community murals or sculptural installations on the blank sides of buildings to serve as a focal point and to honor the city’s history and heritage. Others hold sidewalk chalk art contests as a way for residents to temporarily decorate walkways during city festivals.