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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

Graffiti Art is an influential part of Contemporary art, and has enabled many under represented communities to become more involved in the development of western art.

Introduction to Graffiti Art

When we think about Graffiti art, most will remember images of urban communities with spray painted artworks filling run down sections of a city. In truth, Graffiti art has been around for thousands of years, but is today most closely linked to the work of artists like Banksy, Basquiat and more. New York has been the hub for this movement, with developments here later spreading all across the world.

Graffiti art's importance stretches way beyond just visual art, as it has helped to draw attention to a number of social causes which aim to improve the lives of local people. In more recent times, a number of these artists have gone from the streets into formal art galleries, as graffiti art enters the mainstream. Artists now have to strike the right balance between profiting from this success, whilst also retaining the integrity of the original movement, and its connection to supporting the forgotten voices of society.

List of Famous Graffiti Artists

We have collated a list below of famous Graffiti artists, summarising their careers and artistic style within short biographies. There is also a wider discussion of Graffiti art as a whole, as we track the movement's origins, as well as its spread into other nations, outside of the western world. The list underlines the influence of Americans within this artistic style, as well as specifically the city of New York, where many of the artists can trace their roots.

Graffiti art is just one strand of Street art or Wall Art, which themselves link into the overall umbrella of modern art which spans from around the 1950s and 1960s up to the present day. Many new alternatives have since appeared, including Digital Art, though they may also become influences on Graffiti art itself, into the future. The use of walls and buildings in recent years has become something of a revolution, when canvases had dominated fine art for many centuries.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat combined elements of western and Haitian art to become one of the most important Graffiti artists. He also became a celebrity figure, speaking for those without a voice in society and promoting causes which other artists may not have been aware of. Basquiat had a unique approach to figurative art and also used lettering in his paintings in order to add depth to the themes behind his paintings. Few artists held as much integrity as this one, who went through difficulties in his life, but was able to achieve success due to his extraordinary creative drive, energy, and willingness to bring different ideas and influences together. His success helped to open the doors to other Graffiti artists, and bridge the gap beteen formal art galleries and street artists.


Banksy is an anonymous British Graffiti artist who has combined stencil art with politics, activism and humor to deliver some of the most famous Graffiti paintings in history. His works now retain extraordinary values, and he has been embraced by street culture and formal art circles alike. He would typically deliver his carefully crafted, clever designs in a reduced palette in order to make their application relatively straight forward, but also to maximise their impact to those walking past. Much excitement is generated online and in the printed media whenever he releases a new work, and no-one can predict when or where the next artwork will appear. Banksy is also important in underlining how the New York Graffiti art scene would spread and influence artists in many other nations, including fellow western nations such as the UK.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring was a Pop artist who produced charming scenes of abstract art using relatively simple lines which adorned the streets of New York. Eventually he would achieve success in galleries, and became part of the mainstream, just as with other major figures listed in this article. Haring is remembered for his figures that were full of life and energy, as well as other shapes such as hearts which would be repeated between different paintings, helping to create a form of visual language which could immediately be identified as from the hand of this artist. He also became involved in activitism, representing a number of causes across his career.

Lady Pink

Lady Pink is an extraordinary Ecuadorian-American graffiti and mural artist who continues to shape the direction of this movement, whilst also being an important female contributor to this male-dominated art style. Her best known paintings first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, but she continues to innovate and impress with her creative ideas and impressive technical ability. Her success is outlined by the number of high profile art galleries and museums who both display her work, but also have run exhibitions of art her over the past few decades.

Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey is a highly respected American contemporary artist who rose to fame in the 1990s and continues to impress today. His oeuvre in varied, including street art, stenciling and illustration, as well as logo design. He also produced a sticker campaign which helped to bring him to the attention of the public. He was initially educated in art, design and illustration which helped him to maximise his undoubted talent, and his creativity continues to drive him into a variety of artistic expression. His notable works include Andre the Giant Has a Posse, Obey Giant, Rock the Vote and OBEY Clothing, though his best known piece is probably Hope, which included a portrait of Barack Obama.

Berlin Graffiti Art and some of its Biggest Names

BLU, El Bocho, Herakut and ROA are some of the graffiti artists and related contemporary creatives who can be found within Berlin, though some are not native Germans. Berlin itself has attracted many artists from elsewhere in Europe as it continues to grow its impressive reputation for modern art. Many buildings have been re-purposed into galleries and event locations, often in very creative ways. Street art has been embraced by the locals, who better appreciate its artistic qualities and the inherent freedom of expression found within it, where as other cities would be less welcoming. The atmosphere of Berlin more generally is embracing of youth culture, and supportive.

Graffiti Art in Paris, the French Capital

Paris' street art scene continues to evolve, and is now one of the most significant within Europe. The 1980s saw the initial signs of Graffiti art here, under the influence of developments in the US which came about in the preceding decades. Le Marais is one district area connected to street art, and of late there has been a more welcoming attitude towards graffiti within the city. Seth (Julien Malland), C215 (Christian Guémy), and Lek & Sowat (Les Maîtres du Monde) are some of the names believed to have contributed to street art within Paris.

Sao Paulo's Best Graffiti Artists

Sao Paulo has a diverse and rich culture which includes a number of contemporary artists. OsGemeos (Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo) are global art figures who came from this city, and have helped draw our attention to the other creative talent to be found here. OsGemeos deliver large murals often depicting cartoon-like figures in a fun and thought-provoking style which has translated well into other parts of the world. Latin America has a strong history within the arts, and a number of other cities within the region have also been leaders in the evolution of graffiti art in recent years, having been influenced by the original developments across the US.

Tokyo and Japanese Graffiti Art

AIKO, Dragon76, Usugrow, MADSAKI and Lady Aiko are just some of the artists to have produced work within Tokyo, continuing Japan's strong reputation for artistic excellence. In line with the organised nature of culture in Tokyo, many new areas have been designated specifically for graffiti artists, keeping them away from vandalising private property, which some business owners and local residents might not appreciate. This development has also occured in many other nations, where local authorities attempt to use graffiti art as a means of encouraging the creative freedom of young people, but without damaging existing architecture.

Graffiti Artists in Cape Town, South Africa

Some of the artists believed to have worked in and around Cape Town include Faith47 (Faith XLVII), Falko One, Mak1One (Mak1) and Roaad (Rayaan Cassiem). Graffiti art was common within South African street art, with many local, cultural influences being infused alongside elements of New York graffiti, which had encouraged this movement in the first place. It is believed that locally the neighborhoods of Woodstock and Salt River offer some of the city's best street art, and also where many artists will congregate to exchange ideas.

The Origins of Graffiti Art: Tracing Back to Ancient Times

If one connects graffiti to wall art of all techniques, then it can reasonably be claimed to have first appeared within ancient civilizations. The Egyptians, for example, would decorate buildings with simple, abstract depictions of Pharaoahs, some of which have survived to the present day. These impressive artworks would also tell us much about the rituals of each civilization, providing something of a visual documentary of their culture for later generations to discover.

Within ancient Greece and Rome we would really start to see art which more resembled modern graffiti, with political messages being daubed on buildings, helping us to understand the balance of society at that time. Some of this would continue up to the Renaissance era, but it was only in the 20th century that graffiti became a major, and respected, section of mainstream art. Indeed, that transition took a number of decades, with the art form initially viewed merely as vandalism.

The Rise of Graffiti Culture in New York City: A Historical Perspective

The New York City subway system served as the canvas to countless Graffiti artists in the earliest inception of this modern movement. Trains would be daubed with art, as local communities expressed their artistic talents, and spoke out on social issues at the same time. This type of art was easy to reject, but slowly over time the critics would begin to better understand the New York urban art movements, and eventually afford them the type of respect that they deserved.

New York walls around the city, particularly in disaffected areas, would also start to receive the same graffiti treatment and social campaigns would start to rely on this type of art to support their various causes. Slowly, but surely, formal art galleries would manage to identify some of these anonymous artists, encouraging them to bring their talents into the middle-class environments. Whilst this move would lose some of the original integrity behind the work, the added exposure helped to push some of the causes that they represented, including fighting discrimination and giving more people a voice in society.

Graffiti as a Form of Urban Expression: Social and Political Contexts

Frustrations were rife in some of the deprived parts of major US cities, but some felt there was no avenue for change. The simple action of painting these feelings onto the walls of your community could have a calming impact by itself, and once others started to view these messages, so people could start to come together to push for improvements in their everyday lives. For this reason, politics would become a major factor within graffiti art, though typically the views would be expressed around specific social issues, such as discrimination, local policing tactics, and the lean would normally be towards socialism.

The display of messages such as this could also work in a similar manner to propaganda, where the local community would be consistently exposed to these views on a daily basis, helping to solidify support within these areas. Some established artists would also use the style of graffiti and street art in mainstream advertising in order to draw favor with members of these communities, as they would be more appealing than with traditional, formal styles of poster art. Political campaigners would then begin to tailor their literature to the different communities that they might be seeking to attract, rather than sticking with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Evolution of Graffiti Styles: From Tags to Wildstyle and Beyond

Tags are a key element in Graffiti art, and helped to create a series of anonymous celebrities, particularly within New York. Tagging quickly spread as a technique, with some using it to claim their large murals, whilst others would simply add their tag around as a means to enforcing their own identity on different parts of the city. Some would even travel elsewhere, just to add their signature tag to new places. Over time, creativity added new elements to Graffiti art, including throw-ups and fill-ins, blockbuster and bubble styles, plus also wildstyles. Recently there has also been a rise in the use of three dimensional lettering.

Graffiti Art in Global Cities: A Comparative History

New York City has always been the main hub for Graffiti art, and is where the movement's initial roots can be traced. Over time, this highly fashionable, contemporary style of art has travelled globally, and taken residence in a number of other large cities. Invariably, whilst the artistic techniques have remained much the same, the messages being delivered have varied considerably, matching the particular political and social issues of each region. Other notable cities to become involved in Graffiti art include Berlin and Paris, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Cape Town. Tokyo is particularly surprising because of Japan's relatively formal culture, but the country does also have an impressive record in art, as well as related movements such as cartoon and film.

Graffiti Art in Pop Culture: Its Influence on Fashion, Media, and Advertising

Anything art form that carries the slightest suggestion of counter-culture will today attract fashion designers, advertisers and film makers in droves. This is the case with graffiti art, and spray painted images can regularly be found in youth-related clothing, including t-shirts and baseball caps. Many will take the entire urban scene as inspiration for clothing design, and advertisers have quickly learnt that non-urban young people will be particularly attracted to this style of art. Graffiti art can now be ordered as canvas prints too, very much establishing itself within the mainstream today.

Women in Graffiti Art: Breaking Barriers and Challenging Norms

The rise of feminism has encouraged a number of female artists to join the Graffiti movement, when previously they may have been put off by its male-dominant focus. Times have slowly changed in that regard, and their inclusion has led to new ideas and expressions appearing on US walls and buildings, better reflecting the needs and wishes of women. A number of issues have appeared such as equality for women, and campaigns against mistreatment, which previously might not have been covered by male artists. Whislt struggling against societal barriers initially, there are now more and more women artists involved in the movement, and the rise of virtual reality may help increase this evolution over coming years.

Graffiti Art Educational Initiatives: Empowering Youth and Fostering Creativity

Graffiti Art has been used as a means to connecting to the urban youth in a way that many other methods would not work. Local mentors can attract dis-affected people from the fringes of society with art forms such as this which are informal, relaxed and allow creativity. They can then help to build relationships with these young people and provide additional resources to them, which they may not previously have been interested in, or aware of. By working directly in these communities, many will feel more at home, than if attempting to attract them to formal art galleries. The young people can then feel empowered and more confident in themselves, and start to work independently soon after these experiences.

Preserving Graffiti Art: Challenges and Success Stories

Graffiti Art remains amongst the hardest for preservation, because of its inclination to be attached to private property, items of transport and so on. This has made it very difficult to protect items which may have been added to the side of apartment blocks. As such, most Graffiti art will be lost over time, and it is only a small, highly valuable, section of it which will be deemed worthy of saviour. The initial stages will involve identifying a valuable piece, and then protecting it from others, before then eventually moving it to an established gallery, normally somewhere in the location of the original work. With large sums being linked to some of the pieces, authorities have to move quickly before members of the public might try to acquire the piece themselves, often through highly destructive means.

The Future of Graffiti Art: Technology and Innovation

Many new opportunities exist with regards Graffiti art, through the use of technology and innovation. Augmented Reality, for example, will bring opportunities to produce art on virtual walls, where no illegality will occur, and artists can work as creatively as they like. These items can easily be shared online, though some would argue that this approach might lack the integrity of the original movement. That said, for younger and non-urban graffiti artists, this might be a great alternative way of gaining attention, but Augmented Reality is a relatively new and evolving technology, whose future is hard to predict.

The most likely scenario will be that physical and virtual worlds combine, with one possibility being Graffiti exhibitions are based in the communities in which the work is produced, but that they include virtal graffiti walls, giving all visitors the chance to take part themselves, but without damaging the environment of these communities. Museum experiences are constantly striving to freshen up their offering, and these types of technology will become more widespread over time. There will be no environmental imapact, and the fundamental ideas and techniques behind each work can be replicated through virtual reality.