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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

Here we examine the history of Street Art and uncover some of the world's most famous street artists.

Introduction to Street Art

Technically speaking, a street artist is anyone who produced art outdoors, specifically in public places. These works cannot be hidden away in a private residence, for example, and are intended to be for anyone and everyone to enjoy. As a result, many of the themes found in Street Art are particularly mainstream, but can also potentially have an impact on society by speaking to a wide section of the population.

Most think of Graffiti artists when discussing street art, but actually its scope is much wider than that, spreading to Street Performance, portrait artists who often work in popular tourist destinations, muralists and craftsmen. The guises of these artists also changes across cultures, though international cities such as New York, London and Paris are always guaranteed to have a large number of street artists dotted about the more populated areas.

List of Famous Street Artists

We have collated a list below of famous street artists, with a bias towards western nations. In truth, every country and culture will have their own lists, and there will be a wealth of talent within that. The only nations that might not have their own scenes will tend to be authoritarian regimes, where such art would likely lead to severe punishment, thus severely limited freedom of expression in those localities.

By contrast, western nations will tend to allow artists to express themselves more openly, and in some cases special areas will be designated for muralists to work, to avoid public property being damaged without permission. Street art has also become much more widely accepted, indeed respected, thanks to the achievements of some of its most highly skilled exponents. Initially, it was often seen as mere vandalism, but times and opinions have evolved since then.


Banksy is still regarded as something of an enigma within the art industry. He remains the most famous street artist in history, and has used the media as a means to prompt discussion over a number of issues that are of importance to the artist. He works mainly with stencils, sprayed into seemingly-random locations which suddenly achieve worldwide fame once this artist has visited. His works hold extraordinary values, and efforts are made to preserve and protect his work for the local community to enjoy.

The success of Banksy has been down to his simple but cleverly crafted images which point to social issues. He often used humor as a means to getting across his point, and his left-leaning political values are entirely in keeping with the general nature of the street art scene. His desire for anonymity has added to the mystery and excitement around this artist, and he continues to touch on the important issues of our time, including policing, corruption and discrimination, helping him to build up something of a cult status.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat fused together a number of different artistic influences to become the leading graffiti artist of his era. Basquiat respected the Renaissance masters, whilst focusing on modern day themes within an abstract, expressive manner. He was one of the earliest street artists to achieve acceptance within mainstream art circles, and opened the doors to many other younger artists. He used influences of Africa and Haiti in his work, and created symbols that could be re-used across his paintings, such as crowns and skulls.

Basquiat will always be considered as a young man because of his early demise, but in this short life he was able to achieve a lot. He experienced much more hard ship than most successful artists, and helped to bring issues of the poor into the art industry and give a voice to the unrepresented. He remains perhaps the most famous graffiti artist of them all, and a leading Afro-Caribbean artist.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring rose to fame in the 1980s and was another key name in the graffiti art scene, with him achieving success in New York, which was leading the global modern art scene at the time. His work touched on themes such as gay rights and nuclear disarmament, and Haring was typical of the socialist values which swept through most of the street art scene. He achieved success with an upbeat style, and regular use of line art to create charming figures in a cartoon-like manner.

Haring's bright tones are clear shapes seemed suitable for contemporary art galleries, and he was able to make the transition from the streets as his reputation soared. For many, he represents their first entry into street art, and immediately helped to convince the public of the talents to be found within this art movement. His style remains instantly recognisable, producing something of a brand, with an adaptable use of line figures, hearts and other symbols.

Lady Pink

Lady Pink was a rare female addition to the male dominated world of street art. Although there were many women involved in other 20th century art movements, relatively few could be found in this particular genre. Lady Pink's role was therefore significant in that regard, but most importantly of all, was her unique artistic style which included lettering, characters and stories within her art. She would also raise social issues in her work that were more related to women, covering a gap which male artists tended to ignore. She has also worked hard to give opportunities to other young artists through a number of projects.

Tracy 168

Tracy 168 appeared at the start of the rise of the New York City graffiti movement and is therefore an important contributor to Street Art more generally. Hip-hop culture influenced her work, and soon she would start to leave her tag around the New York underground, having been brought up in this culturally vibrant city. Michael Tracy, to use his birthname, build up a style which was unique within New York graffiti, including complex patterns and the suggestion of three dimensions through carefully planned shading. His success is underlined by the inclusion of his work in a number of prestigious art galleries, marking his arrival into the mainstream of decades of Street Art.

Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey is most famous for his Hope poster, which was a political work based on the politician, Barack Obama. Some have suggested that it helped to attract more voters to the Democrat Party and is a famous image within the history of political art and propaganda. Fairey combined street art with the fundamentals of graphic design, to produce impactful work which could be used for commercial purposes. Fairey did not only produce the Hope poster, but also held strong political opinions of his own and was a passionate activist for a number of social causes, just as with many artists featured in this list.


Darryl McCray, aka Cornbread, achieved success in the 1960s in Philadelphia, and is viewed by many as being one of the pioneers of modern graffiti. He worked mainly on walls and trains around his local community and slowly started to build an artistic reputation within this counter-culture. To sign his work was brave at the time, but tagging became the norm for all street artists, though often under a pseudonym.

The artist's rebellious nature, as suggested through his work, gained traction with those who felt unhappy with the status quo of their city and sought change. His work could represent their voice, and slowly over time his name received national interest, and his ideas spread to other American cities.

History of Street Art: From Graffiti to Global Phenomenon

Street art itself dates back to ancient civilizations, but the term today tends to refer to a series of art movements which first appeared in the form of graffiti art in the 1960s. It was from this counter-culture that many outside of the traditional art world started to get involved, displaying untapped talents and creativity which eventually would find avenues of expression.

By the 1970s we would see the rise of Hip Hop culture and this would connect closely with mural art which would decorate run down areas of major cities, allowing local people to express their concerns around poverty, social issues and also just to produce aesthetic displays. Pop Art was also popular at around this time, embracing commercial activities and brands with art itself, and some of this would influence the direction of street artists who found Pop Art to be more accessible than traditional art movements such as the European Renaissance, Baroque or even Impressionism.

The 1980s and 1990s saw many of these American-based ideas starting to spread abroad, with notable artists appearing in Brazil, UK, France and Germany. The style of Street Art was fashionable with younger audiences, and its counter-culture narrative also appealed to their views around society and politics. New techniques would start to appear as more artists joined in, including stencil art, sticker art, as well as more professionally-presented artworks. Commercial galleries also now realised the potential of these artists, who could bring profits with the right level of representation and promotion, and from this point onwards the relative naive purity of street art may have been lost, but its impact would spread significantly.

Today we have found technology to have increased its strength, allowing young people to view street art on a global level, whilst video capabilities on mobile phones has enabled street performers and other live acts to quickly build followings, wherever they perform. Activism has also beecome a major part of the movement today, with young people being particularly involved in various campaigns which can be promoted through street art.

Street Art vs. Graffiti: Understanding the Difference

What is the difference between Graffiti art and Street Art? Well, the former is part of the latter. Street Art initially began with Graffiti art in the 1960s, but since then has added a wide range of additional art forms to create a much wider movement.

Street art today includes muralists, stencil artists, spray painters, dancers and impersonators, in-person portrait sketchers, and much more besides. Some would also include outdoor installations and sculptures as evidence of street art as well. Graffiti art specifically would often be produced without permission, hence its label as being anti-authority, where as street art more generally will often be carried out under agreed licences, or with temporary events or structures.

Street art can often be performed in front of small audiences, sometimes rolling audiences of tourists. Graffiti is left to be seen almost by accident, attempting to provoke thought on specific topics related to the area in which it was added, or the community to which the artist is connected. Street art generally is for aesthetic enjoyment, without quite the same deeper meaning.

Exploring Different Street Art Techniques and Styles

As Street Art continues to evolve, new techniques and styles continue to emerge. Yarn bombing is one of the newest, allowing crafts to adorn trees and elements of city life, bringing color and fun to otherwise grey and mundane parts of the community. Nature itself is being lost, in the view of many, across these sprawling metropolises, and street art such as this, with no real footprint on the environment, allow artists to improve an area and also help communities to come together. Whilst the techniques are completely different to graffiti art, the intentions can often be similar.

Besides this use of craft, which also helps to improve mental health for those producing the work, other techniques besides Graffiti art include wheatpasting, stickers, three dimensional art and pixel art. Video games, music and contemporary film have influenced some of these ideas, and the bias is always towards the interests of younger generations, often from marginalised communities, giving everything a level of integrity, which corporations are now trying to cash in on, through sponsorship and partnerships.

The Impact of Street Art on Urban Culture

Street art has had a major impact on urban culture. Firstly, a number of marginalised communities have enjoyed greater opportunities as a result of artistic success, without having to follow the traditional, institutional routes normally followed in western art. There has also been great positivity from urban areas being regenerated, bringing investment and jobs into parts of the city that had previously been reglected. There also has been new voices and opinions in the art world, helping communities to have a voice.

Art followers visiting cities have also changed their behavior. Previously, their art tours would include a procession of galleries and museums, but today they may well include other parts of the city alongside, bringing contemporary art into their trip. Street art exhibitions are now fairly common, and bring all types of society into run down areas, bringing investment and a better cohesion, to the benefit of each city as a whole.

Street Art as a Form of Activism and Social Commentary

Social issues around inequality, human rights, environmental concerns and discrimination have regularly been touched on by street artists. The impact of these messages can be greatily increased by providing accessible art that all can experience. Promoting working-class issues within middle-class galleries and museums would rarely have quite the same impact, and street art could therefore help to build support around a particular cause. Additionally, collaborative work can help to bring communities together and open their eyes up to what is possible when they all band together.

Street art can also work outside of traditional streams of information and the media, allowing alternative views to be delivered and under represented communities to be heard. This brought a level of integrity to street art, and made some consider it a danger to the status quo. Some desired to commercialise it in order to gain more control over these voices, polluting ideas with money just as always been the case within art and creative industries.

Street Art Festivals and Events: Celebrating Creativity in Public Spaces

Street art exhbitions have helped many diverse communities to come together. They also help artists to collaborate together, and perhaps share resources which may not be available to everybody. Community centres can often help in this regard, and continued local support can help areas to improve, bringing jobs and opportunities that did not exist previously. Additionally, some parts of society hold great potential that has previously gone to waste, but exhibitions such as this can start off many on a path to success, as they realise what might be possible within their own life, once they come across successful individuals who may have come from similar roots to them.

Street Art and Tourism: Discovering Cities through Art

Art tourism is a profitable business, which is partly why nations make such strong efforts to hold on to art within their own territories. Legislation aims to allow national governments and charities to purchase privately-owned art, rather than to allow it to be sold abroad. This ensures the protection of national art collections, which in turn enables galleries and museums to continue to attract large audiences to major cities, as part of their overall cultural offerings. Street Art has started to allow an extra avenue of interest to appear for those uninterested in traditional art. They might not wish to spend their leisure time in art gallery, but could happily visit a street art exhibition, in which music, film and art can come together in a more inclusive display.

Blogging and social media helps to draw attention to smaller events, whilst the most famous street artists could eventually make their own way into these more formal galleries as their careers take off. Visitors will often have only a short period in each city, and so the opportunity to see a wealth of cultural items for free may appeal to them.

Conservation and Preservation of Street Art: Challenges and Solutions

As street art has started to achieve commercial success, it has become more important to conserve it for future generations. Its very nature as being based outdoors, and with free access to the public, has created many issues related to this, and vandalism and theft have been particularly problematic. Some street art designs have achieved such high valuations that criminals have gone to extraordinary lengths in order to take the installations away and sell them privately.

Artists and authorities have started to adapt to this situation, moving quickly to protect and preserve artworks, though in almost all cases they will be moved elsewhere for their protection. Banksy's paintings are the best example of this, though he continues to deliver a wide range of works, some of which are not related to street art and can be bought commercially from approved auction centres. With graffiti art being relatively new, it is hard to determine just how well these creations will last, and one can remember the issues related to Renaissance art, including frescoes which can fade quickly and require continual maintenance.

Future Trends in Street Art

Street Art has evolved considerably since the 1960s, but there appears much more room for growth in the coming decades. Much of this will be driven by the continued impact of new technology and the globalised nature of the art industry today. Museums and galleries will continue to embrace it more openly, bringing greater commercial opportunities to young people. More areas will be opened up for muralists too, in an attempt to avoid stifling creativity in some communities.

There maybe more innovation around where we find street art, and how it is delivered, as ideas such as graffiti art has now been around for many decades. Whilst it still feels fresh, perhaps new ideas will come in as alternatives in the future. With increased commercial opportunities, some more complex displays may be used to, perhaps even embracing virtual reality, in conjunction with corporate sponsorship. Quite how street art can evolve in this manner, but avoid losing its original integrity remains to be seen.