Skip to main content

History of Street Art, Graffiti & Urban Art

Here you can read a brief history of street art in all its forms, from the pioneers of graffiti to the incredible urban art and wall murals that are popping up all over the world.


How far back do you want to go?  We can talk about prehistoric man painting on walls and how that is the beginning of graffiti but it wasn’t.  It was the beginning of art.  Man has needed to express himself since then and since then we’ve been writing, drawing, splashing on walls but it wasn’t until the 20th century that graffiti was really born.  Soldiers in World War Two would paint images like the Kilroy Was Here symbol or more offensive ones for fellow soldiers or the enemy.  Later in the 1960’s and 70’s this developed into wall murals mainly inspired by the hippie or flower power movement.  It wasn’t until the later 70’s and early 1980’s that graffiti really hit it’s stride.



Street Art & Stencil Art


When most people think of “street art,” they conjure crude images of graffiti – provocative and uncompromising. And it’s understandable, due to its close associations with gang culture, used to vandalize public property and essentially mark the gang’s territory. But times have changed. Today, graffiti art has become a respected new art form, a unique aesthetic with very few restrictions or rules.

So just how did street art originate? Let’s start with the term “graffiti” itself. The word actually derives from the Italian word “graffito,” which translates as “scratch.” During the prehistoric era, man would essentially “scratch” images onto cave walls. During the Roman Empire, warriors would “scratch” images on the walls of the buildings in their conquered cities. During World War II, both the Nazis and anti-Nazi groups used graffiti as a popular propaganda medium.

Many speculate that it was in fact, during World War II that the use of graffiti began its radical shift to a lower art form. Many began using graffiti for tagging or for vandalism, writing derogatory names and slander in public areas. Gang culture thrived, and members began marking public property with gang names, tags and titles.

Soon after, the art form improved, and graffiti moved out of the insular gang culture and into popular culture. Young artists found relief in the new medium as it offered a relevant, creative new way to express themselves. Because street art wasn’t part of an academic institution, there were no rules or boundaries. The artists had poetic license and absolute freedom to create their own unique style and form.

While many now regard street art as a legitimate new art form, others still see it as pure vandalism. In fact, in most countries, it is still illegal—hence the reason it is often referred to as “underground art.” Artists will create their works at night, hiding from the authorities. Many street artists have gone as far as to keep their identities anonymous, using pseudonyms in lieu of their names.

One such artist went by the name “Cornbread.” This man (or woman), was widely heralded as the “father of modern graffiti,” starting his trend back in the 1960s. Some of his more well-known works have included writing his name on an elephant at the Philadelphia zoo, and on the Jackson 5’s private jet.

Another artist went by the name “Cool Disco Dan,” and his work was mainly seen around the Washington, D.C. area. His trademark move was a unique rendering of his pseudonym that was quite prevalent along the route of the Washington Metro Red Line.

Probably the most well-known artist is “Banksy,” This man has gone on to not only achieve wide acclaim for his street art, but for his paintings, books, and films. Banksy infuses his work with social and political commentary, often employing a satirical wit and dark humor to make his point. His trademark stenciling technique has inspired many copy-cats, yet none have proven to have such original content or technical fluency as Banksy himself. Banksy’s work has become so popular that his alias is practically a household name. His works have popped up around the world: Australia, the United States, France, Spain, and even Palestine.

The art world has transitioned into a new realm of aesthetic freedom and unrestricted style. The general public has become more tolerant and even more supportive of graffiti art, and there have even been exhibits and galleries dedicated to the form. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles recently organized an exhibit celebrating street art on walls, subways and buses. The exhibit attracted a great deal of attention and praise from the public, thus inspiring other institutions and organizations to act on the same accord. The prestigious “Born in the Streets” exhibit was held at the Foundation Center in Paris, celebrating street art in Europe.

International recognition has only served to increase the popularity and support of street art, encouraging and inspiring an entirely new wave of artists. Of course, some still reject street art, but whether or not you can appreciate this art, it’s indisputable that many of these men and women are groundbreaking artists in the modern art world.

Mr Pilgrim