Just like any other subculture, graffiti and street art have their own specific language and terms, with hundreds of words and phrases used to describe different graffiti fonts, styles and aspects. As it is the case with other jargons or colloquialisms, some phrases and words used in the world of graffiti are region-specific and they vary in different cities and countries.
Today, we take a look at ten most commonly used graffiti slang words. We have described the origins of each term and its current application to the graffiti culture.
Graffiti term ‘angel’ is most commonly used when referring to a famous or highly respected graffiti artist who has passed away. Graffiti writers who admire ‘angels’ tag their names with floating halos, make tribute pieces with their faces or write tags with the dates of their birth and death. Featured is the photograph of Banksy’s ‘angel’, a tribute mural he did in the memory of graffiti writer Ozone who was tragically killed by a moving train. It was painted on the same wall on which Banksy and Ozone had a small artistic dispute when Ozone painted over one of Banksy’s pieces.
‘King’ (or ‘queen’ for female writers) is a graffiti writer who is especially respected among other writers. Some people refer to different writers as kings of different graffiti styles, and the term is regionally subjective. Self-declared kings often incorporate crowns into their pieces but other writers tend to slash them out if they have not gained that rank in their eyes. Typically a writer can only become a king if another king has called him a king. Featured photograph is of a graffiti painted by Team Robbo on the piece of the London wall, which was the battle ground in a graffiti war waged between King Robbo and Banksy.
‘Married couple’ is an older subway term, originated from New York City and used to describe two subway cars which are permanently coupled, identified by their consecutive numbers and the shared single air compressor and electrical generator between them. In graffiti world, the term ‘married couple’ refers to two simultaneous train cars painted next to each other with a single painting evenly spread across both cars. Some graffiti artists cleverly twist the term by connecting the two paintings across the gap between the two cars, often in a humoristic or obvious way, in order to emphasize the marriage.
‘Heaven spot’, or ‘heaven’ in short, is a graffiti term which refers to dare devil graffiti pieces that are painted in places that are hard to reach, such as rooftops, overpasses and freeway signs, thus making them hard to remove. Heaven spot pieces often pose dangerous challenges for graffiti writers to execute, but because of that, they increase an artist’s notoriety. The term ‘heaven spot’ also encompasses a double meaning, as writing on dangerous locations may lead to accidents and result in artist’s death, thus going to heaven, or ‘hitting up the heavens’.
The graffiti term ‘piece’, short of masterpiece, is used to describe a large, complex, time-consuming and labor-intensive graffiti painting, usually painted by skilled and experienced writers. It is generally agreed that a painting must have at least three colors to be considered a piece, but ‘pieces’ often incorporate color transitions, shadows and three-dimensional effects. The word ‘piece’ is also used as a verb meaning ‘to write’. Featured photograph is of a wonderful RISK piece he painted in Sheffield, UK, which sadly does not exist anymore as the disused building it was painted on was demolished to make place for a new housing project.
Tag is the most basic and the most prevalent form of graffiti. It is usually written with marker or spray paint and in one color, which is sharply contrasted with its background. Tag is a stylized personal signature and contains graffiti writer’s name, also known as a moniker. Graffiti writers often tag their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork. Since the beginning of tagging in the mid twentieth century, individual graffiti scenes have developed very different forms of tagging that are unique to specific regions. The word ‘tag’ is also very widely used as a verb meaning ‘to sign’, even in other, non-graffiti related types of occasions.
Back to Back
The term ‘back to back’ refers to graffiti that is painted all the way across a wall, from end to end. Similar to ‘back to back’ graffiti, trains sometimes receive ‘end to end’ paintings, often abbreviated as ‘e2e’, when a train car has been painted along its entire length. ‘End to end’ graffiti were used to be called ‘window-downs’, but this is an older expression that is fading from popularity. ‘Back to back’ is the graffiti term also widely used to describe ‘throw-up’ graffiti that are painted one after another.
‘Black book’, also called ‘piece book’, is a graffiti writers’ sketch book in which they draw and plan out potential graffiti works, but it can also be a book featuring a collection of tags written by other graffiti writers. Graffiti writers use their black books to perfect their style and save their ideas for possible later execution in public spaces. Quality black book, made of thick pages so the ink does not run, is a must have for any graffiti artist, and can be bought for a fair price at art supply stores. As it can be used as material evidence in cases asking “is graffiti art or vandalism“, the writers carefully guard their black books from the possible seizure by the police and city authorities.
‘Throw-up’ or ‘throwie’ is a widely referenced graffiti term, most commonly used to describe tag-like drawings of bubble letters designed for quick execution (we all know why), and usually consisting of artist’s name and only two colors. More strictly, subway art definition describes it as an outlined name painted quickly with only one layer of spraypaint, even though many consider it to be bubble letters of any sort. Featured image is of the famous Panic Room by Tilt, meticulously painted throw-up intervention he did in the Au Vieux Panier hotel in Marseille, France. Another famous and highly representative throw-up graffiti artist is a New York City street art legend Cope2.
The term ‘whole train’ is quite self-explanatory. It is used to describe train cars which have been completely covered in graffiti, from the first to the last car of the train composition. Being an extremely demanding artistic intervention, whole train painting demands a group effort and it is usually executed by multiple artists or graffiti crews. As in any other group activities, the diversity of styles employed by different artists yields wonderful results, and it is one of the most respected forms of graffiti art as it involves patient, time limited work and represents a great risk of getting caught by the police.