Developing a classification of graffiti styles may seem a daunting task. Graffiti developed over several decades but this relatively short time span when compared to other art forms does not seem to affect the richness of their stylistic expressions. History of graffiti goes back to Roman times, but these first graffiti scribbled on Roman houses were not created with any aesthetic idea behind them. In the 20th century graffiti are considered an urban art form, but not by everyone. From the first widespread appearance in New York subway to buildings and walls around the city, graffiti had bad reputation that often provoked negative actions by the officials. Some of the early graffiti masters were even incarcerated and persecuted for their work, which was pronounced as vandalism by political elites.
From initial struggles to perhaps the most prevalent art form, graffiti developed in different styles following the initial dominant forms of tagging and throw-ups. Tags and throw-ups are the most basic forms of graffiti, which are the writings of the names of graffiti creatives in highly stylized letters. Throw- ups are slightly more complicated than tags and include the use of more colors. Some of the first taggers in New York were TAKI 183 and SNAKE-I. Over time graffiti developed into more complex representations that surpass the lettering and include figurative and abstract compositions. The quality of such images and their critical edge raised the importance of graffiti, and influenced their transition from streets to studios and galleries. Many of contemporary graffiti creatives now operate in both fields – they are still active on the streets, but the art market is now open for their works as well. Banksy, Lushsax, Shepard Fairey, and even the old-school taggers such as SNAKE-I now present and sell their works in galleries and auctions.
From simple scribbled names on the walls, graffiti are today done in numerous styles. Some of them such as stickers and hardcore graffiti may not formulate a style per se, but are part of the street art scene. Stickers are created in studios or any other place where street creatives operate and are later applied on walls, while hardcore style is a slightly edgier form of tagging, and is described as a violent vandal form of tagging or throw-up.
Scroll down to learn more about graffiti styles and to see some representative examples of each style.
Editors’ Tip: Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis
This book presents a classification system for graffiti styles that reflects the expertise of graffiti writers and the work of art historian Erwin Panofsky. Based on Panofsky’s theories of iconographical analysis, the classification model is designed to identify the style of a graffiti piece by distinguishing certain visual characteristics. The classification system also demonstrates the relevance of Panofsky’s theories of iconographical analysis to the provision of access to non-representational or abstract images. The result is a novel paradigm for Panofsky’s theories that challenges the assumptions of traditional models. This innovative book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn more about graffiti and for information professionals concerned with both the practical and intellectual issues surrounding image access.
Featured images: Several, Phat2, Nadib Bandi, Deter – EP-222 Mural, Geneva. Image via nadib-bandi.com; Kurar – Stencil in Clermont, France, 2013. Image via fatcap.com; Wholecar. Image via pintrest.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
Old School - From Subway to the World
Old School refers to styles developed in the 1970s and 80s at the beginning of graffiti art. They are basic tag and throw-up graffiti that have been widely present in New York’s subway system at first. Later they emerged from this underground cradle to take over the city and initiate the burgeoning of this art form. SNAKE-I, TAKI 183, KIKO and DESA were among the first taggers in New York whose works swamped the subway system of the city.
Featured image: TAKI 183 – Metro tag, New York. Image via wikiart.org
Wildstyle - Difficult to Read but Attractive to Look at
This style may be hard to decipher, but is visually equally, or even more engaging than others. Many consider it the queen discipline of the New York graffiti. The convoluted and interlocked letters, arrows, spikes and other decorative elements merge into one another making it difficult to discern what has been written. The complex pattern of letters and other forms creates dynamic abstract images where letters can only be detected by professionals.
Featured image: Piece by Wand, San Francisco, 2013. Image via fatcap.com
Bubble - Rounding up of Tags and Throw-ups
The name of this style gives much apropos the style’s aesthetics. The rounding of letters in classical throw-ups was the initial phase that led to the development of bubble style. The letters are round, circular and often overlapping partially one another, creating an image that seems to expand and bubble-up in a way. Bubble graffiti can be done in two colors, where letters are sprayed in one color, and later outlined with another, creating a contrast, or multiple colors can be applied for a more exuberant effect.
Featured image: Swarm’s Graffiti in Engesvang, Denmark, 2010. Image via fatcap.com
Brush - Creating Painterly Results
Relatively quick to execute once the initial design is settled, brush style stands for the use of brush or paint rollers which create a smooth final effect. Brush graffiti are devoid of unnecessary lines and petty details, but sometimes, brushes may be used for the execution of fine points, which creates a more painterly result. In the example we selected to illustrate this style, graffiti artist Zilda made a reminiscence of Renaissance art on a wall in Naples.
Featured image: Zilda’s piece in Naples, Italy, 2014. Image via fatcap.com
Abstract - Following Historical Precursors
In abstract style the main goal is not readability, but the visual excellence of each piece. There is no message or writing that addresses the viewers. Instead, the emphasis in on the combination of visual elements that creates dynamic and balanced pieces. Following in steps of the painterly and sculptural abstraction developed in the 20th century, abstract graffiti similarly represent intricate formal arrangements, where color, shape, lines and organization of compositions are of the foremost importance.
Featured image: Zard – Mural in San Diego, 2012, detail. Image via fatcap.com
Blockbuster - Blocky Letters and Large Spaces
Blockbuster style stands for large murals made of sprayed letters that are done quickly, and sometimes with the use of paint rollers. The goal of blockbuster graffiti is to cover a large space in short amount of time. Two groups are distinguished within blockbuster style. The first is block graffiti. The use of large square and rectangular letters distinguish this style, while the second group – wholecar – stands for sprayed art that covers whole trains, from left to right and from top to bottom.
Featured image: Wholecar. Image via pintrest.com
Fat Cap - Spraying the Widest Lines
Fat cap is a name for a special nozzle invented for graffiti art. The nozzle is put on a can of spray paint, and was invented in the late 1960s by graffiti artist Supercool. It allows a wider stream of spray to come out of the can, creating the largest lines. It is particularly used for tags, throw-ups and fillings, which are, due to the width of lines, defined as a special stylistic group named fat cap.
Featured image: Sanck’s Tag in Aulnay-Sous-Bois, France, 2012. Image via fatcap.com
Stencil - From Graffiti Style to a Worldwide Subculture
Perhaps the most popular style at the moment, stencil stands for graffiti style where shapes made of cardboard, paper or other materials are used for reproduction of images. The desired forms are cut out of these materials and applied with spray paint or roll-on paint on the walls and other surfaces. The use of stencils makes replication of images easy, and this also contributes to the popularity of this style, which has in recent years grow into a worldwide subculture. Some of the most recognizable names of stencil art are Above, Banksy, Blek le Rat, Vhils, and Shepard Fairey.
Featured image: Kurar – Stencil in Clermont, France, 2013. Image via fatcap.com
Cartoon - Surreal Worlds of Graffiti Comics
Cartoon characters, superheroes from comics or surreal motifs define the style widely known as cartoon. The style combines figures and motifs either taken from popular culture or creatives invent their own cartoon figures. Creating a surreal world of cartoon characters is the mission of Cof, an urban artist from Argentina, who we picked to illustrate this style. His inspiration came from the 1980s Argentinian publication Fierro. Cof was inspired by the marvelous illustrations and stories in this periodical, which prompted him to create his own cartoon worlds on the walls of Buenos Aires.
Featured image: Cof – Joining Forces, Buenos Aires, 2012. Image via buenostairesstreetart.com
3D - Adding New Dimension to Graffiti
As the name suggests, 3D graffiti create illusion of the third dimension in represented images. Besides the walls, making 3D graffiti on pavements and roads is also popular. Landscapes, crevices that seem to appear in urban textures, figures and other forms that seem to pop-up on the middle of sidewalks make this style particularly popular. Some of the creatives known for the masterful use of this style are Edgar Mueller, Julian Beever and Kurt Wenner.