Street Art vs. Signature Graffiti

Blu (Italy) and Os Gêmeos (Brazil)Lisbon, 2010  

Keith Haring. Houston St. and Bowery St., NYC. 1982

VHILS aka Alexandre Farto. Leake St, Cans Festival – London, 2008


Joe. Amsterdam (Street name unknown). 2011


Pone. Amsterdam (Specific Location Unknown). 2012


Rhyme. Amsterdam (Specific Location Unknown). 2009.


The urban landscape has come to be defined by the graffiti and street art that fills its walls. This interaction fosters the connection between the art and the city itself, allowing the art to define the city as a whole. Many recognize that a city’s’ graffiti and street art become part of its culture. But, while the art of a city fosters its culture, the men and women behind the art have a different motivation for doing the particular type of graffiti or street art that they do. Signature Graffiti- defined as signature writing, connects an artist to his or her city by allowing them to make their mark on something permanent, therefore giving the identity of the artist a semblance of permanence as well (Waclawek 8). Street art, however, serves a different purpose. Street art connects an artist to their city by provoking the emotions and thoughts of the residents, thus interacting with the city through its populous. Both forms of wall art allow artists to express themselves using a similar medium; however, street artists and graffiti artists are different due to the work they create, even if they share the paint can as their medium of choice.


Since graffiti’s inception in early 70’s Philadelphia, there have been countless taggers and writers who have graced the walls with their names. Graffiti has been referred to as a “youth movement” (Waclawek 10), but the youthfulness of the work is derived from the angst of the practice itself, not from the age of the taggers themselves. Though graffiti was “an art movement begun and sustained primarily by youth” (Waclawek 12), the times have slowly changed. Yes, graffiti- specifically signature graffiti- is still a largely youth-driven practice; however, as graffiti and street art become more highly accepted as an art form, many taggers continue to tag into their later years, despite lacking the youth that overshadowed the risks associated with tagging. For example, Rhyme, a tagger from Amsterdam, has been “writing (since) the early eighties and is still an active writer till this day” (Hodson). Signature graffiti is about one thing- being heard. Rhyme, and other artists who continue to tag, make graffiti for the purpose of proving to the world they exist.


This desire for recognition inspires many taggers to find something that makes them unique, in order to truly separate themselves from the countless taggers in the city streets. Joe, Pone, and Rhyme are all graffiti taggers from Amsterdam- the location of one of the most creative cultural revolutions in street art and graffiti. Amsterdam is famous for typography, reflected beautifully in the multitude of styles, colors, and artistic choices of its graffiti. Many of the more well-known street taggers are famous for their signature pieces instead of tags, which rise in recognition due to the location of the work, or the intricacy and creativity of the piece itself. Graffiti artist Joe Holbrook, who goes by his first name in his tags, uses a unique texture to paint his letters, creating an almost gooey, sticky signature. The dirty texture of his name reflects the nature of the city space he tends to prefer, while also aiding to create a grimy tone for the piece that is sharpened by the words “Fuck It” written underneath the work. His tags are always accompanied by figures seemingly stuck between the angelic and the devilish, possibly a reflection of Holbrooks internal struggle- and in turn, a reflection of himself. His self-described “dirty and dreamy” (Hodson) tags draw from the depths of the city; however, Joe’s work is still made quickly and illegally. Pone, or as he was previously known, Cat22, prefers bright colors and vivid designs to catapult his career, as he uses color gradients and ambiguous lettering to portray his signature. The colorful lettering is backed by a dripping, black background- evoking an idea of internal struggle similar to that of Joe, just portrayed differently. Rhyme is fairly simplistic in his tags, using a simple outline-then-fill-in system to quickly put out his work. Location is what makes his tags, however, as he has an affinity for “workman sheds,” as they “pop up in the city in the coolest spots” (Schonberger). The drive to take over all such sheds again points to the fuel for signature graffiti- the desire to be known. By tagging all of the sheds in the city, Rhyme forges the connection between himself and the coolest spots in the city of Amsterdam- slowly synonymizing his name with the adventure of finding interesting and unique spaces in the city. Many graffiti artists refer to “taking over their city,” but by tagging uniquely and memorably, Joe, Pone, and Rhyme have all engrained themselves into the fabric of the city, literally branding the material used to make the city itself. They use the city as inspiration, and brand the city to further their brand. Taggers become synonymous with the city, reflecting, and oftentimes creating the persona of the urban environments in which they live.


Defined as a “post-graffiti art practice” (Waclawek 12), street art, on the other hand, allows for artists to communicate, through the walls of the city, their thoughts and emotions. Street art can take on personal or political tones, and while the definition of signature graffiti puts constraints on its subject matter, street art is not limited in what it depicts. The three works of street art chosen all are different in style, color scheme, subject matter, and meaning. Each piece, however, is meticulously worked out, and deftly crafted. This is different from the throw-ups and tags done by Pone, Rhyme, and Joe, who worked quickly in fear of being caught. Street art, even if done illegally, is always planned and revised, making it a crafted and thought-out response to the wall space it occupies.


The piece done by Blu and Os Gemeos was created in response to the BP oil spill in 2010. Painted on one of the walls in the city of Lisbon, the piece depicts a caucasian man in a suit, presumably an oil bigwig due to the crown on his head that contains many famous oil companies, such as BP, Shell, and Chevron. The man is taking a straw to the entire world, alluding to the idea that he is sucking the world dry. A piece such as this, which makes a strong political statement, is why street art continues to flourish. Unlike tags, which are fairly personal in their meaning and intention, street art fueled by current events and political opinions connect to a large audience by utilizing the most viewed canvas in the city they live- the city itself. This piece was relevant in its inception, and is still relevant today- making it worth the entire building that it uses as a canvas. In its size and subject matter- Blu and Os Gemeos make a bold statement, but a necessary one. In many ways, this is the purpose of street art. Making bold statements in the public eye oftentimes fuels change. There is nowhere more public than the walls of a city- making street art a perfect medium to discuss issues people are passionate about. Keith Haring gained international recognition for his work, which focused on AIDS and LGBTQ rights- two issues with which Haring struggled with during his lifetime.His work at Houston St. and Bowery in New York City portrays his style well- simplistic, energetic, and iconographic. As people walk by the mural, Haring’s use of vivid color attracts their attention, which Haring then captures through his interesting style. His repeated images across multiple works have allowed him to form a rapport with his audience, fostering a connection with his viewers due to a similar struggle. The iconographic yet energetic people seem restless, plucking at the cord of a familiar string- street art’s underlying responsibility as a vessel for change. VHILS, aka Alexandre Farto, was the hand behind the final street art piece depicted- A mural at Leake st., in London, depicting two people, one older man and one younger woman, looking away from each other. The piece is made in situ- a form of art in which the piece is dependent entirely on the site of its creation- creating a strong connection between the art and the city it inhabits. The piece is carved out of the wall, using the various layers of the wall itself to create shape and form. The piece seems to represent the passage of time, and the decay of the city along with it. The mural points out the realities of time and decay- while also proving to be a call to action for a revitalization of the neighborhood in which it inhabits (Manco).


Signature Graffiti and Street Art are similar. They share a medium, a substrate, while also allowing the inhabitants of a city to express their personalities and emotions. However, the main differences between the two stem from the intentions of the work and the interactions it inspires. Graffiti is inspired by a youthful angst and desire to be recognized. As a result, signature graffiti uses the city as inspiration- oftentimes the location of the tag is the most important component. The tag itself interacts with the city more than its inhabitants- making it a medium more suited for self-expression and personal exploration than political change. Street art, however, provides a public medium of expression for many of the world’s most vocal personalities- connecting the public with the artwork more than a signature tag. One does not trump another, they simply achieve different things- Tagging comes to define a city, whereas street art defines change.


Works Cited

Hodson, Luke. “From London to Amsterdam’s Underground Scene.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Manco, Tristan. “The 10 Best Street Art Works – in Pictures.” The 10 Best … Guardian News and Media, 06 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Schonberger, Nick. “The 25 Greatest Amsterdam Graffiti WritersOase.” Complex. Complex Magazine, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Waclawek, Anna. Graffiti and Street Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.

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