How Does Street Art Shape Cities?

In recent years, street art has become the spine that holds communities together, as well as an element that helps revive cities.

Apr 18, 2024By Mihaela Gutu, MA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and Literature

how does street art shape cities


Not only is street art a decorative element of a city, but it is also a medium artists use to raise awareness about social, political, and economic issues. Street artists help people see their cities from a different, more vibrant perspective. They bring communities together by inspiring them to contemplate the messages hidden beneath the colors. Furthermore, street artists can help in boosting a region’s tourism and economy. Their work sets the pathway toward street art tours and festivals, intercultural exchange, and business development.


The Misunderstanding of Street Art

Street Art in Australia, Chris Hopkins. Source: One Hour Out


Before discussing why street art is influential and how it can transform cities, we must outline what it is, as its concept is often misunderstood. The definition of street art would probably differ depending on who you ask. One would say that street art is simply any type of art found on the street that’s available to the public. In this case, we could say that both graffiti and public art (artwork that is usually supported by the government) represent street art. Other sources mention that the term street art is more restrictive regarding its intent.


This makes it a bit of a challenge for us to understand what street art actually refers to, which is why many art enthusiasts and artists use street art and graffiti interchangeably. However, the graffiti technique dates back to ancient times, whereas the term street art comes from the 20th century and refers to art that is thought to have evolved from defiant graffiti.


What Does Graffiti Stand For?

Pompeii Graffiti
Graffiti in Pompeii. Source: Art After Moses


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The original meaning of graffiti points to the ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii. Back then, graffiti artworks (which also included various forms and images and not just texts) were mostly carved on walls or created using coal or chalk. In the 1960s, the stencil graffiti technique appeared. It consisted of using paper or cardboard stencils onto which the design was cut out. Afterward, artists applied roll-on paint or spray paint across the stencil and the image/text appeared on the desired surface.


In recent years, the term graffiti has somehow changed its meaning. Graffiti is now considered vandalism. It typically refers to the inscriptions (or, as some call them, autographs) created in public spaces that represent a community or a group of artists. These inscriptions are usually illegible to the larger public, serving as a form of communication between graffiti artists. They usually choose places that are difficult to access. This increases the reputation of the artists—the less accessible the location, the better. As such, graffiti artists do not aim to improve communities or share thought-provoking messages.


What Does Street Art Stand For?

Grandparents by SMUG. Source: City of Melbourne official website


Street art, on the other hand, is defined as an image-based artwork rather than a text-based one and it is intended for the general public. Street art does not use subcultural codes. Instead, it implies creating inspiring images that anyone can understand and ponder upon. Street artists rely on spray paintings, posters, mosaic tiling, and yarn bombing.


The purpose of street art is to comment on various social, political, or economic aspects of life. Street artists share their gift of experiencing the public space differently with their audience. Although street art is often done illegally, many artists nowadays seek permission from building owners or take on commissions. Graffiti artists and street artists interact differently with each other. Whereas street artists are used to a certain degree of interaction with one another and do not perceive this as a negative aspect of their work, there’s a kind of hierarchy among graffiti artists. For example, beginner graffiti artists (known as toys) should not alter the works of experienced graffiti artists (known as kings).


Is Street Art the Same as Graffiti?

telmo miel street art
Street Art by Telmo Miel Surrounded by Graffiti, Rink Hof: Source: Straat Museum, Amsterdam


The clear distinction between graffiti and street art that we rely on today appeared during the 1970s and 1980s. But if we turn to the traditional meaning of graffiti. Is it still fair to guide ourselves by the above definitions and distinctions? Not really. Here’s why.


Let’s take, for instance, the works of Banksy, who is probably the world’s most famous street artist. If we were to judge his works by the definitions mentioned above, we would say Banksy falls into the category of street art. His works are image-based, they carry a certain message and are made for the public. Still, his works are often categorized as graffiti because they’re created using the stencil technique. Therefore, Banksy’s works are street art performed in the stencil graffiti technique.


In short, the term graffiti is much more extensive and can refer to many other than the illegal inscriptions artists use to communicate or simply traces of vandalism. The truth is that some street artworks are indeed graffiti. If a piece of art you see on the street is a mosaic made to send a message to the public, then it is definitely just street art, not graffiti.


Street Art Connects People

big raccoon bordalo street art
The Big Raccoon by Bordalo II. Source: Learn Portuguese in Lisbon Blog


Street art not only brings color to buildings and structures and alleviates the feeling of living in the urban jungle, but it also carries social, political, and economic meaning that invites its viewers to ponder upon what the artist is trying to convey. Since it is displayed in public, street art is an expression of equality, as it reinforces the idea that art should be accessible to everyone. It is through street art that one opens new pathways toward an authentic experience of the surrounding world. Street artists give meaning to an impersonal environment and strengthen the sense of community.


Through their bravery and openness, street artists help people connect with each other and, therefore, reinforce the spirit of the community. The city isn’t just a blank canvas artists paint on. It is a mixture of cultures and values, an amalgam of personalities and histories and these pieces of art bring all of this together.


Street Art Boosts Tourism and Supports Economy

Street Art Piece in London. Source: Babylon Tours


In recent years, street art has gained popularity and the public has started being more tolerant toward the medium. Street art does not know any language barriers, it is available to everyone and it offers a fresh perspective. Therefore, its role in boosting tourism has significantly increased. More and more people are looking for new ways to experience cities, cultures, and values. They are not only trying to catch a glimpse of the most popular tourist destinations but also trying to connect to the land, learn about local identities, and understand the community. As a result, cities rely on street art as a branding tool, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the day-to-day life of locals through guided street art tours. These tours also introduce new to tourists. Artists can turn dull neighborhoods into colorful, flourishing, thought-provoking spaces that invite visitors to come and look around.


Furthermore, some cities organize street art festivals, thus bringing even more tourists to the area and encouraging locals to immerse themselves in what artists have to say. Montreal’s MURAL Festival, for example, is quite famous and it brings the city many visitors. The Upfest festival that’s held in Bristol is another notable street art festival that gathers thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the works of roughly 400 artists.


Street Art and Intercultural Exchange

Street Art Piece by Eva Khatchadourian, Nîmes Tourism. Source: Nîmes Ville d’art et d’histoire website


Street art plays an important role in intercultural exchange. For example, there is an arts exchange program in Nîmes, France. The region is most renowned for its rich history that dates back to the Roman Empire. Its most famous tourist attractions include the Arena of Nîmes (a Roman amphitheater) and the Maison Carrée (an ancient Roman temple). But there’s also a lively street art scene here that helps the participants understand the city and its people better.


guntan mahn kloix street art
Mettre le feu à la poudrière! by Güntan and Mahn Kloix. Source: Nîmes Ville d’art et d’histoire website


One artwork is particularly interesting—a fresco piece made by Eva Khatchadourian. Another one called Mettre le feu à la poudrière! establishes a deep connection with the 2020 fires in Australia. It portrays a man’s hand that stretches toward an animal while holding a box of matches in the other hand, inviting people to reflect on how they are affecting the environment. These powerful messages not only move visitors but also build a stronger sense of community and encourage people to speak up and take action.


Cities With Amazing Street Art

Siqueiros: La Voz de la Gente!, Ian Robertson-Salt, 2012. Source: Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles


If you’re interested in discovering street art in different cities around the world, here are the places you will want to visit. The street art industry is now so extensive that you will probably spot at least some street art pieces in any major city you wander through, but these cities represent the biggest hubs of street art. For example, Los Angeles is at the top in terms of street art. Although the whole city is filled with notable artworks, the Arts District in the city center is a favorite among enthusiasts and artists.


berlin street art
Street Art in Berlin, Arsalan Mohammad, 2015. Source: Time Out


Berlin is also a true gem in terms of street art. You can learn about the city’s history not only through its architecture and landmarks but also through the vivid art that’s beautifully displayed on its buildings. One of the best places to enjoy the talent of local and international street artists is the East Side Gallery, which includes more than 100 murals. The most famous one is the My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.


Street Art Piece by Os Gemeos x Mark. Source: Street Art News


San Francisco is home to more than 1,000 pieces of street artwork. Most of them are located in the Mission District. This includes the Balmy Alley Murals and the collection along the 24th Street Corridor.


frida kahlo street art
Campos Jesses’ Frida Kahlo. Source: Turismo Buenos Aires


Buenos Aires is renowned for its street art collection, particularly because of the pieces’ sizes. You will find massive artworks in the city that will keep you engaged for hours. Additionally, the city’s collection includes works executed in different styles and techniques that convey political, cultural, and historical messages.


Street Art Piece by Celeste Mountjoy, Ian Laidlaw. Source: City of Melbourne official website


Melbourne is internationally praised for its street art diversity. The city is home to artworks created by the use of woodblocking, poster art, sticker art, and street installations, among others. If you are a street art enthusiast, you have probably heard about Australia’s Flash Forward program which aims to create a network of laneways through art. Forty artists are working on designing 40 laneways.


What Is the World’s Most Famous Street Art Piece?

girl with balloon banksy street art
Girl With Balloon by Banksy, Dominic Robinson. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The world’s most famous street artwork has to be Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. Needless to say, Banksy is himself the world’s most renowned street artist. This work depicts a young girl reaching out toward a heart-shaped balloon that’s floating away. The piece gained worldwide recognition particularly due to its inconclusive nature that allows multiple interpretations. Some see it as a portrayal of how short-lived happiness is, while others consider it a symbol of the loss of innocence.


My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love by Dmitri Vrubel. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Another famous piece you will probably hear any street art enthusiast talk about is Dmitri Vrubel’s My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love. It is a mural portraying Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev in a social fraternal kiss—a form of greeting used by socialist state leaders. The mural was inspired by a photograph taken in October 1979.

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By Mihaela GutuMA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and LiteratureMihaela is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She’s an avid reader of classic literature with a background in literary studies and literary translations. She is obsessed with language grammar and syntax, so spending hours dissecting sentences and texts is a pleasure for her. Mihaela grew up in a family full of artists. Although she pursued a career in literary arts, she’s also passionate about performing arts (particularly dance) and visual arts. In her free time, Mihaela plays with her cat Cappuccino, binge-watches TV series, rereads her favorite books for the tenth time, and spends time online learning new stuff.