Graffiti and street art (B2)

Vandalism or contemporary art? Find out more about where street art has come from and where it might be heading.


Do the preparation exercise first and then read the article. If you find it too difficult, try one of the lower levels. After reading, do the exercises to check your understanding.


Before you read the story, do this exercise. It will help you to understand some of the more difficult words.

A long history

People have been painting and writing on walls throughout history. In prehistoric times, people in Africa and Europe used to paint pictures of animals and people in caves. Graffiti has been found on buildings at ancient sites in Greece, Italy, Syria and Iraq. In the Roman town of Pompeii, archaeologists have found numerous examples of graffiti written in Latin. These include religious, political and romantic messages, and even some magic spells!

Modern times

In the late twentieth century, graffiti and street art became an international phenomenon. In the 1970s, young people in New York used pens to write their names, or 'tags', on walls around the city. One of the first 'taggers' was Demetrius, a teenager from a Greek family. Demetrius's tag was TAKI 183. TAKI was his nickname and 183 was the number of the street he lived on – 183rd Street. At first, he wrote his tag on walls in his neighbourhood. Then he started tagging in subway stations on the way to and from school. When the subway train stopped at a station, he would jump off, write his tag on the wall and then jump back on before the doors closed. Other teenagers noticed Demetrius's tag and started to write their own. Soon, New York's walls, buses and subway trains were covered with tags: Barbara 62, Joe 182 ...

Later on, some teenagers started writing tags with aerosol paints. Their tags were bigger, more colourful and took more time and imagination than the simple, pen-written tags. The trend spread and from the 1970s, aerosol paint graffiti became a common sight on trains, buses and walls in cities around the world. In the 1990s, graffiti continued but there was also an explosion in street art around the world. Some artists wanted to make political points and produced art that tried to make people think about war, inequality and discrimination. Other street artists were more concerned with producing beautiful, attractive work. In South America, many street artists went to work in poor areas adding colour, life and beauty to grey, city walls.

Art or vandalism?

Is graffiti art or vandalism? This depends on your point of view, but in many countries, writing or painting on public or private property is considered vandalism. Many street artists have been stopped by the police and some have had to pay fines.

Many city councils complain about the high cost of cleaning graffiti off buildings, buses and trains. In some areas, councils have tried to encourage artists not to paint randomly on walls by allowing them to work in designated areas. Taiwan is one such place and there are 'graffiti zones' where artists are free to paint and write on walls. In São Paulo in Brazil, the city council has even allowed some graffiti artists to paint on the city's subway trains.

And what does the art world think of graffiti and street art? Recently, there has been a growing recognition of its value as an art form. There have been major exhibitions of street art in galleries in Paris, London and Los Angeles. The American artist Elura Emerald organised a street art exhibition at a New York gallery in 2008. She defended street artists, saying 'artists who paint on the street are merely expressing themselves, not hurting anyone. They should be appreciated and celebrated'.

Who are the artists?

Most street artists are anonymous, but others have become globally famous. Here are three stars of the street art world:

  • Os Gêmeos are identical twin brothers from São Paulo. They paint everything from tags to huge, colourful pictures of people on the sides of buildings. Their work is often so big that they need cranes to help them work. In 2007, they covered the whole of a castle in Scotland with paint.
  • Blek le Rat started out painting rats on the walls of his home city, Paris. Nowadays, he tries to make people think about different social issues and problems. He paints pictures of homeless people in big cities to encourage residents to think about the problem of homelessness.
  • Faith47 is from Cape Town in South Africa. She paints big, colourful pictures of people and animals and likes to explore different locations. Her work is found on pavements, in empty factories and on abandoned cars. She likes the fact that most street art is temporary and will soon be removed by weather or cleaners from the city council. For her, this reflects how life is full of change with its cycle of endings and new beginnings.

Street art and the global village

It is impossible to know how street art will develop in the future but certain trends are emerging. While most street artists are young people who paint in their city or neighbourhood, more and more street artists are travelling and working around the globe. Other artists are using the internet to talk to each other and share photos of their work. Also, the art world is giving more recognition to street art as a legitimate art form. Although we don't know what will happen to street art in the future, we can be sure that it is here to stay!

Robin Newton


What do you think about graffiti and street art? Do you think is it vandalism or contemporary art?

Personal online tutoring
EnglishScore Tutors is the British Council’s one-to-one tutoring platform for 13- to 17-year-olds.


Submitted by Sofindra on Mon, 05/24/2021 - 07:54

For me, as a person who enjoy art, who like to draw, graffiti is art absolutely. It would be amazing, if there will be more graffiti on the streets. It seems to me that bright, funny and strange pictures can improve your mood. We should support street artists, because they unfortunately sometimes have problems with police. Let's show their works all over the world. Let's make our life brighter
Profile picture for user Kostantinus

Submitted by Kostantinus on Fri, 03/19/2021 - 06:21

This is very controversial question. If graffities are just someone's names or adresses written on the walls or in public places it is vandalism. In my hometown there are so many graffities like that. But they are not some beautiful colorful pictures, but just abusive words written in black color. It makes cities look awful.

Submitted by Malicetherabbit on Wed, 04/01/2020 - 18:26

To my mind graffiti is vandalism and art. In fact it depends where is tags the graffiti and what he looks like. If it just the name of someone tags on the wall of a house it's vandalism. I think that if someone tags on my house wall's, I will be angry. But when the graffiti is tags on a building wall's, and it's colorful with a beautiful draw, it's art (like in Paris)

Submitted by ikvsksmird on Tue, 03/31/2020 - 13:19

I like street art and i think its contemporary art.

Submitted by Robloxgamingchannel on Fri, 03/27/2020 - 12:58

I have done street art myself and would definitely call it art. Graffiti i the same thing ,but more available to smaller artists. And that's a shame, that we have these half buildings that no one has touched for years and it counts as vandalism to express yourself on them. I don't see enough vents that would support this activity and that's sad, because street art, telling from my own experience is one of the funnest way to let your imagination and style spark

Submitted by snipsnap on Fri, 03/27/2020 - 12:44

I think graffiti and street arts are very beautiful, because it is another style of an art. In the past, there were many graffiti painter, activities and more paintings on the walls. Now there are not so many works of art. Another reason why they dont do that too often is because they could get a fine. The world sees it as vandalism, I see it as contemporary art.

Submitted by Sofindra on Mon, 05/24/2021 - 07:59

Yes... It is sad that now the work of street artists can be seen less often

In reply to by snipsnap

Submitted by Palace on Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:17

graffiti in my opinion is very controversial type of art and a lot of people like it and see it as beautiful street art but others who don't know anything about it or where it came from or anything like that thinks its vandalism, in my opinion the people who are doing this type of street art should know that there are place if You spray paint something the quonsequences can really bad and people wont hesitate and probobaly will call the police so better do it at night time !

Submitted by GenericUsername on Wed, 03/25/2020 - 15:25

In my view quite a large amount of graffiti is without a doubt contemporary art. It makes bland, boring, textureless walls and buildings seem more alive, it gives a refreshing feeling in contrast to the staleness of everyday greyness seen all around us. Although, i do agree that the graffiti which very clearly is mindless and effortless doesn't hold much value at all, and leans more towards vandalism then art.

Submitted by springgirl18 on Wed, 03/25/2020 - 10:27

In my opinion, graffiti is not vandalism if they are created in places where they are allowed. There are people who in this way show their inner nature and talent making bleak places beautiful. Anyone can buy colors and draw something on the walls, but it must be for the right purpose to do it, otherwise all the buildings would be painted and it won't be called art anymore.

Submitted by NetomsNelaugalis on Tue, 03/24/2020 - 17:50

I think graffiti art can be beautiful but sadly in my country most of the graffiti you see isn't even art, it's vandalism. Of course, when I see graffiti that's considered art, I admire it.

Submitted by ErnestocheGuevara on Tue, 03/24/2020 - 09:21

I think its art, but only if the graffiti has a meaning. If it doesn’t mean anything ,then it’s vandalism.

Submitted by hamster119 on Tue, 03/24/2020 - 08:51

I think graffiti and street art gives the city or building some attention and texture. It can be vandalism if it has been drawn on, for example, some government build or at place where it will not be understood, then it could be vandalism.

Submitted by MartinsA on Tue, 03/24/2020 - 08:03

I think its vandalism.

Submitted by mazaissusurins on Mon, 03/23/2020 - 16:43

I think graffiti is an art form and some of us just don't understand it that well. Graffiti is a way to impress your feelings and just show everyone what you can do, because it's not vandalism (at least for me). Of course you could say that some of the graffiti works are controversial type of expressing your feeling about politics or economics, but if it's with a meaning as an art then it's beautiful and pretty amazing. That's just my thoughts and everyone of us thinks differently. :)

Submitted by Mimulis on Mon, 03/23/2020 - 13:26

I believe graffiti and street art counts as contemporary art as long as its done right, it really depends on how good the graffiti piece is. Anyone can buy a spray paint can and draw something on a wall but not everyone can do it right. Most of the time its kids spray painting writings on a wall or a building and ruining it but sometimes a talented artist comes and does a graffiti piece that adds color and character to a wall or building making it more unique and letting it stand out.

Submitted by yoda_warrior on Sat, 03/21/2020 - 10:27

I think graffitis are a special form of art, some of they are especially beautiful, but it's not very cool to do graffitis on a wall or on a house that isn't yours. A town will like happier with graffitis. So I think graffitis are art, but you mustn't tag everywhere.
English courses near you