How to Become a Graffiti Artist

Graffiti is often considered a modern form of art that sprung from the hip hop movement of the 70s. This is erroneous though; it has existed since the ancient times and originally referred to words or art scribbled into monuments and structures, later developing into the form of graffiti art that we know today.

While it is often seen as an illegal form of street art, graffiti has been widely commercialized and used in marketing, public art, design and other industries. It is true, however, that becoming a paid graffiti artist and making a living by practicing it as a career, might be a challenge. There is still a lot of controversy against hiring graffiti artists, and there is also quite a bit of competition when it comes to paid gigs within the industry.

This being said, with hard work and talent, anything can be achieved. There is definitely a niche market out there for professional graffiti artists, both in terms of working on commissioned projects or to sell pieces as fine art. Take a look at this infographic for some more information on graffiti art, and check out stories from our experts for some inspiration on how to make a living within the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Solomon Hawk Sahlein (ELMS ONE)

Sector Seventeen

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • Solomon Hawk Sahlein (ELMS ONE)
  • Boise, ID
  • 10
  • Self-employed
  • @elmstatus

Understanding My Career Path

  • In 2003, I started tagging illegally. This sparked my interest in art more generally.
  • A year later, I painted my first piece in Freak Alley, a downtown alley with some legal sections of wall. This was the first graffiti style piece done there, and I continue to do a piece there at least once a year.
  • In 2005, I painted my first commission for YMCA Youth Center (Boise, ID) and started Sector Seventeen as an umbrella for all commission work in conjunction with artists MAWK ONE and BLANK ONE.
  • I lived in Vancouver, BC and was exposed to many different applications of graffiti-inspired art, as well as more developed traditional graffiti writers. Then I went back to Boise.
  • In 2012, I was selected with MAWK ONE as a Boise City Department of Arts and History artist on contract. This helped to solidify legitimacy for prospective clients. That same year I quit my day job to pursue art full-time.
  • In 2014, I officially filed for Sector Seventeen, LLC.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
What you need in this field is a very strong sense of history in the culture, which I don’t believe is taught in many formal programs. I personally don’t think it detracts from the work if you have a formal education or not, but just because you have a degree doesn’t mean your work will be engaging.

Practice
Just be a graffiti artist; get your hands dirty and put in work. You will certainly suck to begin with, and you have to acknowledge that. Spray paint takes a long time to get used to, and even making letters look good isn’t as easy as it seems (especially under pressure). Start very basic and slowly work your way up to fancy colors and intricate lettering. There is no such thing as too much practice.

Erik Wahl

Graffiti Artist & Entrepreneur

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • Erik Wahl
  • San Diego, CA
  • 13
  • Self-employed
  • @erikwahl

Understanding My Career Path

  • I first was a student.
  • Then I was a suit.
  • Then I became an artist.
  • Then I became a thought leader on the corporate lecture circuit. I am now labeled as a graffiti artist who is hired to teach fortune 500 companies how to be more creative. I educate professionals about the psychology of performance and how to think like an artist but act like an entrepreneur –how to innovate and create disruptive strategies. I am a catalyst to help others to think differently and work smarter instead of just simply working harder. I am formally educated in business, which is extremely practical in understanding and translating these ideas.

Recommended Organizations

I would not join any professional organizations but rather audit as many random professional organizations as possible to understand how people think. Once you understand what the consumer wants it will help you shape your art to amplify it to scale.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
Education is a sensitive subject because every education is different. A poor formal education can be far more disabling than it is “enabling”; however, I encourage formal education as a modality to understand how to run a business, make a living and ultimately translate creativity to scale. The people who like education the least are usually the people who need it the most.

Art is not a career
It is important to understand that Graffiti is not a career. It is a form of expression. Art is not a career –it is a vehicle by which to awaken the masses. Individual forms of artistic expression can happen on canvas, on stage or in the business environment. Art is a verb. A way of interacting with the world around us.I therefore, would encourage thoughtful, intentional and purposeful application. Be provocative with a purpose.

Sebastien “Mr.D” Boileau

Eyeful Art Murals and Designs

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • Sebastien “Mr.D” Boileau
  • Houston, TX
  • 20+
  • Self-employed
  • @MrD_1987

Understanding My Career Path

  • I began writing Graffiti in Paris back in 1987.
  • 2 years later I got my first paid commission.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, I was a prolific Graffiti Artist in France and many other countries. At the same time, in the 1990s, I attended and graduated from college in France for business and marketing.
  • In 1995, I held my first contemporary art show exhibition.
  • In 1998, I moved permanently to the USA, and 2 years later launched Eyeful Art Mural and Designs.
  • I have produced hundreds of commissioned art pieces. I have also produced many murals in the streets of Houston, Miami, France along with a group and as a solo artist for art exhibitions in museum, galleries and pop-up events.
  • Last year, I painted the largest mural in Houston’s history, at nearly 10,000 square feet. The mural has won several awards. I was also chosen by Red Bull to show work at Scope Art Fair during Art Basel Miami, and I became the brand ambassador and sponsored artist for Liquitex paint USA.
  • This year many projects are in the pipeline (University of Houston downtown large murals, The Zoo of Houston “Gorilla project”, 2 solo art shows in Miami and New York, and a huge outdoor abstract painting project in Houston…Stay tuned.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
Formal education is a plus, but “Street cred” is necessary in this industry. You have to pay your dues; the same way the tattoo industry works and others; apprenticeship of some sort is key!

Be prepared for hardships
You must do it for the love of it first. Some form of fame and financial success is a consequence. Professional artistry is a very tough industry where many apply, and very few make it to a professional level. The cliché of the “starving artist” does exist and is real.

Get a mentor
Find a positive artist who can mentor you. Look for guidance with other artists or art groups. Stay focused and patient, but be passionate. It is a very challenging career, which requires more than artistic talent; you must know how to market yourself, have some business sense and be hard working. Hard work beats talent, ALWAYS. If you have both, then you will succeed, and if one is missing, you may not.

Make your way up from the bottom
To get started, art classes may be available or find an established mural company or graffiti/street art organization and apply. Be willing to start at the bottom of the ladder. You will learn from other artists. Most important is to practice; in your own garage, or bedroom, or your grandmother’s back yard –just practice to find your style. When I hire artists and assistants, I pay more attention to their personality and willingness to learn than what they can draw and paint.

Be nice
This is a competitive field. Be on time; be ready to work; take pride in what you do, but keep the ego down. No matter how good of an artist you are, there are 10 other guys who want your job and who are as good as you are, so be nice and keep up the good work! You are only as good as your last project, and no one wants to work with difficult people. A great attitude goes a long way!

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Graffiti Artist?


It is unlikely that you will find a degree in Graffiti Arts. This might be part of the Fine Arts degree portfolios in the near future, but today, it is still mainly viewed as a street art. So how do you learn without tagging illegally? Some recreation centers offer spaces for graffiti artists to learn. There are city programs available in some locations, while you can also join private classes specifically focused on graffiti. A great way is to find a mentor who can teach you the ins-and-outs of the industry.

Of course, you do still have the option of pursuing a college degree. As mentioned earlier, it won’t title you in Graffiti Arts, but you can obtain a BFA, which will still open your horizons to art styles and forms. Even if you choose to take classic art courses, it doesn’t mean you cannot practice graffiti art as your career. They will be beneficial to developing your style and technique and training your eye within the arts. There are also schools that are more flexible than others when it comes to allowing students to explore different styles in-studio, so you should looks for programs that will allow you the freedom to choose your focus and style.

On the other hand, it is not an easy industry to make a living from, so a college degree in a different discipline might be a good option to get a day job and focus your efforts on developing your graffiti career without worrying about income.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A GRAFFITI ARTIST?

We have chosen schools based in cities with a strong presence of graffiti art and a market for artists in the field, so there is no surprise that these colleges are in New York City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

  • University of California—Los Angeles
    The UCLA Department of Art offers students BFA and MFA level studies. Students at the bachelor level may choose courses in painting and drawing, photography, sculpture, ceramics, art theory, as well as new genres, which could be a great option for aspiring graffiti artists. Also, only 17 students are allowed to enroll per studio section. In-state students pay $13,641 per academic year, while out-of-state tuition is $37,665.
  • Columbia University
    Located in New York City, the Columbia University School of the Arts allows students to take both undergraduate and graduate level studies in visual arts. For undergrads, the program is designed so the student can specialize in an area of interest, or a combination, with a strong focus on personal vision, while the MFA is inter-disciplinary. MFA tuition is $53,484 per year.
  • City University of New York
    Also in New York City, CUNY Hunter College has a wide range of programs in the arts, including art history, studio art, combined media, as well as BFA and MFA level studies. Students in bachelor level studies may do an exchange in France or the Netherlands, while those pursuing master’s level studies have the option of exchanging in Germany, France, the Netherlands or Scotland. Tuition per credit for state residents is $245 and $510 for out-of-state.
  • Temple University
    The Tyler School of Art at the Temple University in Philadelphia has a variety of art-related degrees including visual arts, general art, and art history among others. Students may pursue majors or minors in any of the degrees offered. Full-time undergraduate tuition for Pennsylvania residents is estimated at $19,276, while non-residents pay $30,816.
  • School of Visual Arts
    Another New York City based school, the School of Visual Arts, has BFA and MFA level studies, as well as a number of diplomas and certifications for those looking to study the arts. Currently, full-time tuition stands at $17,500 per semester.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

This is a tricky one. Like all art professions, those who commission your work will want to see a portfolio. Since Graffiti is still not completely commercialized, it might sometimes prove difficult to build one legally. Your best bet is to volunteer on projects; get work through your mentors; or build a portfolio on your own time.

You might also want to participate in community projects, as well as get to know other graffiti artists who might have more experience, and therefore, more connections. Networking will be essential to landing paid gigs, so look for local groups and organizations, or just individuals on Twitter and Instagram. Also, build your own online presence, which will allow you to publish your work for free and hopefully create a following interested in your work.