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Learn the Basics of Graffiti Art

There are two different types of people in the world – someone who walks by graffiti art on an old billboard, on the side of a dilapidated building, or other public environment and thinks, "I sure hope they catch whoever did that, this type of thing is so disrespectful." Then there is someone else who walks by the same piece of art and thinks, "I wonder how the artist got up on the side of that highway overpass? That is so cool."  If you happen to fall into the latter category, and you can’t help but walk through a city street and see a canvas everywhere you look, then you just might be an ideal candidate for becoming a graffiti artist. 

Defined as "drawings, paintings, or other markings on surfaces in public places," graffiti art is a form of art that dates back centuries. Although many people think "graffiti art" only rose to prominence in the 1980s, it's actually a concept that has its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman societies. One could argue that it goes back even further to the days when cavemen were telling stories via paintings on walls. Though today's methods may be new (including spray paint and permanent markers), it's actually a medium founded on some of the oldest principles of art that have ever existed.

Though many people often associate graffiti artistry with breaking the law, this isn't nearly as true as one might believe. While it's true that graffiti can often be seen on public buildings, on private property, and even on the outside walls of train cars, this isn't always the case. For every gang that uses a spray paint "tag" to claim their territory in a major metropolitan city, there are ten people who truly love expressing themselves via graffiti as an art form who are not breaking the law in any way.

 The fact of the matter is that the legal distinction between "illegal graffiti" and "graffiti art" (or "street art" as it is sometimes called) can all be summed up in one simple little word –permission. If a graffiti artist spends hours creating a beautiful work of art on the side of a building they don't own and doesn't bother to write up an agreement with the appropriate people ahead of time, that will likely be considered vandalism or criminal mischief in a court of law. If that same artist gets in contact with the building owner, tells them what they want to do and writes up an agreement, suddenly they're expressing themselves in one of the purest forms of art that exists today.

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Learn Essential Techniques & Build Your Skills

A Formal Education May Provide Surprising Benefits

As with other types of artistic professions, higher education is not a necessary requirement for becoming a graffiti artist – although it is absolutely recommended for a number of important reasons. Most graffiti artists do seek out some form of postsecondary education in an effort to build their skills and develop a personal brand. A postsecondary education can also help graffiti artists become more comfortable with the use of spray paint and similar tools, all of which will be their main form of artistic expression moving forward.

If an artist chooses to enroll in a certificate or diploma program, he or she can expect to take classes in concepts of visual arts, fundamentals of drawing, introduction to computer graphics and basics of visual studies. An associate degree in art includes coursework in art history, introduction to ceramics, fundamentals of painting, and foundations of 3D art. Bachelor’s degree programs build on what is learned previously through classes or experience and may include classes in contemporary issues in art, typographic methods, advanced color and space, and methods for moving images.  

In addition to taking art classes covering a wide range of different techniques, all of which can play a role in the development of a graffiti artist's personal style, many educational institutions also cover the history of the medium itself. Though modern day graffiti art first became popular in the 1980s, it actually originated in the late 1960s in New York City and even called "New York Style" graffiti.  In fact, the concept of "tagging" also originated here.

Personal branding is important in graffiti art in particular, as the concept of "tagging" as a type of signature is quite popular. This is true in terms of perhaps the most famous graffiti artist working today – Banksy – an anonymous graffiti artist of unverified identity. Banksy has a unique visual style all his own and is someone who should be actively studied in an effort to learn and grow in the field. 

In lieu of a formal education, there are dozens of workshops, online classes, youth organizations, and graffiti artists’ blogs and websites where an aspiring graffiti artist can pick up tips and learn new techniques. However, the opportunity to internships available while in college cannot be overlooked.  Internships provide valuable experience, and give students a way to make contacts and create mentoring relationships.

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Build Your Brand

A Strong Portfolio Is Essential for Every Artist

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, graffiti artists fall under an umbrella category of "craft and fine artists" – also referred to as people who use a variety of different artistic materials and other techniques to create art, both for sale and for general exhibition. The key thing that they have in common is that they're creating art for an aesthetic value instead of a functional one – although in terms of graffiti art, in particular, is an idea that is very much up for debate.

There were 50,300 craft and other fine artists employed in the country throughout 2014 (though not all of them were graffiti artists and over half of them were self-employed). The job outlook in this area is expected to rise at a rate of two percent between 2014 and 2024, which is actually slower than the national average.

Professional graffiti artists can obtain gainful employment in a wide range of different areas depending on their interests. Many city officials, for example, employ professional graffiti artists in an effort to cover up or remove illicit art in public places. City officials actively seek out talented, popular artists to paint over lewd or otherwise illegal drawings with something that is much more acceptable for their towns, cities, and public places. 

Despite popular belief, it is entirely possible that a professional graffiti artist won't spend the majority of his or her time on the streets at all. Instead, they will find themselves in a traditional studio environment, much like other artistic professions like painters or sculptors. Most graffiti artists create art on legal canvases for sale or for exhibition and many profit from collectors and other hobbyists who take an active interest in the profession.

With a unique visual flair and a strong personal brand, it is also possible for a professional graffiti artist to be employed by an advertising agency to create engaging campaigns that strike a chord with younger audiences. Coca-Cola, MTV, and even software giant Microsoft are all examples of major companies with advertising campaigns that have heavily featured graffiti art in the past.

Beyond artistic talent, a graffiti artist, like all artists, must have a number of abilities and qualities to succeed in such a creative field, which include passion for art and for the graffiti art world specifically, the courage to take risks and grow in the field, an entrepreneurial attitude, focus, willingness to push themselves to learn new techniques and also learn from their mistakes, enthusiasm, flexibility, self-discipline, and natural talent.

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Additional Resources for Graffiti Artist

Graffiti Heart

Get to Know Our Experts

Solomon Hawk Sahlein (ELMS ONE)

  • Title:
    Founder
  • Company:
    Sector Seventeen
  • Where:
    Boise, ID
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Graffiti Artist & Entrepreneur
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    San Diego, CA
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Eyeful Art Murals and Designs
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Houston, TX
  • Experience:
    20+ years in the industry
  • 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!

    Graffiti Artist Infographic