Skip to main content

Graffiti Artist

Insider Info

Graffiti has come a long way since it appeared in its contemporary form on buildings and subway walls in the '60s. Then, it was an underground political movement. Now, many artists participate in organized tours throughout Europe and North America.

While the art form is commonly known as "graffiti," these spray-paint artists actually call themselves writers. An explanation lies in the roots of the word "graffiti," which comes from the Greek term "graphein," or to write.

Despite its growing acceptance as an art form, graffiti artists still face a tough fight. They have to find a place to practice their art -- which is usually designed for huge spaces.

Many graffiti artists prefer to go by one name or an alias.

They're also up against their reputation as criminals. Much of the public still sees their work as destruction of public property.

Many people argue that even if it's displayed in a gallery or a museum, graffiti art encourages young people to illegally spray-paint their own art on other people's property.

Some people simply "tag," or paint their signatures all over town. They undermine the objectives of true graffiti artists. While taggers have given the true artists a bad name, the main idea of graffiti is to celebrate a love of the art through murals that everyone can enjoy.

Alison, a graffiti artist, says, "If you're just out to tag, you're going to get caught. But if you're out to actually learn about what's going on with other people and learn how to use the spray-paint can, then you have to devote a lot more time and effort to it."

Much of the work by the late Keith Haring was done originally as graffiti. Haring painted a huge mural on the Berlin Wall before it came down. He loved to see his work displayed inside subway stops.

Professional graffiti artist Man One says he started out as more of a vandal than an artist. However, he attributes his early behavior to youthful boredom. He has become very serious about his career as a graffiti artist.

"To me, it's always been an art form. Whether it is a tag or whether it was a big piece. But what changed, I think, it just -- well, you grow up, you know?" he says.

"When you're a 16 year old, you have a lot of free time on your hands. And then I got into college and I started taking my artwork more seriously. That all changes everything," he explains.

However, many artists remain underground, writing under aliases like Snor, Klee and Ko2. Much to the chagrin of municipal authorities, these writers want to see their art on the move. Urban transportation systems are a favorite controversial canvas.

More and more graffiti artists are going "legitimate." Graffiti galleries have recently sprung up in Seattle, Minneapolis and other cities. And art groups across North America have begun to provide grants and other funding.

Graffiti has established a strong presence on the Internet.

According to @149st, a Web site devoted to the preservation of graffiti history, the Internet has similar qualities to a subway system: it allows communication across boundaries.

While cyber writers don't get the excitement of hissing paint cans and lurking security guards, the Internet reaches a much wider audience than a train.

For Man One, the Internet means more exposure to clients. "It's a really great marketing tool," he says.

The Internet also allows communication with other artists. "I just had friends here from France last week and we did a big [project] together," he says.

"We've maintained contact through the Internet. If I know they're coming, over the Internet we can exchange sketches so we know what we're doing when they get here."

Graffiti often portrays urban life. Most artists use words as well as pictures to give their work impact. And most graffiti writers put their "tag" (signature) somewhere prominent in the picture.

The main tool of the trade is spray paint. The art is usually a large collage or image that can take up the entire side of a building.

Earning a living as an artist of any kind is difficult. Graffiti artists are no exception. Most have other jobs that pay the bills. Some artists' enjoyment of graffiti has helped them find work in graphic design and Web site design.

Man One estimates that there are only about 25 pro graffiti artists in the U.S. He adds that if you want to make money at this, you've got to diversify.

"I freelance, so I do all kinds of things. I do everything from canvases and exhibitions to murals. I do the whole spectrum of artwork," he says.

"I keep busy that way because just doing murals won't keep you busy enough. You've got to branch out and do other things."

Getting Started

Getting started can be tough. Most building owners don't want you spraying designs -- no matter how eye-catching and artistic -- on their property. In most places, illegal graffiti is considered a serious crime.

The best way to start is with large canvases or mural boards, which can be expensive. One hard-backed 26-foot by 10-foot canvas can cost more than $250.

But sketching out ideas for drawings is much easier. Most graffiti artists keep small blank-paged sketchbooks on hand at all times, just in case inspiration strikes. Many artists trade their books, called piece books, as a way of sharing their art and spreading their message.

When the time comes to paint, spray paint can be bought for about $5 a can. In the end, it's the message and power of the work that impresses -- not its size.


Graffiti Verite
Includes an artist-of-the-week feature section

A history of graffiti: the condensed version

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.