How to Become a Graffiti Artist

By TACP Staff on July 08, 2019

There’s something about the whiff of aerosol paint lacquer that is both weird and wonderful but only to artists who claim the of a tunnel as their canvas. If you don’t mind venturing into uncharted territory with a spray can as your paint brush, a career as a graffiti artist is for you.

1. 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.

2. 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. Attending an art school 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.

3. 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 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.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Graffiti Artists

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