Graffiti used to be viewed as a very controversial subject even 15 years ago. However, today it seems to be more common and accepted, you can most likely name at least one graffiti artist. Even the artform’s name is shifting; nowadays we refer to people who use public buildings as street artists and to their intricate decorative pieces as street art. Graffiti used to be a word that implied vandalism; people who don’t ask permission for it, scribbling over a public building is certainly not art!
But there are many significant works of art which were created this way with spray paints, stencils and various ingenious techniques to give a political or activist message, or even to simply break apart the monotony of a big city. Let’s have a look at some of the most significant works of graffiti art, some of which have been lost to time already, while others are treated as important murals!
The Lion’s Den, Originally: New York City, Recreated: Los Angeles
Lee Quiñones, the Puerto Rican artist was there at the beginning when graffiti art started becoming more prominent and widespread in the United States in the late 1970s. He is one of the most well-known artists who actually transitioned to canvas and currently presents his work at art galleries. Even though he switched to a more acceptable medium, his art style is the same street art you might’ve seen in New York City from the 1970s to the 1990s.
His most famous piece is “The Lion’s Den”, a wall-length mural that he spray-painted to 1980 at the Corlears Junior High School 56 in New York City. The original was covered, but he recreated it in 2018 for the Los Angeles branch of the Beyond the Streets galleries which celebrate street art all across the United States.
“The Lion’s Den” features a motto on its left side that characterizes Lee Quiñones well: “there is only one reason for art: to know that you are alive.”
“My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love”, Berlin
One of the most famous graffiti drawings, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” is placed on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It is part of what is now known as the East Side Gallery; a wall-segment which features many works of street art either commemorating or reflecting on the existence and the demolition of the Berlin Wall, which used to be the very literal border between East and West, between communism and democracy.
The mural’s artist, Dmitri Vrubel used a photo of Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, and Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany) embracing and sharing a kiss in 1979.
The mural is symbolic; the awkward kiss between the two heads of state seals the fate of nations suffering under communist rule and also evokes shock. The mural and the photo it references have become so popular, today you can see a rendition with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as well! The original mural was painted in 1990 and restored with more durable paints in 2009.
Blu’s Fight Against Art Conventions and Social Injustice
Italian street artist Blu is known throughout Europe because of his striking style that plays with its surroundings. His artwork blends into buildings perfectly and repurposes the surfaces his artworks take up. He is known for works that comment on politics and current events. Also, many of his works have updated and changed multiple times, by him!
Because of his own decisions and local authorities’ need to cover some of his artwork, many are lost to time. These are now only available in photographic form. This was what happened to the pictured artworks in Berlin which used to be prominent features next to the Berlin Wall. They showcased two faces showing East and West gang signs while trying to unmask one another. Next to that graffiti art was a suited figure’s hands tied together by two Rolex watches. These graffiti art pieces were covered up with Blu’s agreement to protest the city’s urban development plans.
Crack Is Wack, New York City
Keith Haring’s human figures are well-known and recognized all over the world. His art has become part of popular culture and it is considered valuable by traditional art institutions. Also, his contributions were largely to pop art and graffiti art before his untimely death in 1990, at the age of 31.
His most famous graffiti artwork is “Crack Is Wack”. It is a large orange mural made to raise awareness of the serious cocaine problem, prominent in New York City during the 1980s. Haring created the eye-catching mural independently, without the permission of the city. So, the piece was considered vandalism and the artist was then arrested. After media coverage, however, the mural was allowed to stay. Today, it is still available to be viewed in on Harlem River Drive in New York City.
Keith Haring’s graffiti art always meant to raise awareness and help people become conscious of issues. This is different from the common focus on consumerism as aesthetics.
Snorting Copper, London, England
Banksy is hands-down the most famous street artist today. We don’t know anything about them, not even their gender or age. However, this person has been active since the 1990s. His or her street art is satirical and comments on political anomalies and the reality of current events. Banksy’s signature style is black and white stencil work with red added rarely.
One of his most famous graffiti artworks is “Snorting Copper” which was located in Shoreditch, London. The artwork showcases a police officer in uniform kneeling on the ground to snort cocaine. The artwork was vandalized and then disappeared off the walls completely, the entire wall segment was gone! It was rediscovered and painstakingly restored to its original location. I
It makes you wonder: is it even an original artwork now that it was basically repainted to go back to its original location? Anyhow, it is valued at 1.25 million pounds!
Etnias, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Etnias is a record-breaking work of graffiti art created by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, for the 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro. Kobra’s hyperrealistic, colorful style is easily recognizable and quite impressive. So, it’s no surprise that the artist was commissioned to create a mural for the Olympics: he decided to bring together representatives of five tribes, one from each continent.
Thus, the Huli (Oceania), the Mursi (Africa), the Kayin (Asia), the Supi (Europe) and the Tapajós (Americas) became protagonists of the colossal painting; a major highlight of the Olympic Boulevard area. The 3000 square meter mural is the largest in the world, making it to the Guinness Book of World Records!
Nelson Mandela Mural, South Africa
The Nelson Mandela Mural is a public artwork by Shephard Fairey in Johannesburg, South Africa, which went up in 2014. It commemorates the Purple Rain Protest, which was started as a movement against the Apartheid. The protest is called purple rain because one of the tactics used by the police was to put purple paint in tear gas cans. This was to mark protesters for easier detection and arrest. However, the protesters seized their tools and turned the makeshift spraypaint on them, thus painting the cops!
After the success of the protests, Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, 27 years after his capture. Shephard Fairey’s mural is also a legal graffiti, commissioned to commemorate a very important figure in South Africa’s history.
3. The Giant of Boston, Boston, USA
Another legal graffiti art, “The Giant of Boston” was a temporary, monumental public mural, created as part of an exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Its creators are twins Octavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, who go by the name OSGEMEOS. Much like the giant that they squeezed into an open space between skyscrapers in Boston, the OSGEMEOS graffiti art usually includes yellow-skinned people drawn in a cartoony style. Additionally, they have bright-colored clothing and various poses, referred to as giants.
The twins like to play with space, using the landscape wisely to “fit” their giants into the cities they paint in. Amazingly, they have been active since the 1980s. So by today, they do commission work for museums, such as “The Giant of Boston.”
Sleeping Man, New York City, USA
Found in New York, Sleeping Man is a stenciled piece created by French graffiti artist Blek Le Rat. Xavier Prou began his career by creating stencils of rats. His pseudonym comes from a popular French cartoon, changing the words to get “rat”; a variation on “art”.
His work is also often compared to Banksy’s, although he started working earlier than the elusive artist, in the 1980s. He is also credited as the first person to use pre-stenciled images to create his art. This way, he could apply the paints faster and more precisely. Since then, stenciling has become one of the most popular ways of creating graffiti in public spaces.
Girl with Balloon, London
The elusive Banksy’s most famous work of art is “Girl with Balloon”, also known as Balloon Girl. The original went up at Waterloo Bridge in 2002, showing a little girl reaching after a red heart-shaped balloon which is carried away from her by the wind.
Since the first one showed up, many more were created by Banksy across London. They usually pop up when the artist wants to show supports towards a social movement. Interestingly, the original Waterloo Bridge “Girl with Balloon” was removed and sold for over 500 thousand pounds.
Another rendition of the image was used by Banksy in 2018 to create “Love Is in the Bin”. It was an art project where the framed copy of “Girl with Balloon” was automatically shredded once it was sold at auction for over a million pounds.