The Rise of 21st Century Street Art: Graffiti’s Evolution | By Kerwin Blog

The Rise of 21st Century Street Art: Graffiti’s Evolution

Exploring the origins and evolution of graffiti art and street art, the key features of these art styles, and the factors behind street art’s growing popularity

Amid urban landscapes, a creative revolution has unfolded in recent decades, reshaping the boundaries of artistic expression. The 21st century in particular has witnessed the extraordinary ascent of street art, a movement rooted in the rebellious spirit of graffiti and propelled by the evolution of artistic techniques.

From the illegal tags that once adorned neglected corners, to the sprawling murals that now grace city walls, street art has transitioned from underground counterculture to mainstream phenomenon.

The popularity of street art in the 21st century is fuelled by social media’s global reach, urban revitalisation initiatives, and rising cultural activism. Evolving from graffiti art, street art transitioned from illegal tagging to intricate murals, gaining recognition from galleries and museums.

This blog post explores the story of how an art form born from urban subcultures has managed to captivate a global audience. Read on as I explore the origins of street art, its evolution from graffiti, and the key factors behind its rising popularity in the 21st century.

Explore my own ‘By Kerwin’ range of vibrant pop art paintings and prints at

The Origins of Street Art

The origins of street art trace back to the gritty urban landscapes that birthed a cultural revolution around the 1970s. Emerging from alleys and subway tunnels, graffiti emerged as the voice of marginalised communities and subcultures seeking recognition.

What began as simple graffiti tags evolved into intricate street art narratives, expressing societal frustrations and artistic aspirations. Pioneers like Dondi, Lady Pink, and Lee Quiñones infused graffiti with innovation, pushing its boundaries beyond vandalism.

These visionaries transformed train cars into moving galleries, propelling graffiti from anonymity to prominence. Their legacy reverberates through the vibrant tapestry of street art, forever linking urban spaces to creative expression.

Street art’s origins begin with graffiti in urban environments such as New York’s subway system

The Evolution From Graffiti Art to Street Art

Graffiti is an art form that traces its mainstream origins to the late 1960s and 1970s – and particularly to bustling, and often deprived, urban environments in the U.S. Graffiti is an accessible form of art that is often as simple as an artist spray-painting a symbol of their ‘tag’ onto an area of public wall space. (Learn more about graffiti’s origins here.)

Street art, an evolution from graffiti’s roots, transcended its origins by embracing a wider scope of techniques and themes. Whereas graffiti artists once left their signatures as territorial markers, street artists wove intricate perspectives and narratives into their, using various methods like stencils, murals, and installations.

The canvas of street art expanded from mere tagging to colossal murals that could blanket entire city blocks. The walls that were once placeholders for graffiti became tapestries for narratives, breathing life into urban spaces. This transformation turned the city itself into an open-air gallery, making art accessible to everyone.

The Pioneering Influence of Banksy

At the forefront of this evolution stands Banksy, a pioneer who blurred the lines between primitive graffiti and refined street art. Banksy also elevated street art (which many call vandalism) to the realm of the high art world, having produced many globally-renowned fine art pieces.

Banksy’s pieces, full of poignant social commentary and shrouded in the UK artist’s anonymity, ignited international dialogue. His art reached far beyond physical locations, infiltrating the collective consciousness and redefining the relationship between art and public space.

The rise of street art, with its diverse techniques and broadened canvas, highlights how an artistic movement can transcend its roots while preserving the spirit of creative insurgency.

This evolution underscores the remarkable journey of graffiti art from the margins to the mainstream, where the streets themselves become a canvas for narratives that challenge, provoke, and inspire.

Banksy graffiti art
Banksy graffiti art

How Did Graffiti Enable The Rise of The Street Art Movement?

Graffiti, once regarded as an act of rebellion and vandalism, played a pivotal role in catalysing the emergence of the street art movement.

The popularity of street art in the 21st century is fuelled by social media’s global reach, urban revitalisation initiatives, and rising cultural activism. Evolving from graffiti art, street art transitioned from illegal tagging to intricate murals, gaining recognition from galleries and museums. Street art resonates with younger generations, blurs artistic boundaries, and acts as a dynamic platform for social and political commentary.

Graffiti’s Early Days

In its early days, graffiti served as a voice for marginalised communities to express their frustrations and aspirations in a society that often ignored their voices. The spray-painted tags and intricate pieces became a way to claim ownership of public spaces that had been neglected.

Graffiti’s underground nature fostered a sense of camaraderie among artists, leading to the formation of tight-knit subcultures. These subcultures not only shared artistic techniques but also created platforms for exchanging ideas and pushing creative boundaries.

Graffiti often started off with the simple (and some would say ugly) technique of tagging before evolving into more elaborate forms of street art

The perseverance required to create graffiti in unconventional, and sometimes dangerous, locations laid the foundation for the resilience that defines street artists.

Gaining Media Attention

As graffiti began to evolve into more elaborate and visually captivating forms, it garnered attention from not only fellow artists but also curious onlookers and the media. This growing recognition paved the way for the transition from the anonymity of graffiti to the more open and varied expressions of street art.

Graffiti’s ability to disrupt conventional notions of art and public spaces challenged the status quo, making room for new forms of creative expression.

This disruption was fundamental in paving the path for street art’s rise, creating a fertile ground for artists to explore and redefine urban landscapes in ways that continue to captivate and inspire audiences worldwide.

What Are The Key Techniques of Graffiti and Street Art? 7 Notable Techniques

Graffiti and street art are characterised by a diverse range of techniques that reflect the creativity and adaptability of the artists behind them. These techniques are crucial in conveying messages, showcasing skills, and leaving a lasting impact on both physical and cultural landscapes.

1. Tagging

Tagging is the simplest and most basic form of graffiti. It involves the artist’s signature or pseudonym, often stylised and repeated across surfaces. Tags serve as a form of self-promotion and are the foundation upon which more complex pieces are built.

2. Stencilling

Stencilling allows for intricate designs to be reproduced with precision. Artists create stencils by cutting patterns into materials like cardboard or plastic. This technique enables the rapid application of detailed images and messages onto various surfaces.

3. Murals

Murals are large-scale works of art that cover entire walls or buildings. They provide artists with a canvas to tell stories, share messages, and contribute to the visual identity of neighbourhoods. Murals often showcase a fusion of artistic styles and techniques, from realism to abstraction.

4. Wheatpasting

Wheatpasting involves adhering paper or posters to surfaces using a mixture of water and wheat paste. It’s a temporary form of street art that allows for quick dissemination of messages and images.

5. 3D Graffiti

This technique employs shading, perspective, and shadows to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms on two-dimensional surfaces. It adds depth and realism to the artwork, making it visually striking and interactive.

6. Mosaic

Mosaic street art uses small pieces of tile, glass, or other materials to create intricate patterns and images. This technique adds texture and a tactile quality to urban spaces.

7. Yarn Bombing

A final, contemporary branch of graffiti art is ‘yarn bombing’. Yarn bombing involves covering objects or structures with colourful yarn or fabric. It’s a softer, more whimsical and ironic form of street art that challenges traditional notions of graffiti.

These techniques are not only about visual aesthetics but also carry cultural, social, and political significance. The dynamic interplay of these techniques showcases the diversity and innovation within the street art movement, allowing artists to engage with their surroundings in ways that continually surprise and engage viewers.

Individual techniques, or a combination of those above, can be employed to create singular pieces of graffiti, or larger-scale works vibrant and vivid street art. Pop art uses many different techniques to street art – explore these here.

Street Art’s Mainstream Recognition

The journey of street art from the hidden corners of urban landscapes to the halls of galleries and museums is a testament to its enduring impact. As the 21st century unfolded, street art experienced a seismic shift in recognition, evolving from a marginalised subculture to a respected and sought-after artistic movement.

Some ways in which street art reached a mainstream audience are below:

Galleries, Museums, and Collectors

Street art’s transition into mainstream culture was marked by its increasing acceptance within traditional art institutions. Galleries and museums, once hesitant to embrace graffiti-laden walls, began hosting exhibitions dedicated to street art.

Collectors, captivated by the raw energy and authenticity of street art, sought to own these distinctive works, elevating the market value of pieces that once adorned alleyways.

Banksy gallery art
A piece of an actual Banksy-painted wall on display in a gallery

Role of Social Media

The rise of social media and digital platforms acted as a bridge between the streets and the global art community. Artists could showcase their creations to a vast online audience, democratising access to their work. Social media turned murals and installations into digital icons, often transforming creators into viral sensations overnight (more on this below).

Artists’ Evolution

A new wave of street artists, inspired by their predecessors, learned to navigate the intersection of public space and gallery walls. Figures like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Invader seamlessly transitioned into gallery settings, adapting their styles without sacrificing their originality.

This transition allowed artists to experiment with new techniques, materials, and formats, contributing to the evolving landscape of street art.

The transformation of street art from urban rebellion to mainstream appreciation signifies its ability to bridge societal gaps, communicate across cultures, and adapt to changing artistic norms. This shift has redefined how we perceive and engage with contemporary art, demonstrating that the street can be as valid a canvas as any gallery wall.

Shepard Fairey street art that combines pop art elements. This is actual promotional artwork for Debbie Harry and Blondie
Shepard Fairey street art that combines pop art elements. This is actual promotional artwork for Debbie Harry and Blondie

What Caused the Rise in Popularity of Street and Urban Art in the 21st Century?

The 21st century witnessed an unprecedented surge in the popularity of street and urban art, driven by a combination of cultural shifts and technological advancements. One of the key catalysts was the rise of social media platforms, particularly Instagram.

Artists found an accessible and global platform to share their work instantaneously, reaching audiences far beyond their immediate surroundings. Instagram’s visual nature aligned perfectly with the visual impact of street and urban art, making it a powerful tool for exposure.

Murals, graffiti, and installations became Instagram-worthy backdrops, attracting both art enthusiasts and influencers and Instagrammers seeking captivating content for their profiles. This unintentional convergence of art and social media led to a new level of appreciation and understanding of the genre.

The Captivating Impermanence of Street Art

Furthermore, street and urban art’s inherently transient nature resonated with the impermanence of digital media. The ephemerality of these works, often subject to weathering or removal, created a sense of urgency to experience them first-hand.

This fleeting quality enhanced the allure of discovering and documenting these creations, turning the act of encountering street art into a treasure hunt of sorts.

Street art can provide trendy backdrops for social media photoshoots

In sum, the rise of social media, the visual appeal of street art in the digital age, and the blend of tangible and virtual experiences all played a role in catapulting street and urban art from the fringes to the forefront of contemporary culture.

My own brand of ‘By Kerwin’ Pop Art paintings also combines art with music. Explore my range of Pop Art action-painted music icons, and shop prints, in my online shop.

Other Factors Behind Street Art’s Growing Popularity

Aside from social media, several other factors contributed to the rise in popularity of street and urban art in the 21st century:

1. Urban Revitalisation

Many cities embraced street art as a means of revitalising neglected neighbourhoods and abandoned spaces. Murals and public art installations transformed urban landscapes, making them more vibrant and inviting.

2. Art Festivals and Events

Street art festivals and events, such as the Wynwood Walls in Miami and the POW! WOW! series, provided platforms for artists to create and exhibit their work on a large scale. These events attracted global attention and fostered a sense of community among artists and enthusiasts.

3. Art as Activism

Street art became a powerful tool for social and political activism. Artists used their work to raise awareness about pressing issues, from environmental concerns to human rights, amplifying their messages to a wide audience.

Recent years have a seen a growth in social, political and environmental activism and campaigning; street art is an accessible and striking medium and platform for brining attention to such issues.

4. Art Market Recognition

Galleries and auction houses started recognising the commercial potential of street and urban art. Works by street artists like Banksy began appearing in high-profile auctions, signalling the integration of street art into the traditional art market.

5. Cultural Hybridisation

Street and urban art absorbed influences from various cultures, bridging gaps between art forms and communities. This eclectic fusion resonated with a global audience seeking diverse and inclusive artistic expressions.

Many cities like to incorporate street art to entice visitors to the high street – especially to after the pandemic

6. Documentary Films and Media Coverage

Documentaries like “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (about Banksy) brought street art into mainstream conversations, demystifying the culture and introducing it to a broader audience.

7. Tourism and Cultural Tourism

Cities with vibrant street art scenes attracted tourists seeking unique cultural experiences. Street art maps, tours, and guided walks became popular attractions, encouraging interaction with local art scenes.

8. DIY Culture and Accessibility

The DIY ethos of street art, which often requires minimal resources and embraces self-expression, resonated with a generation seeking outlets for creativity outside traditional institutions.

9. Popularity Among Younger Generations

Street art’s rebellious spirit and nonconformist nature resonated with younger generations seeking alternatives to traditional art forms.

10. Technology and Augmented Reality

Some street artists embraced technology, incorporating augmented reality into their works, creating interactive experiences that blended the physical and digital realms.

Collectively, these factors converged to elevate street and urban art from its underground origins to a cultural phenomenon that transcends geographical boundaries and generations.

Another appeal of street art is its capacity for humour and irony to entertain or shock. This is a trait that overlaps with the pop art movement, which gained popularity for its injection of irony into art in the 1950s and 1960s. Below I explore how pop art may have influenced the street art movement.

Challenges in 21st Century Street Art

While street art flourishes, it navigates a complex terrain of challenges. Legal concerns, from trespassing to defacement, shadow its creation, often pitting artistic expression against property rights.

Appropriation blurs lines as corporate entities adopt street art’s aesthetic, raising questions about cultural integrity. Gentrification too transforms once-vibrant neighbourhoods, erasing the authenticity street art emerged from.

The debate also rages over the commercialisation of street art. As street art enters galleries and auctions, its countercultural roots collide with commercial success, stirring discourse on whether profit taints street art’s message.

Balancing between legality, authenticity, and artistic evolution, street art continues to grapple with these multifaceted challenges.

Conclusion: A Dynamic Evolution Unveiled

The trajectory of 21st century street art encapsulates a mesmerising evolution. From its primitive graffiti origins, street art has surged into a global phenomenon, transcending boundaries and gaining diverse and widespread acclaim through social media and cultural activism and notoriety.

Visionaries such as Banksy have also seen street art ascend to the world of fine art, with his graffiti works now being among the world’s highest-value art pieces.

Street art’s rise from the shadows to galleries marks a triumph of self-expression. Yet, street art’s journey is marked by challenges: legal battles, appropriation dilemmas, and authenticity debates.

As this dynamic movement grapples with practical complexities, its enduring ability to reflect societal shifts and provoke thought remains unparalleled. Street art’s evolution is a testament to its raw, captivating spirit; one that continues to redefine the very fabric of contemporary artistic expression.

What do you like most about the street art scene?

As a British pop artist, I’ve also written an article examining whether graffiti art is a branch of pop art. Read this here.

My full range of Jackson Pollock-inspired acrylic paintings can be viewed at – the originals and prints of these are available to purchase, with worldwide delivery. You can follow my art progress on Instagram and Facebook.

Kerwin Blackburn exhibiting his pop art, Jackson Pollock-inspired music paintings and prints at The Other Art Fair London, October 2021 | By Kerwin
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