From tags to throwies to murals, street art is everywhere; and in the last decade, it's gained appreciation from the public at large. Artists are being commissioned to take what was once only thought of as a mischievous pastime for ne’er-do-wells into the mainstream. But let’s face facts: It’s 2015, and no subculture has really achieved validation until it gains its own reality show. Enter Oxygen’s upcoming competition series Street Art Throwdown (premiering February 3 at 9/8c), which pits graffiti artists and street artists (cue the West Side Story soundtrack because there is a divide) against each other for a cash prize.
Not familiar with the art form? Brush up on your street sense here.
1. GRAFFITI AND STREET ART ARE NOT THE SAME THING
While graffiti artists only work with spray paint and pride themselves on knowing their way around a can of the stuff, street artists use other media to create their pieces. “Graffiti artists really pride themselves on what we call can control,” says Cameron Moberg, 33, a graffiti artist and Street Art Throwdown contestant from San Francisco, California. “We take pride in not needing a stencil and really working on our can skills, that’s where the divide originally came from. But with good content coming out, there’s some more respect. You even see some collaboration between street artists and graffiti artists.”
2. MASTERING CAN CONTROL IS NO EASY FEAT
Spray paint has come a long way, but getting the most out of it can still be difficult. “Can control is essentially being able to use the can properly and being able to manipulate what the can does,” explains Moberg. “For example, when you have something called a flare it’s when it’s really wide and fuzzy at the top of a letter and as you get to the bottom it will be really clean and skinnier. That can control process is not just moving your arm, it’s moving your wrist, rotating your wrist and your arm at the same time. In the '90s, we didn’t have the paint we have now. We were using hardware store paint which is really runny and it takes a lot of commitment to learn how to use.”
3. EUROPEANS HAVE THE UPPER HAND WITH SPRAY PAINT
When it comes to spray paint, the Europeans apparently have it all figured out. “Some artists, like DAIM from Germany, started meeting with paint companies in Europe,” says Moberg. “They were like, ‘Look, if you want a good product—listen to us.’ They told them to lower the pressure of the can so the paint comes out slower. The valve system within a can has totally changed as well. With American paint, by the time you get down to the last quarter of the can or a third of the can, it starts losing pressure and your lines skip. European paint or paint from New Zealand, those paints don’t lose pressure once you get to the bottom so you’re emptying the entire can.”
4. THE SHAPE OF SPRAY PAINT CANS HAS CHANGED
The dome on top of the spray paint can, which used to be about 1 ¼-inches tall, is now only about ½-inch in height, allowing artists to get closer to the walls they’re painting and write finer lines.
5. THERE ARE POLITICS IN STREET ART
Unlike painting on one’s private canvas, street art is public and subject to being covered by a competing artist, so you never really know how long a piece is going to remain visible. “It’s an open forum for the public to communicate about their current culture,” says Kristin Adamczyk, 24, a street artist from Detroit, Michigan, also competing on Street Art Throwdown. “There are no rules. It’s not a club you have to be in. Part of writing on the street is you could go back there tomorrow and it’s covered up because somebody dissed you or you don’t know where you are and you’ve written on somebody’s wall that they’ve already called. There’s politics and drama and silly things.”
6. A THROWIE IS NOT SOMETHING COZY FOR YOUR COUCH
“We have different styles we do,” says Moberg. “Throwies are meant for what we call bombing, where you’re just getting something up really fast. That’s usually like a bubble letter and a one-color fill with a contrasting color outline and maybe a second outline around the whole thing with another color. Those you want to do in under two or three minutes.”
7. WHEAT PASTES ARE FOR STREET ARTISTS
In street art, a wheat paste refers to a simple adhesive made out of flour, water, and glue to stick and seal a piece to a wall or building. “A wheat paste is a really good example of how graffiti is different from street art,” says Adamczyk. “Street art really means you’re bringing art onto the public street. That can mean you’re using a paint brush and applying acrylic paint or a wheat paste, which I like to use. I’ll print out some of my photos or I’ll do a sketch with Sharpies or permanent markers and then it’s on a piece of paper. All you do is apply the paste to it and post it up on the wall.” But, as with most street art, it has a temporary life span—six months for a wheat paste that has been well-sealed with a top coat or just three weeks to a month for one that has not.
8. CREATING A TAG IS KIND OF LIKE PICKING A USERNAME
A tag is what represents the graffiti artist (like a personal signature) and may be the easiest thing to throw on a wall, but Moberg says finding perfection in writing your name is nearly impossible. “The biggest issue is everyone’s trying to figure out what name to write because in the graff world you really don’t want a name that somebody else has,” he says. “Back in the day, if you had the same name as somebody you would have to battle them. A lot of people now are using symbols or putting different numbers in their name because every name has been used. Graffiti artists get obsessed with style. It’s like we’re never satisfied. It’s the never ending obsession to accomplish how to perfect it.”
9. THOSE SCRIBBLES MEAN SOMETHING
If you’ve ever looked at graffiti and wondered about the purpose of what appears to be a simple scribble, it actually may be the foundation to a larger, more beautiful piece. “Everyone says, ‘Well, I like a larger piece but I don’t like that scribbly thing people do,’” says Moberg. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that scribbly thing is the basic structure for the larger amazing murals that we do. A kid who is learning cartooning has a cartooning book and it tells them to draw a square, a circle and all of these shapes for the basic structure of the cartoon, whereas in graffiti, you have to know how to tag and write your name because that’s going to be the basic structure for the larger letter forms. If you don’t know how to write, you will never grow into having can control or even having a good structure of lettering.”
10. GRAFFITI IS MEANT TO IMPRESS OTHER ARTISTS
Graffiti artists aim for visibility to impress others within their community, not for the likes of you. “When people are looking for a spot, they want to choose one that other graffiti writers will see and say, 'Dang, how did he get that spot?'" explains Moberg. “That can be crazy in a couple of ways—it can just be really high or it can be in a spot that’s really public and it’s like, ‘How’d he do that with so many people around?’”
11. SOME CITIES ARE USING STREET ART TO BREATHE NEW LIFE INTO THE AREA
Detroit is working with street artists to bring a newfound energy to a city that is in desperate need of revitalization. “We’ll get a lot of commissioned murals for new restaurants in Detroit,” Adamczyk says. “We also have a couple of projects like the Detroit Creative Corridor and the Beautification of Detroit Project. These two groups put up murals on vacant buildings just to make the city nicer, or they cover up really bad graffiti with a beautiful mural. I think it’s a new guerilla marketing ploy where it can be this interactive installation piece. A lot of people have events where they are hiring artists to come in and do live painting.”
12. STREET ARTISTS LEARN TO ACCEPT THE TEMPORARY NATURE OF THEIR WORK
How do you let go of your work when it’s something as personal as art? You learn to embrace the fleeting quality of the 'biz. “It’s something I had to come to appreciate because as a fine artist, when I spend four days on an oil painting I get really obsessed with it and I don’t want to let it go—even if it’s sold,” says Adamczyk. “But street art—that was a huge thing for me. It was the acceptance of something being temporary and also not being hurt that maybe somebody covered it because what I did wasn’t as good and what they did is way better and deserves to be there.”