Often associated with gangs or vandalism, there is more to the art of graffiti than one might realize.
The technical skill, purpose, planning, and communication that occur with some of the more brilliant pieces of graffiti art can be mind-bending.
We’ve curated 50 of the most breathtaking examples of graffiti artwork depicted online and have studied them to offer up some sage design lessons for designers of all levels, from beginner to expert. Think we’ve missed some? Tag your favorites in the comment section, below.
Many graffiti artists use their medium for showcasing their beliefs on the state of our current society. While a front-page editorial of The New York Times outlining the flaws of a government might create controversy, graffiti artists can make just as much “noise” through their images. Using imagery to share anti-establishment beliefs is as old as time, but using graffiti to do so didn’t really peak until the late 20th century.
One of the best-known graffiti artists to do this is Banksy. A British-born graffiti artist, Banksy uses a graffiti style known as “stenciling” to achieve the distinctive look of his works. As he has rarely commented on many of his pieces, the message can be left open to interpretation. However, it is fairly clear that Banksy is showcasing his perceived flaws of our modern society and he uses his imagery alone to speak volumes for the messages he hopes to convey.
Each of Banksy’s pieces makes you stop and take a second look. Some may even have you smiling or nodding in agreement (I definitely did so when I saw the picture of the couple with their phones below!). You can use this to inspire your own work, even if it’s not related to social commentary. The designs you create should be able to communicate their message clearly and effectively, just like Banksy’s. Be sure to narrow down what message you are trying to get across before you even start designing. Focusing on what you want to say will provide a strong foundation for your design to convey that idea to the masses.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: While you may not be able to be as secretive and reclusive as Banksy in your designs, letting your work speak for itself is attainable. Whether you are designing logos, artwork, or more, make sure that your message comes across loud and clear in the images you portray more so than by the words you use.
The entire foundation of both graphic design and graffiti art is communication. Though they may use different methods, both are using their respective mediums to convey something. Obviously, utilizing text is the easiest way to do so. Canva’s Design School even has an entire section dedicated to Typography (with this article being an excellent beginner’s manual). The visual element of typography present in graffiti art can lend a design edge to the story it is trying to tell.
These two designs by graffiti artist Roid use a futuristic theme in both their design and lettering.
Your own designs do not need to be as futuristic or “out there” as this one, but utilizing typography to send your message can provide a powerful impact when done correctly. Make sure that any typography you use correlates to the overall design you are creating. In simpler terms, don’t try and fit a square peg into a round hole! Even if you a love a certain style of typography, if it doesn’t fit your message, it won’t work.
Even a more traditional font gets an entirely new message through how the graffiti artist juxtaposes the lettering with the design around it.
If you do have your heart set on a specific style of typography, you may be able to get around its “traditional” message if you use colors and imagery like the graffiti artist did above. You will have to get creative if you are mixing a typographic element with an image or design that it doesn’t usually go with. But if you can manage to still make your point effectively, then you can get away with it.
Typography in graffiti doesn’t have to all be loud colors or crazy designs. The simple use of black and white by Ben Johnston uses graffiti elements to bring branding to a design magazine.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: You don’t always need images to convey your point. Using typography alone as a way to communicate your message can allow you to be as minimalist or as futuristic as you want to be.
One part of graffiti art that strikes many who look at it is how full of life it appears. This is partly due to the “underground” aspect of the work. Since it has to be painted sneakily and in a hurry, that sense of urgency can translate through to the final product. Many artists channel the energy of the subculture they are a part of to express themselves in their graffiti.
Russ Mills uses what same may consider an unrefined approach in his paintings of women. However, none could argue that there is not an inherent sense of vibrancy that emanates off of each of them.
Take this same idea into your own designs by infusing them with the passion of the brand or idea you are creating. Graffiti artists can create such movement in their designs with only a limited amount of time, so you can take this idea and translate it to your projects when you are given more time to design.
Spanish artist duo Pichi & Avo combine both subversive elements (with their painting on shipping containers and their utilization of ancient and modern imagery) with the energy of their color selection and scale of their work.
Even using just one basic color scheme, artist Rone pours life into the eyes of his work.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: If you want to grab your audience, bring life into your designs. An image that is bursting with energy cannot be overlooked.
In the same vein as designs with energy, having designs that showcase movement make people sit up and take notice. Graffiti artist L7m conveys his frantic energy in each of the bird images he creates using vibrant color and strokes.
There is much to be learned from someone who can create such energy and movement on a flat, static canvas. A graffiti artist utilizes color, scale, and their painting style to show the movement in their work. While you may not be creating a design for an entire wall, you can borrow from their use of color and style to infuse movement into one of your creations.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: Hook your audience by making your design appear as if it could move right off of its surface.
A common image that arises when one thinks of graffiti art is the type of mural that covers the entire space of a wall (called “back to back” in graffiti lingo). The overwhelming scale of simple or basic designs makes their impact stronger than if the size were average.
Though the artist behind this is wasn’t asked for a commentary, the message conveyed with a simple daisy on this scale is still clear.
Though less of a simple design than the daisy, the scale of this tribal influenced piece creates a strong message.
Though the sheer size of all of these graffiti pieces may not be something you encounter in your own work, there are still ways can be influenced by these artists in the way you play with size and shape. Even in a smaller creation, you can look at your design with an eye to what can be made much bigger (or smaller) to create visual interest. Playing with the scale of your typography or imagery can make your design have a larger impact.
Sandin Medjedovic used scale and typography to communicate the tone that this company wished to set for its employees.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: Whether your design is complicated or simple, the scale in which you create it can take the message from average to amazing.
A common graffiti technique is to layer imagery with non-traditional fonts and text. Often, this text intertwines with the design, which creates a more impactful aesthetic.
In the three pieces below, two Greek artists, Papagrigoriou Greg and Simek, use a basic black and white color palette. However, combined with its scale and text, their final product is anything but basic.
Graffiti artist Tilt combined text with his nation’s colors to create this Union Jack mural.
This graffiti technique isn’t one that could be used in every design you create, but you can incorporate the merging of text and images into your work. Consumers love a sly wink from a design, or one that makes them realize there is more than just meets the eye. In the right project, you can meld text and images together and provide that je nais se quoi that makes your client or audience take further notice.
Another graffiti artist, who goes by the name C215, created this mural of a mother and child with the text as part of the imagery.
Two artists, The Haas and Bird, teamed up to combine imagery and text as a way of bringing back some nostalgic cultural memories to the people of Swansea. According to The Haas, “The main focus points of the wall are two very iconic Swansea past times. The first being a painted image of the old Swansea tram that used to run along the promenade and the second being a hand painted typographic piece using a quote by world renowned welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.”
Heading in the opposite direction of the Swansea piece is artist Tony Parker, who took a soft anime image and layered his own text upon it.
One combination of text and imagery that was widely known and just as widely criticized was the 2012 Olympic logo. The official London 2012 Olympic game logo created a font to loosely spell out 2012, before layering the Olympic Rings and the city’s name on top of it. One magazine tried to salvage the logo’s reputation by saying it was intended for “awareness, impact and memorability.” However, one journalist named it the worst font in the world in 2010, and a June 2007 poll by the BBC showed an 80% disapproval rating.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: Each of these pairings of text and imagery create different reactions and bring forth a variety of opinions. However, all of them prove that the combination of text and images in the design creates a buzz, which is excellent for any graphic designer.
As one scholar stated, “[r]eading graffiti can tell us about the culture, social networks, and beliefs that produced that particular work. In a large city . . . graffiti reveals a regional mix of cultural origins, beliefs, and influences.” Similar to the fact that the subconscious influence of visual communication has an impact on all graphic designers, the cultural and societal beliefs and ideas will come to light in a graffiti artist’s work. One use of this vernacular design is that it is often shown through branding for a local company.
This is extremely evident in the redesign of Miss Lily’s restaurant in New York. It had become an institution in its own right for serving authentic Caribbean and West Indian cuisine with a dose of their native culture. However, when they opened their second location, it was in a former diner who had a loyal following. To combine both cultures and still stand out in a city as big as New York was daunting. Design group Farewell NYC was able to showcase the cultural flavor of the Islands and the former bodega signage that used to be a part of this area with their graffiti style design.
You can borrow from this use of vernacular design in graffiti by using your own culture or the culture of your client when you create your design. It doesn’t always have to be on the scale of the image below, where the graffiti mural blends color and a distinctive weaving pattern to show its cultural roots. While this does work well for some projects, you can also take aspects or pieces of your culture or your client’s culture and merely sprinkle them through your design in the use of color or background.
However, not all graffiti imagery is impacted by long held cultural pasts. They can also show modern and popular icons.
One such mural is below, where Yoda and ET walk in love together.
Audrey Hepburn is another icon in American society that many know on sight. This artist combined a classic image of Hepburn with their own color scheme to paint this mural.
Pop culture influences that everyone can recognize are a definite design tool you can borrow from graffiti artists. People feel connected when they recognize and understand a design based upon their own societal or cultural knowledge. You can connect with your audience or your client by using this graffiti tool to bridge popular culture with graphic design.
Even more modern influencers like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld get the graffiti treatment with a piece that seems both exuberant and dark at the same time.
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: As a graphic designer, you can use vernacular design and cultural and ethnic influences as a source of inspiration. This allows you to see how visual communication is represented in certain areas and how you can use that information to influence your own designs.
As has already been showcased, there are a number of companies and organizations that use graffiti art and techniques to create unique logos and branding to set them apart from the crowd.
The 2012 London Olympics logo, as mentioned above, did not have much support among the people. Yet, it was still dynamic, vibrant, and stood apart from all of the other Olympic logos preceding it.
Even a sports juggernaut like Nike understood that by using graffiti influenced branding, their Perfect Game Bat would not only be unique, but a piece of art.
Clearly, utilizing style from graffiti art cannot be used for logos and branding for every company. There are going to be some clients whose tone or message this type of style will not mesh with. However, even on a smaller scale, say in the use of a brand’s text or colors, you can allow the work of graffiti artists to play a subtle role.
And last, but certainly not least, what better way to play off of both the type of business you are, and throw a tongue-in-cheek jab towards the type of “subculture” you are technically working against, than by having a graffiti style mural as the entrance to your store?
DESIGN TAKEAWAY: Either for your own personal brand, or for a client, using graffiti influences to set yourself apart can be a game changer.
Even with a never-ending supply of traditional design influences at your fingertips, stepping outside of your comfort zone can allow you to expand your repertoire. Though perhaps not the most refined of inspirations available, finding parts of graffiti art that can elevate your own designs will make your work unique.