You might not need to know the street art lingo to enjoy a mural, but it makes for a riveting peek into the secrets and history of this rich subculture. From stylistic terms to monikers for folks in the scene, here’s your handy glossary on street art and graffiti slang.
Abstract style: Like the 1950s Abstract Expressionists, abstract style graffiti breaks away from the conventional representation of forms and figures. Instead, these creations strive to express emotion more directly and dynamically by playing with line, colour, and texture. Well-known abstract names in the scene today include Futura, Mr Jago, Elian Chali, and Camille Walala.
Biting: work, and so forth. Those who bite are often disparaged as ‘toys’ – that is, copycat newbies.
Black book: The sketch book in which an artist drafts ideas and new pieces, sometimes passed between artists to collect their tags or signatures. If that sounds innocuous enough, the term comes from graffiti’s history as an illegal activity – black books could be used as evidence against their authors if found by the authorities.
Crew: Also dubbed cru or krew, a crew is a collective of street artists who have agreed to work together, typically aligned by their style or outlook on life.
Heaven spot: A graffiti piece painted in a spot that’s challenging to reach, requiring daredevil feats to get there. Successfully tagging the spot is all about winning recognition from others.
Intervention: In contrast to decorative street art, an intervention is a work focused on provoking awareness of social issues and creating new experiences for the community. Banksy is perhaps the most famous figure in staging urban interventions.
King or Queen: A skilled, experienced, and highly revered artist in a certain area (yas queen!) Kings or queens might incorporate crowns in their work as a status symbol, but their claim must be recognized by fellow artists.
Legal wall: This can refer to either commissioned murals; or walls, buildings, and other spaces designated for street art purposes by property owners or the authorities.
Married couple: A vintage term originating from New York graffiti culture. It refers to a painting that spans two adjacent subway cars, often making use of the gap between them in a clever or cheeky way.
Reverse graffiti: Also known as clean graffiti, this method creates an image or design by cleaning a (grimy) surface with a stencil and a power washer. Pioneered by British artist Moose, reverse graffiti is by nature temporary – and possibly the most eco-friendly kind of street art yet.
Tag: A tag is street art at its most basic – the stylized signature of an artist that’s usually done freehand and in a single colour.
Wildstyle: A complicated, intricate style of lettering, typically thick with interlocking symbols and arrows. Bordering on abstract, it’s seen as a demanding style that calls for serious skill. Wildstyle letters are often impossible to read for non-graffiti artists.
Writer: Another name for a graffiti artist who paints letters.
Yarn bombing: A type of street art that arose in the last decade, yarn bombing or yarn storming works with knitted or crocheted yarn in place of paint. Yarn bombers cover street furniture – lamp posts, benches, monuments – in colourful displays of woven art. The objective may be decorative, but can also be an attempt to reclaim urban space or a peaceful form of feminist protest!
Top Image: Ilse Orsel on Unsplash