The word graffiti is actually the plural of the Italian grafio, which means a scratch or scribble. While the crude wall “scribblings” found in the ancient volcano-buried city of Pompeii may have inspired the term, it’s actually grown into a surprisingly intricate art form today. Graffiti inspires and surprises, bringing color to grey cityscapes, as well as drawing on iconic images to drive home a social message or political point. We’ve scoured the world for some jaw-dropping works of street art, many of which were done in secret due to their controversial content. Number 6 doesn’t even seem real!
30. A Floral Plea for Peace
UK-based street artist Banksy uses a silhouette-like style that’s familiar to any graffiti fan, and his works are a mix of social commentary, naturally-occurring shapes, and poignant anti-establishment images. This piece, is a throwback to similar gestures made by Vietnam War-protesting hippies in the 1960s. Banksy features a young middle eastern boy sliding a colorful daisy into the gun barrel of a heavily-armed soldier in a silent protest for peace.
29. Feeling a Little Claustrophobic
Found in Johannesburg, South Africa, this intriguing building-tall mural depicts a series of exotic animals, stacked atop one another like so many cramped bookcases, each one looking longingly downwards. It’s a reflection of the live-atop-one-another culture of tiny apartments and condos in large cities like this one. Though some crave the busy streets, like…
28. The City Within the City
…admirers of this brilliantly-colored cityscape by artist Dank out of London. Splashed across a dusty relic of a warehouse, this piece provides a startlingly realistic glimpse into the neon-drenched, car-packed streets of a busy metro area after a rainstorm. It’s like a portal to another world shown in real scale, and it definitely injects the surrounding area with a feeling of vertigo.
27. A Colorful Rainforest Reminder
…check out this crazy toucan from Die77 in Bolivia. He uses the existing structural lines of the adjacent parking garage and artificially lengthens them to provide the impressive 3D effect surrounding this giant tropical bird. While it’s a colorful reminder of the actual tropical wildlife one might see in the country’s rainforests, it’s also a stark reminder that deforestation in the region is threatening their very existence.
26. Life Imitating Art and Nature
This image, dubbed Naturalize, features a work of art by Italian artist Luispak’s, trying its best to blend in with the world around it. This statement that could be applied just as easily to current worldwide immigration and refugee woes as environmental ones.
25. A Lot in Common
Called “Love is Love,” London-based artist Stik uses a childlike style to demonstrate a point that should honestly be taught to all children, worldwide. A Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, is clasping hands with a white individual on a red background. The image was placed in a community where racial tensions are traditionally high, likely in hopes of reminding residents of their shared humanity.
24. A Profit-Driven Wasteland
A crowned, suited white man takes a drinking straw to the globe’s resources on the side of what looks to be a condemned, bricked-up building on an inner city street corner. The twist? His crown is adorned with the corporate logos of companies widely considered to be contributing to the pollution and death of the planet.
23. Consuming By Habit
A very obvious commentary on our less-than-intelligent use of global resources, this stylized, naked man figure is seen yanking up the few remaining trees in the image and thrusting them towards his face like broccoli, while a pile of nearly-identical unused houses accumulate out of the “other end.” While some might resign themselves to this cycle, our next slide encourages people to take back green spaces in a very clever way.
22. Inner Child’s Play
As more and more natural areas and recreational spaces are demolished to make room for progress – typically in the form of shopping centers or condos – nostalgia occasionally gives way to action, as seen in this tongue-in-cheek visual protest grafitti. The i-n-g of parking has been mostly painted over, leaving room for a young girl to swing from the A in park. Recreation itself can actually make a statement.
21. An Exhibition Gone Too Soon
This is Five Pointz, a formerly famous impromptu showcase of graffiti artists’ skills in Queens, in New York City. Once a towering testament to the beauty and artistry found in simple cans of spray paint, the entire building was demolished to make way for a condominium parking lot in 2015. Images like this show us why often-illegal graffiti art is typically temporary, and highlight why photos – particularly of controversial pieces – are so important to its preservation.
20. Like, Follow, Share or Live
It may not be the most subtle way of saying that we’re all guilty of social media addiction now and then, but caricatures have been used throughout artistic history to make viewers sit up and take notice of problems. It’s very easy to get caught up in the little details of being online-popular and lose sight of the important global issues that may have a very real impact on our lives. Problems like…
19. Soccer 1, Poverty 0
…world hunger. This building-side image first appeared as a protest piece when the 2014 World Cup Soccer matches were being held in Spain. In the wake of accusations of tone-deaf multi-million dollar Olympic investments in the heart of the slums in Rio, Brazil, this is a lesson that’s more important than ever. This striking artwork was eventually purposefully destroyed, but unfortunately child hunger isn’t an issue that can simply be painted over.
18. The Whole World in Her Hands
It is important to remember that we are literally handing the world we create and shape over to our children, as Austrian artist Kore shows here. The image scale tells us that we consider our actions and our impacts to be small – at least to our “grown up” eyes – but to a child, they are much larger comparatively. This powerful work of graffiti art reminds us to always keep this exchange in mind when we’re deciding on actions that will affect the next generation. Speaking of the future…
17. A Handful of Inspiration
Ottawa artist Ryan Smeeton’s work is less spray paint-at-midnight and more commissioned mural, but he uses graffiti-like styling to inspire and illuminate young minds at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. This trio of hands holds tools that urge curious kids towards artistic and STEM field pursuits, such as chemistry, electrical engineering and photography.
16. Will You Validate Me?
Australian artist Murdoc’s timely stencil-style homage to equality and legal rights gaining traction for gay couples worldwide, though sadly, the movement hasn’t been fully realized in Murdoc’s home country yet. This piece, appropriately titled “Where’s the Equality?”, is a nod to the fact that, while civil unions are recognized, traditional marriages are still not legal between same sex partners in Australia. What can fans of this art – and this message do to help that happen? Simply follow the guidance in the next slide…
15. Time to Take Action
Located in Spain, street artist Dan Ferrer flipped the script on the iconic set of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys for this activism-spurring piece of art. In it, three tableaus of the same man encourage viewers to see, listen and reply through exaggerated gestures opposing the censorship of the original primate trio. It’s a prime example of how classic, familiar images can be used to inspire interest and action through street art and a clever message.
14. A Plea for Peace
This simple, poignant piece from Mozambique features a woman that holds a banner up with a Spanish message that translates to “Please, Peace.” It’s an important reminder to keep peace within ourselves and to encourage it in the world around us, too!
13. Trust in Justice
This unusual but highly intricate graffiti mural in Capetown, South Africa features a gorgeous sketch of the blindfolded female visage of justice, underneath a calligraphy-like message that states that “All shall be equal before the law.” This is an important message in the often politically-charged region, where residents may be tempted to take the law into their own hands.
12. Someone to Turn To
Another Capetown addition to this beautiful graffiti list, this piece is called “Inspire ourselves to inspire each other.” It encourages residents of South Africa to trust and turn to one another for guidance and inspiration, and supports peer leadership for all ages.
11. The Church of the Streets
Art and faith have always been intertwined, and Banksy does a fabulous job of capturing that often-complicated relationship in a single breathtaking image. Modern but somehow timeless, this silhouette is bound to linger in the memory of anyone that passes by. That blending of modern themes and street art makes for some truly interesting pieces.
10. Pew Pew Zoom
This interesting work blends the artist’s “tag” or signature – this one was created by NYC-based Tats Cru – a modern theme that echoes the newest Star Wars franchise film. The familiar colors draw the eye of fans, but they discover that it’s so much more than it seems at a glance. Great graffiti builds on the familiar and encourages viewers to feel, discuss and explore.
9. Presidential Par-taaaay
Take this graffiti, for example – it uses the usually-austere presidential faces of Mount Rushmore and swirls them into a crazy kaleidoscope of color, utterly changing the way they look. Color is an important characteristic to a great piece of graffiti, but sometimes black and white can be even more visually intriguing.
8. Just Say No?
Keith Haring was arguably one of the most well-known graffiti artists of the 1990s, drawing much-needed attention to crucial subjects like AIDS, HIV and drug abuse. This mural, Crack is Whack, has been used in anti-drug campaigns from the time of its creation, even well after Haring’s death. Sometimes realism is needed to capture the eye properly.
7. Inexpensive Puppetry
It’s incredible to think that this Glasgow graffiti mural is not a photo, but paint. The artist’s ability to capture realism is astounding, and the playful subject matter is one a series of shadow hand puppets adorning a subway wall to delight commuters. The best graffiti murals are sometimes hiding in plain sight, just like this next one.
The neon highlights and airbrush-like quality take this garage-dwelling grumpy cat to the next level. It’s gorgeous by day, but just imagine lighting it up with a blacklight after sunset. Talk about an amazing Halloween decoration in the making!
5. Andy Warhol-y Crap!
This fun twist from the UK’s Carl Kenz features a series of brightly-colored tentacles tumbling out of a Campbell’s can, ala the old snake prank. Also included is a smart tip for aspiring graffiti artists across the globe, in the form of a Warhol quote: Art is what you can get away with. That means, of course, that art doesn’t always have to be up on a wall.
4. We All Float Here
Sometimes graffiti is right under your feet, like this interesting brickwork, forced-perspective piece from Cuboliquido in the Netherlands. A young woman reaches into an antique frame to fetch a boat, splashing “water” everywhere around her.
3. 8 Bit Glory
This interesting poolside piece in Italy uses an art technique that makes it look like it was pulled straight out of an old video game. The birds are both beautiful and interesting, making this a piece that the lucky pool-goers can appreciate as they relax. This next bird is a little more energetic.
2. Watch that Wall!
Cleverly-added black lines make it seem like Daniel Rossi’s large, 2D stylized woodpecker is actually cracking this Virginia brick wall with his talons. This combination of color and “movement” is dynamite! Speaking of movement…
1. Keep on Trucking
Of course, graffiti can always hit the road too, as this gorgeously spray-painted ride demonstrates.