Every art form or art movement have their specific language. We can find many art historical dictionaries or glossaries in any library in virtually every language. Still, one of the biggest art movements – Street Art and Graffiti in a broader sense – has been deprived of its right to have such a lexicon. This is why we embarked on a neverending journey of starting and building a glossary of Street Art and Graffiti words.
Categorizing a complex, differentiated and rich subculture of Street Art and Graffiti is practically impossible, but we tried to group these words into three basic categories – Cultural terms, Styles, and Techniques. Please, be aware that any of the terms can refer to more than one category and that this attempt in classification was done in good faith.
We present you with the ultimate glossary of Graffiti and Street Art, a growing lexicon of terms that we will continue to update.
Adbusting – Or Subvertising is the practice of altering and making satirical interventions on public, corporate or political advertisements. It’s marked by humor, satire and often sharp criticism of certain societal issues, most often consumerism.
All-city – Gaining this label means to become a famous graffiti writer in the entire city. The term originates from New York, and it used to mean – to be known in all the five boroughs, while this “fame” was spread by the subway.
Angel(s) – a famed and well respected graffiti artist who is no longer alive. Admirers and followers would make tribute portraits of “Angels” or they would tag their names with hovering halos above, adding the dates of their birth and death.
Back to back or End to end – Huge graffiti piece that covers a wall from one end to the other, similar to pieces found on the western side of the Berlin Wall. On a subway train, it refers to a piece that covers the entire train, end to end. Abbreviation – B2B or E2E. Usually painted below the windows of a car, they are sometimes called window-downs.
Bite – To steal someone’s art, ideas, names, tags, letter styles or palette. Often a term related to “toys” (see below).
Black book – A sketchbook of a graffiti artist, a treasured possession. Usually, it’s filled with sketches of new pieces or other writers’ tags, containing the entirety of an artist’s body of work. A document of illegal works, a black book is carefully hidden away from authorities, so it doesn’t become evidence against its author.
Buff – To erase, paint over in one dull color, or otherwise remove graffiti, often with chemicals and pressure guns with sand or water.
Burn – To burn can mean either to make a better piece than a rival artist, or to snitch on someone (on purpose or accidentally). A burner piece is a complicated work that takes a lot of time and effort, a style statement, often legal.
Cannons – Spray cans. Term that probably originates in Brooklyn, NY.
Cap – Or Tips – is the nozzle for the spray paint can. Different types of aerosol caps are used to get different effects or styles, from Thins, Rustos, to Fatcap.
Crew – Also spelled as Cru or Krew, is a group of writers that work together, usually in a similar style. Although crew activity does reflect gang behavior, their prime objective is graffiti and not serious criminal. Crews often engage in large collaborative pieces, but a crew piece can also be executed by anyone in a group. If a single member is arrested, he can be held liable for a joint work.
Culture jamming – The act of subverting media culture and mainstream cultural marketing according to the principles of anti-consumerist social movements. A form of subvertising or adbusting, usually with a distinctively political purpose.
Deface / Cap / Go over – To ruin another artist’s piece. A writer named “Cap” would rudely make throw ups over existing graffiti, giving a name to this infamous practice.
Going over a piece is the ultimate sign of disrespect and represents a declaration of graffiti war. Still, there is a hierarchy of styles in which case going over can be tolerated. Usually, it means that low quality work is OK to be painted over with something better. The other way around is generally unacceptable.
Dress-up – To paint over a specific enclosed are entirely – to completely change a shop window or a doorway that has previously been graffiti-free.
Fatcap – A wide spray can nozzle, that covers a wide area at once, used to fill in the pieces.
German Montana – A brand specializing in graffiti-related products, such as spray cans etc. Not related to Spanish Montana, a company that came up with the idea first. The two companies had a dispute over the name.
Ghost – A paint stain that is left after a graffiti work has been badly buffed.
Hat (honor among thieves) – For an artist with a solid reputation in the graffiti community, a trusted member who does not snitch, is said that he’s wearing a “hat”.
Head / King – Head is a highly respected writer in a certain area, similar to King or Queen. Kings or Queens are graffiti artists that are famous among other writers for their skill, style or courage. Self-proclaimed kings often paint crowns into their work, but this practice is risky because their claim must be valid in the eyes of the others. Usually, kings or queens are declared by other kings or queens.
Heaven spot (Heavens) – Challenging pieces of graffiti painted in places that are almost impossible to reach and require a significant level of acrobatics. Painting in heaven spots can lead to injury or death (they can ‘hit up heavens’), which only contributes to the reputation of the writer. Furthermore, heavens are also rather difficult to remove.
Hip-hop – Late 70s and early 70s culture marked by early rap music, breakdancing and visual style that gave birth to the graffiti culture.
Invisible – A rare and symbolic form of graffiti that represents only quickly sketched logos.
Krylon – A brand of spray paint, once popular with writers, heavily used in the 70s and 80s. A sign of graffiti nostalgia, known for its 5-spot logo. Despite a new line of paint issued in 2008, it’s considered that only a toy would use a 360 krylon, the cheapest variation of the spray can. The first line of paint, “original krylon”, is considered a collectors’ item.
Landmark – A graffiti piece executed in a location that is hard to reach or hidden, difficult to buff, generally in place for at least 5 years. Usually marked with a date of painting. These works are held in high regard by the writers.
Legal wall – A piece that is made legalley, with permission from the wall owner or the authorities. Only a testified illegal writers can get respect for legal walls.
Lock on – Sculpture in public spaces, generally locked or chained to public fittings such as light posts and similar. It’s non-destructive, installation-type of art.
Married couple – A vintage subway term originating from New York, signifying two subway cars that are permanently tied to each other. In graffiti, it means two whole cars painted next to each other, sometimes with a painting being connected across the gap – a sign of the “marriage”.
Moniker – A street name of an artist, their nickname and label.
Pichação – Celebrated style of graffiti created in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Created by the misfits as a form of social protest, these works bear considerable risk, being painted in hard-to-reach places. More popular for its meaning than for its stylistic qualities.
Post-graffiti – A generic, recent term that includes everything that could be seen as Street Art.
Rooftop – Heaven graffiti painted on rooftops.
Rook – A trustworthy crew member.
Run – Time that a graffiti piece spends on a surface without being removed, duration of a piece. “It run for a year” can be said.
Slam – To do graffiti in a very public or otherwise risky location.
Slash – To cross-out or to tag over a piece of another writer. A serious insult – same as Cap.
Spanish Montana – A brand specializing in graffiti-related products, such as spray cans etc. Not related to German Montana, a company of the same name that followed the steps of Spanish Montana. The two companies had a dispute over the name.
Toy – A word describing either poor work or a painter without skill, sometimes a newbie. “To toy” someone else’s graffiti means to go over it. An acronym meaning “tag over your shit”, often placed on top of bad, or “toy” work.
Tree – Graffiti that is chiseled into a tree bark.
Undersides – Graffiti painted on the underside of a subway or train car. Often lasts longer than the usual train tag, because it’s spotted later and not as visible.
Whole car/ whole train – A large graffiti piece executed by one or multiple writers that covers the entire outside surface of a train car. Whole train graffiti covers the entirety of a train.
Difficult to paint, these works are more often collaborative, done in limited amounts of time (often under 5 minutes) with limited color schemes. If successful, this is one of the most respected graffiti forms out there.
Writer – A graffiti artist.
3D Style – An effect used on basic graffiti letters to add an illusion of a third dimension. The first artist who started embellishing letters in this way is Phase 2. In graffiti culture, 3D refers to letter writing, but there is another version of 3D painting on pavement that is very popular called Chalk art. Chalk art and 3D graffiti are very different in both concept and aesthetics and they are not to be mixed.
Abstract Style – Letters are generally not a part of the Abstract style, but the painterly skill and harmony an artist demonstrates in a piece. The goal is similar to abstract painting – to make a harmonious piece with specific dynamics and balance by the use of basic artistic elements – line, shape, geometry, color and composition.
Anti-Style / Ugly Style – Also known as “ghetto style” or “ignorant style”. A deliberately toy or seemingly unskilled style of writing and painting. It stems from the 70s graffiti culture in New York, but it spread gaining popularity in the 80s and early 90s in San Francisco. Anti-style does not follow any rules and is highly individualized, but often visually awkward. We can see examples of this type of painting in San Francisco, New York, Paris, Berlin and other bigger cities in Europe.
Backjump – A throw-up or a panel piece that is executed quickly, often on a momentarily parked train or bus.
Blockbuster Style – Blockbuster or “straight” letters are big, square, robust and simple. More readable than most graffiti, they are usually painted in two colors, often combinations of plain black, white and silver. Used to go over other work, or to cover train sides more easily, blockbusters are good for supreme coverage.
Bombing – An act of painting many different walls inside one city area or train within a very short timeframe. To “hit”. Graffiti bombers are prone to using simpler styles, tags or throw-ups, because speed is an important factor. It can also mean – to go out writing.
Bubble Style – An old, a bit dated graffiti style of simple, rounded, bubble-shaped letters, generally easy to read. Throw-ups are often painted in this style, because it’s easy and quick to execute.
Cartoon / Character – A widely recognized cartoon or a character figure often borrowed from comics, popular culture or TV. Writers dedicated to cartoons often invent their own characters and imagery. Cartoon graffiti adds humor to a piece, easily adapted to the most of the lettering styles.
Challenge (Insides) – Challenge graffiti is made to mark that somebody “was there”. Just like insides, it’s often painted indoors. Insides are a more specific reference to tags written inside public transportation vehicles – trains, busses etc.
Complex Style – A generic term for graffiti that uses complicated lettering, an abundance of color and that is hard to execute. These works are difficult to read, but they are visually impressive.
Dubs (UK) – Graffiti executed in silver or chrome paint, originating from London, UK. They can be found around railway stations or in the streets. Dubs are usually a crew effort.
Free Style – A combination of styles without one defining characteristic. An individual expression.
Full Monty – A piece that covers an entire area, wall or object. It can contain a coarse, but a highly effective message.
Mop – A homemade graffiti painting tool. Usually used to paint larger tags. It has a rounded tip and leaves a fat line that drips. Mops can be done in different paints.
Mural – A wall painting applied on either outside or an inside surface, or a ceiling. In street art, it refers to a large, elaborate wall piece that requires significant skill to paint. Unlike graffiti, murals normally respect the architecture of the wall and the building, sometimes even the surroundings. They are often legal.
Old School – A generic term that refers to the times of early graffiti, to the 70s and early 80s. It can relate to the hip-hop music of that period as well. Old-school writers enjoy a lot of respect because they were there from the beginning, many of them having invented particular styles of writing. For example, Phase 2 created bubbles, clouds and 3D, and Blade and Comet started using blockbusters first.
Own Style – A style characteristic for one specific writer.
Piece (free-hand) – Short for “masterpiece”, painted free-hand. A big and complex piece of wall painting that is time-consuming and difficult to execute. It’s characterised by many different components, such as rich palette, 3D elements, and other visual marks. A work of a more experienced writer, earning them extra respect.
Punition – A type of graffiti writing in which one word is repeated countless times, until it covers an entire surface. The name comes from the punition lines used to punish children at school.
Roller graffiti – Graffiti that is painted with a roller and paint, rather than with a spray can. There are special techniques related to this type of writing.
Semi-Wildstyle – A simpler form of Wildstyle, more discernible than the full-on wildstyle writing.
Sharp – A manner of writing very geometric, angular letters with lost of sharp angles and corners, taking the pointy and piercing elements to an extreme. Letters are altered greatly,often unrecognizable, giving off a fierce and furious impression.
Tag – A signature of a writer, very stylized, written quickly, usually in one color that contrasts the background. Denotes the artist’s moniker. The simplest and the most common type of graffiti. Used as a verb, “to tag” means “to sign”, which derives from a classical practice of artists signing their works.
Tagging – To write tags. An accepted term in today’s pop culture, often meaning something other than graffiti writing. After it first appeared in Philadelphia with messages Bobby Beck was leaving around city’s freeways, tagging has evolved in many different ways. Different manners of tagging can be found in different cities, often depending on the region and local culture, and naturally, the artist himself. New York tag writer of the early 70s, TAKI 183 is considered one of the forefathers of graffiti and tagging in general.
Throw-up – Sometimes called a “throwie” is a simple form of graffiti, sitting between a tag and a bomb. It’s usually painted with a simple letter outline and then filled with color. Hollow throw-ups are called “Hollows”, while painted are known as “Fill-ins”. Throw-ups are often made in bubble or blockbuster style that support quick execution. Artists would use throw-ups and tags to cover as many surfaces as possible, competing with their rivals. These graffiti works are stylistically defined and recognizable, unlike pieces that are more liberated and painterly. Along with a tag, a throw-up is an artist’s logo.
Wildstyle – Very complex and highly stylized form of lettering that is often impossible to read by non-writers. The letters can get so complicated, borderline abstract, containing 3D elements, with a lot of connections, arrows, and interlocking. Generally, wildstyle is seen as one of the most demanding graffiti writing styles, reserved only for those with serious skill.
Domming -A spray-painting color mixing technique where one color is sprayed over another wet layer and the two nuances are then rubbed together. An abrasive tool, such as sand or sandpaper, can be used to create effects in domming. The term derives from the word “condom”, synonymous to “rubber”. Sometimes referred to as “fingering”, because it’s executed with fingers.
Etching – In graffiti, it refers to the use of acid solutions to create frosted glass (Etch Bath), to write on windows. Potentially hazardous. In Norway, there were trains taken off the rails because of the danger these solutions posed for public health.
Extinguisher bombing – To do graffiti with a fire extinguisher filled with paint. This technique can cover large surfaces, but it leaves a fat, messy, dripping line and it’s not suitable for fine work.
Fading – An aerosol color blending technique.
Fill-ins – A term denoting the painted interior of letters, throw-ups or pieces, usually in a single, solid color.
Installation – An art genre of three-dimensional, site-specific works that are usually created having that particular locale in mind. They can be executed in the interior or in the exterior. Exterior installations fall into the domain of public art, land art, public interventions or street art, although these art forms often overlap.
Outlining – Making a sketch or a preparatory drawing, done on paper or in a black book while planning a piece. An outline can also refer to a wall sketch, or to the contour of a throw-up or similar graffiti work, a boundary that can be filled.
Poster – A paper-based work created in the studio that can be wheat-pasted onto a wall. Following a long and rich history of poster art, graffiti culture has taken this easy and effective public expression tool and transformed it into one of the most favored paste-up formats.
Scriber – A scribing or scratching tool. An instrument tipped with a ceramic or a diamond drill bit, used to engrave a tag into a surface, usually inside a public vehicle. A destructive tool.
Scribing / Scratching -Also known as “scratchitti”, scribing is a destructive technique of hand-engraving or scratching a tag into a surface. It can be done using a simple key, knife or sand paper, although scribing pros use a Scriber.
Stencil – One of the most popular form of street art. Stencil pieces are made with stencils made out of cardboard, paper and other materials that help create a nice, figurative image quickly and well. The pre-prepared design is cut out and then transferred onto a wall with a spray or roll-on paint. Easily repeated on different walls. Multiple layers of stencils can create very beautiful and elaborate images, allowing the use of a lot of colors and details.
Sticker – Stickers are used to bomb, slap or tag a surface or an area without writing. Graffiti stickers are usually designed and printed well ahead, containing traits of an artist’s style as well as his message. Sticker messages often contain political or social critique, referring to a specific issue. Many brands produce their own stickers.
Wheatpasting / Paste-up – Wheat paste or flour paste is an adhesive made of flour or starch and water. It’s used to glue paper-based images to a wall, giving a name to a street art technique. Many artists who create their paper-based works in the studio engage in wheatpasting when they distribute their pieces around an area. These works can be simple or complex, depending on an individual artist. Works made and installed this way are called paste-ups. The technique is quick and easy to execute in the street, although each piece can take a lot of time to invent and prepare in the studio, showing the artistic mastery of its author.
Yarn bombing – A recent type of street art activity that makes use of crocheted or knitted colorful yarn coverings, thrown on different parts of public furniture such as sculptures, fences, light posts, monuments etc. It’s also known as guerrilla knitting, urban knitting, or yarn storming.