Spray it, don't say it.

Graffiti is growing. That’s not just an off-the-cuff measurement based on what I see coming to work every day. Typically lumped into the same boat as vandalism, graffiti — as an art form — has started to go mainstream with increasing numbers of marketers and advertisers taking advantage of the medium’s eye-catching appeal.

 

In Chicago, for example, Microsoft recently used it to promote its new Surface tablet. IKEA, meanwhile, has commissioned graffiti artists to, in their own words, “thrash” their ads. And at urban and suburban spots across the map you can find many more examples.

Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic junior high school, I was introduced to graffiti as an art form at a young age. The abstract nature of the lettering, the vivid color schemes and the creative characters all fascinated me. And ever since, I’ve appreciated the talents of true graffiti artists.

Many people misconstrue the art form of graffiti by confusing it with the spray painting that’s done by gang vandals or teenage pranksters. In reality, however, those are two totally different worlds. In fact, comparing them is like comparing chicken scratch to Japanese calligraphy.

Beyond graffiti’s emerging uses as a marketing tool for companies, its modern-day roots also have much in common with the field of marketing itself. In fact, in some ways, it’s as if the two are one in the same. Like marketers, graffiti artists are all about creating and maintaining a successful “brand.” And like marketers, they too start with a “logo,” known in this case as their “tag,” which is each artist’s unique identification mark.

The goal is to then make the tag as visible as possible through “mass marketing,” which includes tactics such as painting “throw-ups” (something done quickly and repeatedly while still identifying the graffiti writer), “heavens” (pieces put up in very hard-to-reach — and hard to paint over — locations, which can spark competition among artists) and stencils (a quick way to put up somewhat detailed pieces).

For some artists, such as Shepard Fairey — who most famously created the iconic Barack Obama “HOPE” poster — graffiti has become a steppingstone for them to launch their art and design careers. Many have gone on to work in skateboard and snowboarding apparel, in shoe design for companies such as DC Shoes and Adidas, or have gotten their artwork displayed in galleries. Other graffiti artists, meanwhile, paint only for their love of the medium.

At the end of the day, the common goal for both graffiti and marketing is to be considered the best and most well known by an artist’s peers or a company’s consumers.

Below, I’ve selected examples from a group of graffiti artists, including Shepard Fairey, who I’ll refer to as the “5 Kings.” Though there are many great artists out there, I chose to highlight these five due to their overall talent, popularity and longevity. I believe their work displays the differences between a graffiti artist and some punk kid with a limited vocabulary and can of spray paint in his hand.

And by looking at these pieces, it’s also easy to understand why marketers and advertisers are taking notice — and advantage — of this artistic medium, which draws the eye in ways that traditional advertising simply cannot.