For many years, transcription factor Sp1 was viewed as a basal transcription factor and relegated to a role in the regulation of so-called housekeeping genes. Identification of Sp1's role in recruiting the general transcription machinery in the absence of a TATA box increased its importance in gene regulation, particularly in light of recent estimates that the majority of mammalian genes lack a TATA box. In this review, we briefly consider the history of Sp1, the founding member of the Sp family of transcription factors. We review the evidence suggesting that Sp1 is highly regulated by post-translational modifications that positively and negatively affect the activity of Sp1 on a wide array of genes. Sp1 is over-expressed in many cancers and is associated with poor prognosis. Targeting Sp1 in cancer treatment has been suggested; however, our review of the literature on the role of Sp1 in the regulation of genes that contribute to the ‘hallmarks of cancer’ illustrates the extreme complexity of Sp1 functions. Sp1 both activates and suppresses the expression of a number of essential oncogenes and tumor suppressors, as well as genes involved in essential cellular functions, including proliferation, differentiation, the DNA damage response, apoptosis, senescence and angiogenesis. Sp1 is also implicated in inflammation and genomic instability, as well as epigenetic silencing. Given the apparently opposing effects of Sp1, a more complete understanding of the function of Sp1 in cancer is required to validate its potential as a therapeutic target.