Stroll through the streets of most large cities and you’re bound to stumble upon a wall, alleyway, or fence covered in graffiti or some sort of street art. To some, this type of artistic expression is just vandalism. However, to others it’s a way to discover the pulse and attitude of a city outside of a museum or art gallery. Also, there’s nothing like grabbing some street food and setting out to familiarize yourself with a place street-by-street.
The following list will give you a very brief leg-up on some of the most impressive street art you can find and what it’s all about. Strap on your kicks and get walking:
The most iconic graffiti in the world appeared during the Cold War on the western side of the Berlin Wall as a protest to the barrier that symbolically and physically divided East and West Germany. On the east side of the wall, East German officials took great lengths to discourage graffiti, keeping it an austere gray, while on the western side, the entire wall was covered. Since the Wall’s collapse in 1990, street artists flooded East Berlin and now make their mark throughout the city.
The neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte are home to various modern works, including the yellow fists on an abandoned building created by Kripoe. The East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain has one of the longest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, and was home to the famous image by Dmitri Vrubel of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev (the communist leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union) sharing a passionate kiss. This piece is currently being redone after it was destroyed in 2009.
In the 1980s, this town on the River Avon was home to an emerging art scene that celebrated trip-hop and drum and bass music as well as graffiti. Musicians such as Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky defined the “Bristol Sound” while the graffiti artist Banksy took street art to a new level with his unique stencils. Banksy’s fame has since skyrockted outside Bristol as he has made his mark in major cities around the world, but Bristol is still home to some of his most famous pieces.
One of his most well-known works is on a wall of a sexual health clinic on Park Street, depicting a naked man hanging off a window sill. Other images are on Upper Maudlin Street and along the waterline of The Thekla, a ship converted into a music venue where Banksy was a regular in the 90s. (We also managed to track Banksy’s work on his North American “tour” as he sketched from city to city.)
Derry, Northern Ireland
Tensions during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, when nationalists allied with Ireland were pitted against loyalists allied with the United Kingdom, created years of conflict and deep divisions within Northern Irish society. Over 3,000 people were killed and thousands more wounded in sectarian violence between the two sides over the course of three decades. Though most areas now maintain an uneasy peace, both nationalists and loyalists still express their feelings toward one another through neighborhood murals.
Some of the most famous works, including the one above titled “Operation Motorman” were created by the Bogside Artists; a group of painters who created a series murals in the Bogside neighborhood, showing one of the most infamous moments during The Troubles. Shankill Road in West Belfast contains a number of murals in support of the loyalist movement in Northern Ireland.
Following in the tradition of street artists in New York and London, this Australian city became famous for not only graffiti, but various other forms of street art such as sticker and poster art, wheatpasting and reverse graffiti, most forms of which have come about in the early part of the 21st century. While the city government has tried to crack down on most forms of street art, some local municipalities and artists have joined forces to try and legitimize the higher quality work and preserve it as a unique part of Melbourne’s urban culture.
Hoiser and Caledonian Lanes are among the most popular areas to spot street art in Melbourne, as is the suburb of Fitzroy with its thriving art community. In 2004, the Melbourne Stencil Festival was inaugurated to celebrate international stencil and street art, featuring artist interviews, live demonstrations, workshops, and film dedicated to the scene. The 2009 festival saw over 5000 people attend over the course of 10 days.
The largest city in the Western Hemisphere is well known for its colorful and vibrant street art, particularly in the form of murals. These vast pieces of art sometimes cover the entire side of a building and often are attempts by the artist to convey a message about living in one of the most urbanized areas on the planet.
Mixed in with all of the street art is pichação, a form of tagging found in São Paulo as well as other parts of Brazil. While pichação is also used to make political and cultural statements about Brazil, it is generally considered a lower form of street art because of its singular use of black aerosol spray paint. Local authorities, however, have been indiscriminate in removing both the high brand of street art (pictured above) along with the pichação, driving some locals to find ways to preserve local murals and paintings.
You won’t find as much street art in Tokyo as you will in other major cities around the world; one reason being local authorities remove graffiti soon after it’s put up. However, local artists often find other ways to create engaging street visuals without using the walls of their city as a canvas. Still, some street art does exist and the most impressive works often manage to avoid the scrubbers of city workers.
In the Shibuya and Shinjuku districts, sticker art from local artists, DJs, music groups, is often pasted onto street signs, doorways, and on alley walls as promotional tools. Many street artists also hang out near the Harajuku area in Shibuya, where they mingle among the unique fashion-obsessed subculture of Japanese youth who don a variety of styles from gothic to lolita to cosplay.
From the hippie counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury to the Hispanic and artisan works in the Mission District as well as all of the other influences in between, San Francisco has long been near or at the forefront of movements that celebrate urban culture. In fact, the Mission School, a street art movement that arose during the late 1990s and early 2000s, still heavily influences graffiti artists and muralists today.
Clarion Alley in the Mission has some of the best examples of the Mission School of street art, and the community has an annual block party to celebrate the newest contributions to the mural. The corner of Cole and Haight Streets is a good place to start if you want to check out some of the street art in the Haight-Ashbury, while the Duboce Bikeway has a 340 foot long, 18 foot high mural that stretches along a bikepath from Buchanan Street to Church Street.
The Dutch approach to street art is very similar to their mentality toward their coffeeshops and their infamous red-light district: decriminalization and promotion. Amsterdam has always been known for its openness and liberalism, and the city’s ideas toward street art perfectly align with those views. Instead of punishing graffiti artists, the local government rewards artists who create inspiring works.
This approach may remove the edge that some street artists view makes their work different from others, but on the other hand it has created opportunities for some fantastic murals in and around Amsterdam’s narrow streets and canals. If you’re headed to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam to see works by famous Dutch artists such as Rembrant and Vermeer, you may see modern graffiti art by sponsored artists such as Faith71 or 3rd Eye along the way.
New York City
In the early 1970s, graffiti exploded as a popular art form in Manhattan and since then New York City has been the home to the modern street art movement. Over the course of several decades emerged several artists, such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who became famous by making their mark on walls throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, The Bronx, and Queens.
While a crackdown in the early 1990s prevented artists from creating their pieces anywhere they wanted – especially on the New York Subway – some of the more famous works still remain. Today, graffiti artists still find inspiration on the streets of NYC and you can find their stuff primarily on the Lower East Side, East Village, and north of 96th Street in Harlem.
West Bank, Palestine/Israel
At its rawest form, street art is often a visceral reaction to the events surrounding a person’s life – whether it’s a cultural, spiritual, or political influence. Much like the Berlin Wall during the 1980s, the West Bank Barrier has become a canvas for frustrated Palestinians who feel they are being literally imprisoned.
Whether the statement is by a famous artist like Banksy (yet again) or a simple scribble and quote from Rage Against the Machine, or even a tongue-in-cheek computer reference, sometimes the best art is the simplest, but also the kind that sends out a powerful message.