America's Coolest Street Art
Nobody loves slumlords, but some vigilante artists are taking it a step further and shaming them by spray painting and wheat-pasting murals with details about code violations on neglected Baltimore buildings.
While their work draws attention to urban decay, cities like Baltimore have also embraced street art as a means of urban beautification. And for a growing number of travelers, notable examples of street art by name brands like Banksy have become don’t-miss attractions that often draw them out of downtown and into emerging neighborhoods.
Some artists have crossed from creating illegal art to gaining corporate commissions and appearing in art galleries, although the transition isn’t always seamless. Shepard Fairey—of OBEY sticker and Obama poster fame—was arrested in Boston outside his show opening in 2009 on vandalism charges.
Street art can encompass decorating underpasses, fire hydrants, call boxes, staircases, and bike racks. But it’s mural art that most often captures the public’s imagination and receives official or tacit approval.
Ray Patlan, of Oakland, CA, has been called one of the earliest initiators of the contemporary Mural Renaissance in the U.S. He found his calling on childhood trips to Mexico, where Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros made a lasting impression. “I decided that if the murals could be so powerful there, why not back home?” Patlan recalled. In 1967, he began painting in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Street art’s power can lie in its ability to spark discussion about a particular issue, as in Baltimore or in the case of Chicago-based Bonus Saves, who comments on the impact of oil on nature. Other street-art examples evoke powerful emotions such as L.A.-based El Mac’s spray-painted portraits in Thai Town.
We’ve mapped out more cool examples of America’s street-art scenes.
The Mission District’s Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley resemble an open-air street-art museum with about 40 murals each; Precita Eyes points you to the finest examples on its walking tours. Huge heads drawn by artist Barry McGee (a.k.a. Twist) can be spotted in the Mission and in local galleries, while artist APEX has a multilayered, colorful work on Turk Street and Mason. Any Diego Rivera fans should head inside the Pacific Stock Exchange to view his masterwork Allegory of California (between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily).
Philadelphia counts more murals—3,600—than any other American city, and its mural walking tour is a popular attraction. It’s the legacy of an arts program that began in 1984 to eradicate a graffiti crisis; a free iPhone app can help you navigate the city’s current mural collection. Notable projects include the colorful Southeast by Southeast; striking black and white mural The Watchtowers by Joe Boruchow; and Espo’s romantic murals on Market Street. Isaiah Zagar has covered thousands of square feet with ornate, whimsical mosaics.
The Open Walls Baltimore project, curated by local muralist Gaia, has assembled an impressive gathering of talent including Jaz from Argentina, MOMO from New Orleans, Vhils from Portugal, Interesni Kazki from Ukraine, Swoon and John Ahearn from New York, and Sten and Lex from Italy. In just two months, 23 murals were installed in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Reflecting on his giant mural of an elephant and Cape Town (located at Lafayette and Charles), artist Freddy Sam says: “Color creates energy, energy creates inspiration, and inspiration creates change. It is our responsibility to inspire ourselves to inspire others to inspire the change. Art is the remedy for this.”
Street artist Bored had Logan Square residents smiling in 2012 when oversize dice and Monopoly game pieces began appearing on city sidewalks. The installation included a Community Chest card that read, “You have won first prize in a hipster mustache [sic] contest. Move to Wicker Park.” The Grocer, another local artist, is best known for giant and mini half grapefruits on view throughout the city, while Bonus Saves’s works feature wildlife and comment on the impact of oil on nature. The Chicago Public Arts group conveniently maps its public art for visitors. It embraces not only murals in neighborhoods like Pilsen but also a beautifying comfort stations project and one commemorating HIV education with a mixed media work.
A series of parking lots, loading docks, and rundown factory buildings were transformed in 2009 into the dazzling Wynwood Walls art project. Free to the public, it features works from Futura, Shepard Fairey, Os Gêmeos, Kenny Scharf, and other notable street artists. One of the world’s largest concentrations of commissioned murals, Wynwood Walls is located at NW 25th Street and NW Second Avenue, between Joey’s Italian Café and Wynwood Kitchen & Bar.
New York City
British street-art icon Banksy made headlines for his fall 2013 stint in New York City, while Brazilian Eduardo Kobra has made his mark with kaleidoscopic murals of iconic scenes like the V-J Day kiss. Among local artists, Swoon has drawn critical praise for Bicycle Boy in Brooklyn. Street Art NYC tracks everything from the latest art along the High Line to the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem. About 20 blocks north, you’ll find Keith Haring’s 1986 Crack Is Wack mural on a handball court wall at Harlem River Drive and E. 128th Street. The time is ticking for another classic, 5 Pointz, a huge former factory covered in graffiti art in Queens’s Long Island City neighborhood; it’s scheduled for demolition by the end of 2013.
L.A.-born and based El Mac has been wowing audiences with intricate, rippling portraits like the spray-painted works Skid Row and La Reina de Thai Town, both done in collaboration with artist Retna. Other notable works include Brazilian artist Kobra’s new Albert Einstein mural at 1253 South La Brea. Artist Bumblebee, who uses his murals to help raise awareness of L.A.’s youth homelessness, installed Walk the Dog in Hollywood on Melrose and Spaulding. L.A. Street Art Gallery makes it easy to find the coolest examples with a helpful map, and an even better database of images.
The Living Walls conference showcases Atlanta’s street art, and also serves as a platform for spurring dialogue about the city at large. In August 2013, it hosted a conference of artists from around the world, who are producing 20 new murals across the city. It has a terrific map that highlights new pieces by street artists JR, Nanook, Axel Void, Matt Haffner, and Joshua Ray Stephens. And don’t miss Agostino’s multistoried marvel at 890 Memorial Dr.
When it comes to outdoor murals and public artwork, Pittsburgh has it tagged and mapped. The collection of 391 works by 198 artists was catalogued by some enterprising individuals biking in the ‘Burgh, who sorted them into 74 neighborhoods with photos. Street Art Pittsburgh finds amusement and relevance in the town’s quirkier artistic expressions, from pink dinosaurs to yarn bombs (these include knitted—yes, knitted—bike racks). Examples large and small are found along the Eliza Furnace Trail, in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and downtown.
The Lovejoy Columns—painted by night watchman Athanasios (Tom) Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952—are Portland’s oldest surviving examples of street art. Locals successfully lobbied to prevent development from destroying the whimsical designs, even as the bridge span the columns supported was torn down. The free Public Art PDX app provides the backstory for these and other notable street-art works. For more recent examples, head to Belmont, Alberta, and Buckman—neighborhoods that also happen to be full of food trucks, galleries, and trendy restaurants.
In advance of the 2012 Super Bowl, Indianapolis rallied local and national artists to paint 46 eye-catching murals around Marion County on underpasses, buildings, and other surfaces. It’s just one example of how supporting street art here is truly a civic-minded endeavor. Public Art Indianapolis works with emerging and established artists, galleries, and museums to produce innovative projects and exhibitions. Its map breaks the art into categories (sculptures and murals) and exhibits. Shawn Causey’s 171-foot Bright City aluminum mural installation is currently under way on Delaware Street.
In 2012, Brazilian twin muralists Os Gêmeos stirred controversy in Dewey Square with a giant, cartoonish mural of a boy in pajamas and a head covering (some complained it looked like a terrorist). In keeping with street art’s transitive side, the work was recently replaced by the more subdued, abstract Remanence: Salt and Light (Part II) by British-born artist Matthew Ritchie. Local talent KDONZ has made a name for guerilla street art that appears in both galleries and street installations. There are also a dozen works throughout the city by Shepard Fairey; detour to Cambridge for Caleb Neelon’s 2012 mural, PushMePullYou.
Prolific Houston-based Israeli artist Anat Ronen has crafted 300 murals and other works on highways, commercial spots, and in private homes since 2009. Her recent public art project, I Am Watching You, is at the “Mullet” in southeast Houston. Eyesore, meanwhile, has been captivating Houston residents with his intricate line designs for more than a decade. Street Art for My Heart stays up to date on the many authorized and unauthorized creations popping up throughout Houston and nearby Austin. A map guides visitors to works as well.