The Best Cities for Street Art
For much of 2005, I walked the same five-block stretch of Rivington Street, on New York City ’s Lower East Side. A direct route to my favorite bars and restaurants, the street was lined with tenements and storefront bodegas that I usually strode right past. Then one day something stopped me in my tracks.
It was a painting. Rising up against the dirty white brick of a derelict building, this was no hurriedly sprayed graffiti. It was a beautiful, arrestingly detailed black-and-white image of a young boy in a baggy T-shirt, one arm raised proudly above his head as if to show off his biceps.
The portrait was a complete mystery. Who was the boy? Who had painted him, and why here, where he seemed to be growing right out of the sidewalk? Intrigued, I started looking for other great street art on the walls and alleyways of my city—and I found them everywhere.
“Street art can change your relationship to a place,” says Marc Schiller, cofounder with his wife, Sara, of WoosterCollective.com , a website devoted to street art around the world. (The duo, well-known street-art aficionados, have lectured on the subject at the Tate Modern in London .) “It opens up your peripheral vision, so you start to notice things you didn’t before. You start to tap into a city’s underbelly, its soul.”
If the proliferation of street-art galleries, exhibits, online photo albums, and websites like Streetsy.com and Unurth.com are any indication, people are increasingly enthusiastic about finding that “soul.” These days, says Sara Schiller, people “don’t just make a beeline for the big museums. They walk around and explore…and see what people are putting up without permission.” That could mean poking into mural-covered alleyways in Melbourne and São Paulo , venturing into far-flung, nontouristy neighborhoods around London and Paris , or visiting iconic sites of political unrest, like the West Bank and remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Of course, what some call soul, others call vandalism. Even exquisitely crafted street paintings like the one that first grabbed me (which turned out to be the work of Swoon, now an internationally famous street artist), or the stencil paintings of Banksy, which have fetched six-figure prices at Sotheby’s auctions, are illegal in most places around the world. Consequently, the preferred media for many street artists—stickers, posters, stencils, and wheatpastes (drawings that are cut out and slapped up with adhesive, like sheets of wallpaper)—are ones that allow for quick-and-dirty installation.
But according to Marc Schiller, street art’s fly-by-night quality—the fact that it can be torn down or obscured just hours after it appears—is part of what makes it magical.
“There’s an energy about street art that you know is ephemeral,” he says. “Your relationship with it becomes really immediate and personal, almost visceral. It may not have staying power—but it has power.”
Where to Go: Some of L.A.’s best spotting grounds are in La Brea (just east of Beverly Hills). Pay special attention to the stretch of North La Brea Avenue around Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard; Banksy—easily the world’s most famous street artist—has left his mark here, in several spots just outside the Beverly Cinema.
What to Look For: As well as the Banksy pieces (which includes the caveman-with-fast-food stencil shown here), you might see Warhol-style colorized photo portraits from relative newcomer MBW. Also check out gas-station walls for spooky skeleton Pegasus stencils from Skullphone.
Where to Go: In the 20 years since the demolition of the Berlin Wall (whose western face was famously blanketed with graffiti), street artists have been steadily invading the city’s easterly districts. They’ve gotten particularly busy in the neighborhoods of Mitte, Kreuzberg (especially around Falckensteinstrasse and Schlesische Strasse), and Friedrichshain—where the longest-remaining piece of the wall still stands, covered by stencils and spray-painted tags.
What to Look For: Striking stenciled figures from artists Alias and Xoooox (pictured) and the signature, spray-painted shaking fists of native Berliner Kripoe.
New York City: Manhattan
Where to Go: Though any neighborhood south of midtown is fair game for street-art spotting, you’re likely to have especially good luck in Chelsea—the city’s main gallery district. The block of 21st Street between 10th and 11th avenues is a good place to start; the walls outside and across from the Eyebeam Gallery are almost always thickly decorated.
What to Look For: Intricate wheatpaste designs—which are painted, drawn, cut out, and then affixed like sheets of wallpaper—from street artists like Gaia, Imminent Disaster, and Swoon (pictured); bold posters from Shepard Fairey and Dain; and mosaic-tile aliens and robots from Invader.
New York City: Brooklyn
Where to Go: While many street artists have migrated in recent years from Williamsburg to less-trammeled Brooklyn neighborhoods (Bushwick is the latest open-air gallery), swaths of art still adorn the streets and alleys of “Billyburg.” Prime viewing areas include North 6th Street (around Berry Street and Wythe Avenue), Ainslie Street (just east of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), and Roebling Street—where, as of this writing, a towering radio-controlled giraffe by artist Nick Walker decorates a wall just south of Metropolitan Avenue.
What to Look For: Comic-book-style poster art from Faile, gorgeously colorful photo collages from Judith Supine (pictured), and woodcut-style stencils (mostly close-ups of faces) by C215.
Where to Go: With a long history of political street art, São Paulo is something of a giant, sprawling outdoor gallery. For guaranteed good browsing, head to the hip neighborhood of Vila Madalena, on the city’s western edge. Here, the famous Beco do Batman (“Batman Alley”) is covered with an ever-changing display of artwork.
What to Look For: Works by hometown street-art heroes—like the striking woodcut-style murals of Speto and Nunca and the dreamy, yellow-tinged figure paintings (pictured) of Os Gêmeos (twin brothers Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfo), whose pieces evoke slightly unsettling children’s-book illustrations.
Where to Go: Though famous (and not-so-famous) street artists have made their mark all over this city, a great many have favored the working-class enclaves of the East End—especially the multiethnic neighborhood around Brick Lane and the adjacent industrial quarters of Shoreditch and Spitalfields.
What to Look For: Street-art star Shepard Fairey’s dramatic, propaganda-style posters (pictured), almost always done in his signature colors of black, red, and white and accompanied by his tag, Obey (Fairey shot to fame in America with his now-iconic Obama poster). Also look for eye-catching stencils from Grafter. Careful scouts may even find a few remaining, if tampered with, Banksy pieces (true Banksy fans can head west to the artist’s home city of Bristol, where one of his latest murals outside a Park Street medical clinic is still—as of this writing—untouched).
Where to Go: With its thousands of “laneways” (what we call alleys) and a generally welcoming attitude toward street artists, Melbourne has become a mecca for enthusiasts of stencils, murals, wheatpastes, and poster art. The artistic epicenter is Hosier Lane, in the central business district, where the walls are completely and perennially festooned—but nearby Caledonian Lane is a close second.
What to Look For: Deftly painted superheroes and looming, distorted faces by Anthony Lister; glamorous photographic close-ups of women’s faces from Rone (pictured).
Where to Go: While two of the world’s most famous street artists—Blek le Rat, a pioneer of the stencil movement (pictured), and JR, whose monumental photographic portraits have adorned walls from the Gaza Strip to the Tate Modern in London—hail from Paris, their work isn’t often seen these days on their hometown streets. But fans can try their luck in the 20th Arrondissement neighborhoods of Belleville and Ménilmontant. More easily accessible art can be found in the bohemian-chic district of Le Marais.
What to Look For: If Blek’s and JR’s works elude you, keep an eye out for Jef Aerosol’s stenciled portraits of musicians or Invader’s tile aliens and Pac-Man-style ghosts (both in Le Marais).
Where to Go: Like many others in South America, B.A. is a city where art and protest have long commingled on public walls—and street art is found virtually everywhere. The most reliably excellent work is in the adjacent neighborhoods of Belgrano and Palermo (particularly Palermo Viejo, a venerable bohemian district where Che Guevara and Jorge Luis Borges once lived).
What to Look For: Works by homegrown talent—like the friendly, cartoonish murals by B.A.’s own Doma collective—are all over. But sleuths should also track down the monumental installations from famed artist Blu (pictured); although he often uses the streets here as his canvas, he rarely divulges actual locations.
Bethlehem, West Bank
Where to Go: It may seem an unlikely place to look for street art, but this ancient and sequestered holy city—separated by a fortified wall from neighboring Jerusalem—is actually just the sort of destination politically-minded street artists seek out. Here, along a wall that functions as a cultural as well as physical barrier, artwork seems to speak more loudly.
What to Look For: Several prominent street artists who decorated the wall as part of a 2007 exhibition, “Santa’s Ghetto,” still have work visible—among them Banksy, Swoon, and Blu. But just as striking are the long-limbed painted figures by Israeli artist Know Hope and JR’s series of photo portraits (pictured) of Israelis and Palestinians—seen side by side, mugging for the camera with goofy, undeniably similar faces.