People have been leaving their creative mark on walls for thousands of years – the oldest known cave paintings date from more than 40,000 years ago. Today, those primitive etchings have blossomed into the worldwide phenomenon of street art.
Adorning urban spaces across the globe, this form of art is often deeply interwoven with the culture and history of a place and offers an eye-opening way to explore a destination. Here are eight amazing cities, straight from the pages of our new Street Art book, where you can see some of the best of these metropolitan masterpieces.
Berlin is a rich hub of street art. Post-reunification, an abundance of large, empty buildings, a relatively cheap cost of living and a thriving counterculture have combined to bring an influx of artists and musicians to the city. Berlin was prominent during the early street art boom, and has become an essential pilgrimage site for visiting artists – it’s now known ironically as ‘the most bombed city in the world’. This time, though, the bombing is with spray paint, paste-ups and stickers, as well as alternative mediums like Lego (as seen in Jan Vormann’s colourful creations) and even yarn.
During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was a symbolic target for politically motivated art, though only the west side was covered in graffiti – it was impossible for residents on the east side to get close enough. A section of the original wall, replete with contemporary graffiti, can still be seen on Mühlenstrasse.
New York, USA
As the birthplace of modern graffiti, it’s no surprise that New York and its artists played a starring role in the global growth of street art. Despite the increasingly frequent appearance of commissioned murals, New York’s scene retains a rawness. Each area has a distinct vibe, despite sometimes being separated by only a few blocks.
Visitors should gravitate to Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn – home to many of the city’s best-known artists – as well as the Lower East Side, SoHo, NoLita and Harlem. Away from the streets, the new One World Trade Center lobby houses a 27m mural from Brooklyn-based artist José Parlá, who has successfully blurred the line between street and gallery.
São Paulo, Brazil
Prior to experiencing the São Paulo street art scene for the first time, it’s worth educating yourself about the history behind the visual onslaught of tagging that seemingly adorns every surface in this sprawling urban metropolis. Pichação (‘writing in tar’) began as political graffiti during the Brazilian dictatorship, with its distinct calligraphic font inspired by the heavy metal album covers that dominated the São Paulo airwaves during the 1980s. Today, however, the ‘Pichadores’ are mostly interested in extreme tagging, with success measured in volume and height – the latter gained through use of modified fire extinguishers, roller extensions and life-or-death free climbing.
From the late ’90s to mid 2000s, London was pivotal in the explosive growth of the street art scene, centred on the back streets, alternative galleries and underground drinking dens of the post-industrial East End. This trend peaked around 2008, when the Tate Modern staged a groundbreaking street art exhibition on the banks of the Thames and Banksy pioneered his ‘Cans Festival’ in the Leake Street tunnel – still a graffiti hotspot today.
The scene remains fairly focused on the East End – particularly the now ultra-trendy Shoreditch, and neighbouring Brick Lane and Hackney areas, where cobbled roads and streets of painted and pasted walls exist side-by-side with members’ clubs, Michelin-starred restaurants and high-end boutiques.
Melbourne is arguably Australia’s cultural (and countercultural!) capital, and is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities. One of the reasons for its distinction can be traced to its streets. Thanks to the vision of its founders, the city centre has a uniquely navigable combination of wide, sweeping avenues and characterful, bluestone-cobbled lanes, making it something of a joy to explore. It’s a safe, clean, vibrant metropolis brimming with residents who love to meet, eat, drink and create.
Although graffiti is still technically illegal in the city, the public and private response to street art is generally positive – when Banksy first painted here, the council even tried (unsuccessfully) to preserve his work behind perspex panels. Today, Melburnians tend to embrace the ephemeral nature of public art, although work has been undertaken to restore a rare Keith Haring mural in the city.
The first half of the 20th century saw Portugal stifled by a right-wing dictatorship, but the 1974 revolution resulted in an upsurge in politically motivated public art. By the time this trend had abated in the early ’90s, the arrival of traditional graffiti artists had taken up their forebears’ mantle. In recent years, Lisbon city council has actively supported street artists, and the advent of organised efforts such as ‘Underdogs’ and the CRONO Project – as well as the emergence of homegrown artists like Vhils – has attracted a high-profile roster of international names to the city. Today, Lisbon is one of the best locations in the world to experience street art in all its forms.
Many of the city’s street art gems can be found in and around the Bairro Alto area, with key hotspots including a series of legal walls along the Calçada da Glória, as well as along the river to the south.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The fourth most populous city in the Americas, Buenos Aires shares a very active contemporary street art scene with its table-topping cousins. The European-influenced architecture of the city provides a great backdrop for street art, reminiscent of cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Lisbon. Unlike in those cities, however, there is no need to obtain permission from local authorities to create new murals in Buenos Aires – you simply need permission from the property owner. This legal and logistical freedom has led to an active and innovative street art scene, built on the city’s historical legacy of stencil-based political protest art.
Street art flourishes throughout the city, but areas particularly worthy of attention include Coghlan and Villa Urquiza. Here, a now-abandoned plan for a new motorway led to the demolition of many buildings and the creation of scores of giant murals, including one by famed local artist Martin Ron.
Los Angeles, USA
Famed for its calligraphic ‘cholo’ graffiti style, which evolved from Latino gang graffiti, the Los Angeles street art scene developed in a noticeably different way to other places in North America, helped by the fact that artists could sometimes take days to paint one piece thanks to the gigantic spread of the city.
LA has a typically laid-back attitude to the crossover between traditional graffiti and street art, with many artists blurring the boundaries. Most notably, Retna – a member of the renowned MSK crew along with the likes of Saber, Revok and Risk – is now just as likely to be found on the cover of a Justin Bieber album or Louis Vuitton storefront as on the streets. His unique script, developed from a combination of gothic, Egyptian, Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy, can be seen in several high-profile locations across the city.
Last updated in August 2017.