In the past thirty years, the street art phenomenon has spread at an exponential rate, making walls talk from New York to New South Wales. Now, it’s surpassed its vandalism status, no longer a gimmick or vogue to establish a movement exceeding its original expectations. Street art has proven to be versatile, complex, communicative, and illuminating, establishing an international scene that has shattered cultural barriers worldwide. Though organized in no particular order, some of the cities on this list hold their current status as meccas of the medium because of the relationship they maintain with revolving artists. Most of them are large, or at least, cosmopolitan cities, having existed at the crossroads of culture, politics, and industry for decades. What started as an act of rebellion for many has turned into a celebrated component of contemporary culture. Street artists based in between these ten cities continue to innovate upon the form.
New York City
Graffiti Writer Corn Bread may have sparked the phenomena of graffiti writing while growing up in Philadelphia during the 1960s, but the foundation of contemporary street art was laid down in New York City. D the economic turmoil of the early 1970s, disillusioned youths in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx found self-expression in “bombing” subway cars, inside and out, with fat cap markers and spray paint. The wildstyle graffiti crew, with members such as founder Tracy 168, Cope2, and Taki 183, pioneered this trend, creating calligraphy as iconic as it is intricate. The subway cars provided them with a traveling exhibition, and soon new graffiti writers began popping up all over the city and painting larger, more creative tags. The movement became so widespread that by 1972 Mayor John Lindsay declared a “war on graffiti,, forming a special squad of policemen to crack down on vandalism. This only pushed artists out of the train stations and into streets, laying early inroads for murals. Street art was praised in intellectual circles; In 1973 Richard Goldstein wrote the first positive article regarding graffiti in the Village Voice titled “The Graffiti ‘Hit’ Parade.” , The following year, Norman Mailer wrote “Faith of Graffiti.”Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s photo book Subway Art was later published in 1981. Art curators began to take notice and endorsed street artists, leading to the rise of both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
Graffiti writing became intertwined with rap music to create American Hip-Hop culture. In the 1980s, Hip-Hop tours were organized to Europe, and the New York street art style spread like wildfire. Today, street art has become essential to the New York aesthetic. Contemporary epicenters of street art include the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Bushwick, Brooklyn. Both exhibit street art icons from Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” Murals to the Houston Bowery Wall, whose regularly changing facades boast alumni like Haring to Banksy. The scene in New York has inspired artists all around the world – American artist Tristan Eaton, Brazilian artist Kobra, Belgian artist ROA, and Australian artist Reka to name a few – to visit \the city, paint its walls, and show in its galleries, establishing New York’s firm influence on the international scene.
London’s street art scene is one of the world’s most prolific and revered\. Shortly after street art’s explosion in the U.S. at the dawn of the 1980s, London’s iteration of the movement found its home in similarly impoverished communities throughout the East End. Writers continued the tradition of bombing trains, heavily influenced by NYC graffiti culture through Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art. They also soon took to the streets. Experimenting with murals, stencils, posters, and installations, many writers found themselves expressing social criticism, leading the scene to develop a distinct anti-establishment sentiment. As a result, the art form was heavily criminalized by authorities. Even today, at the height of its popularity, illicit pieces are covered up within a day or two. Despite this, street art has met several critical moments throughout its evolution in London, with artists like Banksy developing some of the most financially and conceptually valuable pieces to date. The government’s conservative stance on the art form, contrasted by the public’s passion for it, has created the perfect storm to produce some of the most profound work in the international street art scene.
The East End has been known as the stomping grounds for many astounding artists.
Brick Lane is the most famous graffiti alley in the English scene, located between Shoreditch and Spitalfields, two neighborhoods huge for writers and muralists alike. The East End has been known as the stomping grounds for many astounding artists. The country’s heritage extends beyond the world-renowned Banksy. Stik, an East End native whose signature Japanese-influenced stick figures find their homes on walls in Shoreditch, New York, and Tokyo, has also sold pieces priced in the hundreds of thousands. Other notable English artists include D*Face, a master illustrator; Phlegm, an intense surrealist; and Roid, a design aficionado. These artists douse the London scene with prestige while practicing their craft all over the world.
Berlin sets the bar for the global street art scene. Not only does this city field astounding art such as El Bocho’s shocking adaptations of cartoon character Little Lucy, who often finds herself in peculiar situations in his murals; Victor Ash’s giant “Astronaut Cosmonaut,” painted with the largest stencil ever made; and Blu’s mural “The Pink Man”, but it also exhibits an astounding quantity of art, with many famed art districts such as Dickenstrasse, Haus Schwarzenberg, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain available to absorb. The city’s status as a UNESCO City by Design aids its exorbitant output. Even though most of the street art done is illegal, this designation prevents authorities from doing too much about illegal art once it has been painted. People from all over the world come to paint here, which has led Berlin to be dubbed: “The Most Bombed City in the World.”
Like most cities, Berlin was heavily influenced by the New York of the 1980s. At that time, Berlin was still at the center of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, which separated communist East Berlin from capitalist West Berlin, became a hotbed for tagging, as dissatisfied citizens on the wall’s west side l took to illustrating their political dissent upon it. The wall’s most prolific artists were a combination of politically active European artists and the children of American soldiers stationed in Berlin, who brought graffiti writing from the States during its height in New York. French artist Thierry Noir was, allegedly, the first to paint the wall, igniting a trend that would eventually turn into the mile-long stretch known as the East Side Gallery. Noir began painting the wall illegally. Because this was an extremely dangerous endeavor, he could only paint simple, bold cartoons. This inspired many more murals to take place on the wall, some of a politically hostile nature. Dmitri Vrubel infamously painted his “Fraternal Kiss” on the wall, depicting a kiss shared between Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker. When the wall was torn down, many artists from the west side crossed to the east to take advantage of the vacancy, adorning it with murals and establishing a thriving artist community.
Street art began developing in Paris even earlier than the advent of new York City’s graffiti scene, and in a much more refined fashion. The movement was led by trained artists who executed advanced concepts as early as the 1960s. Though these artists dabbled in stencils and murals, posters were the most popular medium of the early street artists because they were easy to produce and quick to install. Daniel Buren gained fame in 1970 for his striped posters placed around the Paris Metro, which he titled Affichages Sauvages. Spray paint and stencils became the preferred methods in the 1970s. Gerard Zlotykamien gained renown for his “Ephemerals,” which he would spray paint on buildings to illustrate the shadows of atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima. Blek Le Rat, whose work exerts a direct influence on Banksy, painted his motif of a stenciled rat painted around Paris. When graffiti writing arrived in the 1980s, it magnified what was already happening on the streets of Paris.
Today, Paris is a thriving street art destination that features everything from throwies to four-story murals and installations to observe in any space imaginable. Popular neighborhoods for spotting are Belleville, La Villette, and the 13th arrondissement. Graffiti writers hit everything from buildings to trains and trucks, blending in with conceptual murals. Contemporary Paris-based artists are still on the cutting edge. C215, known for his painterly, intricate, and expressive stencil work, paints cultural and political figures as well as animals in front of abstract backgrounds. Invader, is known all over the world for his tile mosaics reminiscent of characters from the video game Space Invader. JR blends photography with street art, creating large-scale prints that interact with the environment in piece-specific ways, often incorporating optical illusion.
Largely isolated from the western world’s cultural transactions, Melbourne’s main source of information on 1980sf street art came through MTV. Removed, but not unaware, the Australian street art scene came to divine a unique identity, resulting in a distinct style and standalone heritage. Despite its fickle government, street art occurs rapidly throughout Melbourne, changing its color week by week. Artists such as Banksy and ROA have traveled to Melbourne to paint, and renowned festivals occur throughout Victoria annually, such as the Wall to Wall Festival in Benalla. With so much going on in the city, many have even ventured outside its bounds. The Silo Art Trail stretches through rural Victoria, adorning old silos with murals by various artists, including one done by Australian artist Smug One.
To witness the legacy of the great art of Melbourne, the best place to observe street art would be in the CBD, the city’s Central Business District. Residing there is Hosier Lane, akin to London’s Brick Lane as the cradle for cultural innovation. Other alleys in the CBD that are famous for street art include Duckboard Place, Caledonian Lane, and AC/DC lane. Fitzroy is another popular neighborhood for street art, with Rose Street and Johnston Street exhibiting. Some of the renowned artists who call this city home are the internationally acclaimed muralist Rone, who frequently paints beautiful, serious women on abandoned buildings. There is also Meggs, a master of abstraction and painting characters in action, and Kaff-eine, whose innocent, imaginative characters often include a human’s body with the head of a deer’s skull.
Much like Paris, Mexico City touts a long-standing artistic relationship with its streets. This interplay’s roots date back to the Aztec era, when the ancient natives adorned their temple walls with murals and mosaics. More recently, we can see the Mexican street art scene alluding to the Muralist movement of the 1920s, where artists such as David Alfero Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and Jose Clemente Orozco were commissioned by the post-revolutionary government to paint public murals that would propagate national pride. These murals were grand and refined; not only did they instigate the street art scene in Mexico, but they also married the urban environment with fine art – a merger that did not take place in New York or Paris for decades to come.
Muralism continued until modern graffiti writing culture made its impact in the 1980s. Since then, the two art forms have combined to create a point of artistic pride for Mexico City. The traditions of fine art, fantasy, and social commentary in the streets still hold much value. Great spots in the city include Roma and Condesa, Centro, Doctores, and along Reforma Avenue, and the Museum of Old Toys. Artists who have made their mark in Mexico City include Curiot, who has taken great inspiration from Aztec artwork by reviving some of their mythical creatures and designs; Lesuperdemon, who has an affinity for using multiple patterns and reflective colors to make complex, fantastical portraits; and Seher One, who creates busy yet clean designs that come together in tight, action-packed illustrations.
Valparaiso is a city on the coast of Chile that has an intimate relationship with its art. Known as the Jewel of the Pacific prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, it was an important trading port. Its wealth attracted many European expatriates who brought money and culture. But after the canal was built, the city’s significance in trade faded. Poverty hit the city and its upscale patrons moved to greener pastures. In the 1940s, Pablo Neruda, a Valparaiso native who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was stationed in Mexico City as Chile’s ambassador at the height of the muralist movement. From this experience, he invited several muralist artists to Valparaiso in 1943 to help re-establish the coast city’s lost culture. These artists’ work planted the seeds for the future of street art in Valparaiso.
In 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and established a fascist regime. Political artists were immediately suppressed, including Pablo Neruda, who died shortly after the coup. But even in social unrest, the art did not cease; it found its home in Valparaiso and blossomed. The city’s position in the hills provides it with long and narrow streets, providing artists the perfect cover to throw up their pieces. These artists operated in secret throughout the rest of Pinochet’s reign, and their work became a symbol of silent resistance for the city’s oppressed. Once the regime was toppled, the art that lined Valparaiso’s streets was glorified. Today, it is the only city in Chile to legalize street art. Businesses compete for commissions and artists practice freely. This phenomenon can be seen in action in neighborhoods like Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepcion, and Cerro Bellavista. Giova is an artist from Valparaiso currently gaining fame for nostalgic works like “Miradas, de Principio a Fin”, which utilizes clever lighting and narrative composition. Jotape is another muralist whose work takes on sentiment, and his subject does not shy away from the language of the human body, as exemplified in pieces like “Medicina Secular.”
Malaysian city Georgetown, located on the island of Penang, shouldn’t be ignored in relation to some of the best muralism meccas. Although relatively new to the scene, its outdoor creativity didn’t begin as an act of social criticism or rebellion. Instead, the Malaysian government willingly organized artists to come together and share their perspective on the city’s history as a multicultural crossroads of Penang’s tolerant culture. Muralists were also encouraged to illustrate that perspective onto the city’s streets, if given a commission. In the last decade, the movement has gone from an experimental idea on how to establish a cultural identity to a full-blown artistic movement. Georgetown stands covered in murals and sculptures with a style distinctly reminiscent of the people of Penang and other places in South Asia, embodying their peaceful spirit and welcoming atmosphere.
Georgetown’s dynamic street art is reminiscent of the multidimensional murals of Ernest Zacharevic, one of the first artists to paint the city in 2012. Like many others working on large-scale buildings around the island, Zacharevic’s murals typically depict child subjects interacting with their environment, whether it be through acrobatic handstands or figures balancing on windowpanes. Russian-born Julia Volchkova has also been making a stir in the city for her murals which illustrate everyday scenes of life in South Asia in incredible detail. Her most famous piece is the “Indian Boatman”, which shows the depth of a longboat with an elderly man rowing at its end in the center of a wall. She’s also known for her murals “Little Boy” and “Old Indian Woman” which both emphasize the importance of her subjects’ environments as active agents within her work. Lebuh Armenian, Lebuh Chulia, and Lebuh Pantai are the streets where you can find the city’s best murals.
Sao Paolo takes its street art seriously. The Brazilian metropolis has fostered many great artists who do not hesitate to highlight the expressive role street art was born to play. An early form of tagging using tar, called Pichacao, has been present in Brazil since the 1940s, when it was used as a vehicle for political agendas. New York’s graffiti boom in the 1970s coincided with the end of a military regime in Brazil, and when graffiti reached Sao Paolo, those writing with tar in the impoverished Vila Madalena neighborhood suddenly had a better way to express themselves. Between the end of the regime and the beginning of Hip-Hop, Sao Paolo saw unprecedented street art activity. Everyone from delinquents to established artists was painting a name for themselves on Sao Paolo’s walls, and street art’s popularity quickly spread to Rio de Janeiro and the rest of Brazil. The government has accepted its presence, decriminalizing it in 2009.
Osgemeos and Nunca helped define Brazil’s street art style as jagged-edged and prismatically surreal.
Vila Madalena housed the movement’s genesis and has since evolved from impoverished to trendy, but the street art of Sao Paolo still finds its place here. Beco do Batman and Beco do Aprendiz are two alleyways in Vila Madalena that are completely covered in murals and tags. Cambuci is next in line when thinking of street art in Sao Paolo. The residential neighborhood is known as the stomping ground for revolutionary artists Osgemeos, and you can observe their development here, among other famous Brazilian artists, such as Nunca. Osgemeos and Nunca helped define Brazil’s street art style as jagged-edged and prismatically surreal. Their works range from street tags to colossal murals, recognizable through Brazillian motifs, such as Osgemeos’ yellow-skinned characters and Nunca’s surrealist approach to Brazil’s cultural identity. More internationally renowned artists who called the city home include Kobra, who holds the record for the largest mural painted in Rio and L7Matrix, whose hectic murals depicting people and animals caught in sublimation, can also be found in many major street art cities.
Hip-hop European invasion in the 1980s birthed Barcelona’s street art scene under ideal conditions. After the fall of Franco’s brutal dictatorship in 1975 and Spain’s return to democracy, Barcelona was revived as an affordable and fashionable city. Holding a long and intimate tradition with the fine arts, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, and Antoni Gaudi have all called the city home at some point. When graffiti writing arrived, it evolved naturally into a prosperous scene that would eventually come to rival New York for its title as an international street art haven. But that changed in 2006 when the Catalan government instituted a strict prohibition on the medium. Artists face fines from 750 to 3,000 euros if caught painting public spaces, depending on the severity of damage done. Many of the old school pieces have since been covered up by the government, and some artists have moved on to other places. But Barcelona’s populace is no stranger to political imposition, as recent Nationalist struggles ensue during its fight for legal secession. Catalan muralists are similarly well-adjusted to resist accordingly. Subversive street art continues to materialize in Barcelona’s palm-tree-lined pedestrian paths.
The best spots for street art can be hard to find due to the changing landscape of the city’s art, but enclaves exist wherever culture thrives. El Poblenou, an industrial neighborhood recently turned residential, is gaining notoriety for its artistic offerings. Huertos of Raval is a community garden lined with murals and famed for its protest work; Tres Ximeneies Urban Park is one of the few spots where street art is completely legal, combining murals with a skate park. The Arnau Gallery is an open-air gallery dedicated to muralists and writers alike. Among some of the most iconic Barcelona street artists are Kenor, whose intense geometric designs and bold colors create abstract figures as elaborate as they are gigantic; Debens, whose style combines cubist painting with photograph and stencil work; El Pez, who is instantly recognizable by his smiling fish characters; and Btoy, who creates stencils and paintings of serious, stoic figures in front of complex backgrounds.
Harmony between artist and environment has always been essential to the art itself. But in the genesis of street art, discord between these two entities served as inspiration, driving the desire to bring color to a bleak environment. Street art began as a voice for the disenfranchised, invisible outcasts reminding society they still belonged. Today, it’s since stretched around the world, becoming one of the most prolific artistic mediums to encompass talent from all walks of life. It perseveres despite government condemnation and gentrification, ever-evolving in its endeavors. Although highly active, these meccas of muralism provide no boundaries for budding artists, merely a blank canvas.