You can’t ask for a more colourful lens on the world than to view it through its street art. In any city you’re in, take a longer look at the painted, tagged, stickered or wheat-pasted facades around you, and you’ll get a story about a place — usually, a different story than what the local tourism board wants you to see.
The 13 cities on this list do it even better than most. These are the places where urban art helped a city to heal after an earthquake, where it communicates the anger of life under occupation, where it built a non-violent sanctum out of the infrastructure of war, and where it combines with distinctive architecture to create compositions you’ll only see once in a lifetime.
It’s the nature of the beast that such artworks are temporary. Whether by weather or human intervention, they’ll eventually be destroyed. If it seems like a work you’ve made the pilgrimage to view is gone, explore the neighbourhood and see what new art you can uncover instead.
Street art in New York City, USA
More than anywhere else, it’s New York that can claim to being the birthplace of contemporary street art. It was here, in the 1960s, that graffiti artists began “bombing” subway cars with tags and illustrations, and where, in the ‘80s, commercial artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (who used the tag SAMO) painted on facades as often as canvases.
Some of the main NYC draws are the Houston Bowery Wall, a hot spot for street artists for going on 40 years; the Lower East Side, where even the shop roller shutters have been handed over to muralists; the 50-work-strong Bushwick Collective outdoor gallery in Brooklyn; and the Big Pun Memorial Mural in the Bronx, an annually changing ode to the local rapper.
Street art in Christchurch, New Zealand
Seeing the street art of Christchurch can be an emotional experience. New Zealand’s third-largest city still shows the scars of the 2011 earthquake, which brought down buildings and cracked open streets in the CBD. This fractured urban landscape has spurred responses from artists ever since — first, from guerilla scrawlers who would sneak past the barricades of the Red Zone, then increasingly in the form of commissioned murals as local officials cottoned on to the healing powers of art.
“One of the beautiful things about post-quake Christchurch was there was a free-for-all sense, with the broken setting inviting interventions,” says Dr Reuben Woods of Watch This Space, which runs street art tours of Christchurch. “The ‘bandos’ [abandoned buildings] that have been adorned in graffiti writing have a level of visibility unique to the post-quake city, while the murals produced for the litany of festivals over the last six years provide stunning — and for some more palatable — landmarks.”
The city is so fond of its street art it’s recently added an installation of eight larger-than-life spray cans to a public square at East Frame — they’re designated as a legal spot for young artists to practice.
Street art in Bethlehem, The West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories
The birthplace of Jesus might not seem like the obvious port of call for street art. But the eight-metre-high wall built here by Israel to separate its population from the occupied Palestinians has long attracted street artists hungry to mark its surface with political statements — most notably, Banksy. Here is where you’ll find some of the British artist’s most famous stencils, including that of a girl frisking a soldier, a dove wearing a bulletproof vest and a man throwing flowers in place of a Molotov cocktail.
Banksy’s connection to the place is so strong that he opened a hotel at the foot of the separation wall last year, the Walled Off. It’s the ultimate immersive experience for any fan of his art. As well as what’s described as “the worst view of any hotel in the world”, it offers rooms decorated by Banksy and other artists. Some critics argue the venture risks turning the occupation into a Disneyland-like novelty. Plenty of others support the artist’s moves to bring tourist dollars to Palestine.
Street art in Valparaiso, Chile
It’s only in the last eight years that urban art has really taken off in Valparaiso, according to Al Ramirez from tour operator Valpo Street Art. But Chile’s second-largest city has a unique look that means murals sit a little differently here than they do in your average metropolis.
“Most places in the world, street art and graffiti fight the grey colors, and are often found in what many artists see as ‘strategic places’. Here, the art coexists with the many colours of Valparaiso,” says Ramirez. “The city is full of old cobblestone, recycled siding on the colorful 19th-century houses, and it’s also as chaotic as imaginable, with many street dogs, and crazy wires on every corner post. So, graffiti and street art give it a certain harmony.”
It’s legal to paint anywhere if you have the permission of the building’s owner, and even if you don’t, punishments are usually lenient. Two of the most influential artists on the scene are couple Sammy Espinoza and Cynthia Aguilera, who work together as Un Kolor Distinto. Look for their seasons-themed Equinox series — the fourth and final piece, just finished, spans a 22-storey building in the city port.
Street art in Ljubljana, Slovenia
The Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is home to what may be the most intensely embellished 12,500 square metres of urban real estate on the planet. Located just outside the city centre, Metelkova is an autonomous neighbourhood built on street art. Its bones are military barracks that were left abandoned after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and subsequently squatted by artists and activists who wanted it used for creative purposes.
Over the years, they transformed the grounds with layer upon layer of murals, glittering multi-level mosaics and a facade made of spindly goblin sculptures. They also built a community — at night, Metelkova’s doors open to reveal bars, clubs, galleries and gathering spaces. Visitors flock here to see the larger-than-life art, but they stay to experience a different way of living and being in the world.
Metelkova’s huge success as a cultural hub has won the acceptance of local authorities, who, for now, are letting the residents live rent-free and carry out their not-strictly-licensed activities undisturbed.
Street art in Berlin, Germany
Nothing sings out to a street artist quite like a blank wall, and Berlin is home to the defining wall of the 20th century. During the Cold War, the west side of the Berlin Wall was covered in colourful, politically fuelled art, and when it came down in 1989, a 1.3-kilometre-long stretch of it was preserved and turned into a canvas for 105 different artworks. The East Side Gallery is still there, having been restored over the years. Thought to be the longest-lasting open-air gallery in the world, it’s by no means Berlin’s only urban art, but it was a strong foundation for a scene that continued to grow throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s.
See more by wandering Kreuzberg, Frierichshain, Schoneberg and Dircksenstrasse in Mitte and even heading indoors to the Urban Nation Museum of Contemporary Urban Art, a gallery specifically designed for the appreciation of street art.
Street art in Melbourne, Australia
Known as the cultural capital of Australia, Melbourne is packed with street art, especially around its warren of inner-city laneways. Locations like Hosier Lane, Routledge Lane, AC/DC Lane, Duckboard Place, Centre Place, Union Lane and Croft Alley are gauntlets where riotous murals and scrappy tags fight for your attention.
As in a number of places on this list, the local government is torn between supporting the street art that pretties up neighbourhoods and criminalising the tagging and painting they don’t deem to be of sufficient artistic merit. The City of Melbourne puts out an official street art map, the ‘80s-era Keith Haring mural and Northcote Koori Mural are protected by listing on the Victorian Heritage Register, and you can paint in some of the most popular laneways without eliciting a second glance from passers-by. Just don’t get caught carrying spray cans.
Street art in Athens, Greece
“In times of crisis people have the need for personal expression more than ever,” says Tina Kyriakis of tour company Alternative Athens , explaining why the Greek capital has seen a boom in street art in the last five or so years. Greece felt the effects of the late-2000s recession more than most countries, with massive government debt leading to unpopular austerity measures, bank closures and — at one point — higher than 50 percent youth unemployment. That’s a lot of young people with not much to do. “The financial crisis also diminished the disposable income that people can dedicate to cleaning or repainting their house walls,” Kyriakis adds.
Heavily tagged buildings are now a regular feature of the landscape of Athens, as are large-scale murals, many with a political bent. Look out for Manolis Anastasakos’s 10-storey painting of outstretched hands (He Is Praying for Us) on Piraeus Street, and WD’s hyperrealistic owl (Knowledge Speaks — Wisdom Listens) stretched across a street corner in Metaxourgio. And with the Greek economy now in recovery, there’s a buzz to the city reminiscent of 2000s-era Berlin.
Street art in Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is another city where it’s legal to paint on any building so long as you have the permission of the owner. It’s made for a vibrant streetscape where you’ll almost always find art poking into your line of sight.
Often, it’s art of scale. Some of the city’s most famous examples include local practitioner Martin Ron’s giant hyperreal turtle (titled Pedro Luján and his Dog in reference to the two smaller figures underneath) diving out of a wall in Barracas, and the building-wide works by Ron and Italian muralist Blu at Villa Urquiza, a neighbourhood dominated by abandoned and derelict buildings.
Street art in George Town, Penang, Malaysia
The story of street art in George Town, the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, is less about a grassroots movement and more about a top-down revitalisation of the city centre. Nevertheless, this is the grandmamma of Asian street art capitals, and its crumbling murals are some of the best Instagram fodder on the planet.
The art here has a cohesive quality, as a lot of it was commissioned from a few select artists by state authorities, who wanted new ways to accentuate the city’s cultural highlights after it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Most influential are the works of Ernest Zacharevic. In 2012, he created six murals channelling scenes of everyday Malaysian life. Each painting interacts with the real world in some way, like Children on Bicycle (complete with actual attached bicycle) and Little Girl in Blue, who clambers over a building’s windows. They’re fading now, but that adds to their charm.
Street art in London, United Kingdom
London is one of the original street art meccas. Its streets are synonymous with the political stencils of Banksy, the simple multi-storey figures of Stik and the detailed wildlife of ROA. A lot of works are clustered around East London, particularly Shoreditch and Brick Lane, which back in the late 90s and 2000s were huge hubs for artists. Rising rents have pushed most of them out, but their art has largely been preserved and continues to be a pillar of the neighbourhood’s creative (though now more sanitised) culture.
Camden and Brixton are the UK capital’s two other major destinations for urban art — search out Amy Winehouses in the former and David Bowies in the latter. For contemporary social commentary, keep an eye out for new stencils by Bambi, an anonymous feminist artist who is said to lead a double life as a successful singer. Her Lie Lie Land image — featuring Donald Trump and Theresa May dancing in a parody of La La Land — was an attraction in Islington before it was painted over earlier this year.
Street art in Canggu, Bali, Indonesia
Surf culture meets yoga meets spirituality and street art in Bali, particularly among the sizeable expat community who have filtered in from Australia, Europe and the United States. The result is an island-wide treasure trove of urban art in village settings.
The highest quality and quantity can be found in the coastal town of Canggu. You might see overgrown children playing among beach shacks, a hostel-high woman deep in thought or a tiger bounding behind a rice field. Start by exploring the roads to Batu Bolong and Echo Beaches, as well as the ALLCAPS Gallery, an outdoor exhibition space spread across the walls of several warehouses.