The Best Cities in the World for Street Art

Mural art, graffiti, and street art are not just limited to places here in the United States. There is a whole world of artwork out there that I’d like to explore. Modern-day murals are painted with vibrant colors, artistic experimentation, and sometimes even aggressive undertones, but they are often misunderstood by onlookers as acts of vandalism or graffiti, discrediting their artistic merit. I think it’s important that people understand the true value and diverse implementation of mural artwork, and I would like to explore first-hand some of the most popular places worldwide in order to get an up close view of these works of art and learn more about how urban art has been used to communicate distinct messages throughout the world.

The United States

In the United States, the mural tradition primarily became popular in the 1960s during the cultural revolution. What makes mural artwork so powerful here is that it originated as a form of counterculture in urban spaces within the country. Outsiders and oppressed groups recruited local artists or created community projects in order to take advantage of the open canvases of the city streets. Through this method, they expressed their cultures and their histories in unique ways. This tradition has continued until the present with many U.S. cities offering tours of their urban art galleries. During these tours, spectators can appreciate the evolution of mural artwork throughout time and receive a better understanding of why street art is so powerful for so many groups of people. Some of the best places to see street art in the United States are large, urban centers. These places include Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia. Although Detroit, in my opinion deserves a spot, I am excluding it from this list because I plan on writing about it specifically, being that it is my home.

The Wall of Respect - Chicago - Completed Aug. 24, 1967 - ©Northwestern University Press

The Wall of Respect - Chicago - Completed Aug. 24, 1967 - ©Northwestern University Press

Los Angeles, California is definitely worth including because mural artwork is abound, adorning city streets, buildings, and canals with symbolic representations of cultural identity. Worthy of attention in Los Angeles is the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a public mural project implemented by Judy Baca in order to help inner-city adolescents avoid street violence and contribute actively to their community. This mural presents an inclusive timeline of both United States and world history, spanning more than half a mile on the walls of a canal in North Hollywood. 

Similar to Los Angeles, Chicago is another city in the United States whose community members became inspired to implement murals as artwork. Pilsen, a neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city, is rife with colorful paintings. These murals contain cultural symbols to acknowledge the Mexican community concentrated in this area. However, the artwork also communicates themes of education, family values, and inspirational messages for at-risk youth to persevere. Mural tours are available to witness Pilsen’s over 40 public works of art. The tours can be completed by walking, bicycle, or even bus tours in this area. 

The Mural Arts Organization of Philadelphia offers public tours of the over 150 multicultural works of art found interspersed throughout the city. Some of this artwork is produced by local artists, and others were implemented as public works of community activism. The organization offers a map of its popular works of art and celebrates several special events throughout the year to celebrate public art and educate the public about the themes represented by mural projects.

© 2015, SWOON. 3060 West Jefferson Street, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik.

© 2015, SWOON. 3060 West Jefferson Street, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Latin America

Few people know the true origins of mural artwork, and it is actually an artistic tradition that emerged from Latin America. Mexico City is considered the birthplace of murals as an artistic form with political significance. Mural painting was implemented here as a means of promoting cultural identity and historical understanding after the Mexican Revolution. Shortly after, much of Latin America became inspired by the political significance of mural artwork and followed suit by implementing mural art and other forms of street art. These works of art served as acts of social and political rebellion, typically appropriating urban spaces and establishing representation of culturally marginalized groups. Mural artwork is abundant throughout Latin America, but some of the places I’d like to see most are Mexico City, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

In Mexico City, mural artwork was implemented by the Mexican government after the revolution as a means of educating the people about their identity and history. Because people like farmers and factory workers lacked access to traditional education, the post-revolution government painted large displays of artwork on government buildings as a means of demonstrating a visual timeline of their cultural development. This timeline included indigenous cultures, the violence of colonization, and social protest and revolution. The intention of the mural artwork was that to understand one’s identity, the population must embrace both the ups and downs of their history and formation as a people. As such, the artwork here displays organic, violent scenes of many of the tragedies of Mexican history.

Mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera

Mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera

Buenos Aires, Argentina is sometimes considered the Paris of South America, but it is also recognized by street artists as one of the most significant places for urban artwork. Because of the Social Reorganization Process implemented by the last military dictatorship, the city is replete with street art, mural art, and graffiti meant to serve as an act of resistance and preservation of memory of state-implemented acts of terrorism against its own people. From mural artwork meant to draw attention to military violence, stone etchings in the sidewalk meant to preserve the memory of people that were kidnapped and disappeared, to paintings and banners of protest in the Plaza de Mayo to represent the mothers of the missing citizens, Buenos Aires’s outdoor artwork is both transparently political and aggressive. It is meant to serve as a permanent reminder that the country’s political violence cannot be forgotten. 

Europe

While the mural tradition spread more quickly within Latin America and the United States, eventually this form of artwork made its way to Europe. Though mural artwork was created with rebellion and cultural representation in mind, by the time mural artwork became integrated into European cities, this form of artwork became edgier and more experimental in form. 

London, England, for instance implemented mural artwork as a means of decorating the city in order to catch up with the trend of mural representation of the Americas. Throughout the city a mix of mural artwork can be found representing themes as far and wide as cultural representation, political responses to the Second World War, popular culture, and contemporary, experimental forms of mural artwork. Buildings, tunnels, and even some of the streets themselves are adorned with colorful images from beautiful and abstract to grotesque and transgressive. Because of the variety of techniques and themes the London murals represent, it would be a great source of inspiration. 

Barcelona, along with the architectural design experimentations of Antoni Gaudí, included mural artwork as a continuation of this avant-garde aesthetic. As a coastal town, the city has taken a bohemian vibe. Park Guell is one of the most famous examples of non-traditional urban art, as the buildings themselves are designed with experimental architecture in mind, taking inspiration from surrealism, optical illusions, and fantasy. This particular park is also adorned with vibrant tiles that create the appearance of an outdoor wonderland reminiscent to the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. Though there are murals interspersed throughout the city, most of Barcelona’s more famous street art is known for its experiments in mosaic art, sculpture, and architecture. 

Park Guell - Located in the Gracia district of Barcelona

Park Guell - Located in the Gracia district of Barcelona

One exceptional European city where street art still carries a distinct connotation of rebellion is Berlin. Due to the recovery from the Second World War, the vestiges of the Holocaust, and the division of Germany from East to West, Berlin is one of the most political places to visit in Europe to see representations of street art. One of the ways the city has tried to heal from the damages of its political history is through artwork. Murals exist to commemorate important cultural figures like Anne Frank. Also, remnants of the Berlin Wall, covered with graffiti of political protest, can still be viewed and appreciated. Similar to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the street art in Berlin serves the purpose of preserving the memory of the traumatic events of the past so that they are never again repeated in the future.

Telmomiel mural Kreuzberg

Telmomiel mural Kreuzberg

Each city that displays murals and street art has its own specific vibe and intention for implementing this alternative artform. Although there are more cities throughout the world worth visiting, these are the ones that are on the top of my list. I didn’t even get to mention some of the Asian cities I’d like to travel to in order to appreciate their blend of both eastern and western traditions, but that can come at a later time. Regardless, I think traveling broadens perspectives and can serve as important inspiration for new possibilities in my own mural art. I hope to one day have a chance to visit each of these places, and when I do, I will surely report back on what I’ve seen and learned.