Let’s be clear here: street art is not graffiti.
There are similarities between the two, I won’t deny that. Both are usually in public places, and both are usually unsanctioned. But while graffiti revolves around “tags”, text-based (for the most part profane) scrawls and drippy aerosol cans, street art is just that, art. There are no hard, fast rules with street art, anything goes.
Sure, there are cartoon-esque scenes and childish bubble writing sprayed across blank walls, but I’ve also seen other creative mediums being used, like fly-posting or wheat-pasting, stenciling, stickers, freehand drawing, sculpture, Lego bricks and video projections. I’ve seen pieces which are so detailed and realistic that I’ve stood there wondering how on earth someone could be so talented and want to be an unknown artist on “the streets”.
The work of street artists isn’t always on the sides of concrete buildings in big cities though; artists might have studios, host gallery exhibitions or work in other creative areas, like abandoned hospitals or disused warehouses. Take Banksy’s Dismaland exhibit or Roa’s regular expos in his native Belgium, for example. These artists are not anti the conventional “canvas, easel and water colours” kind of art, they just enjoy the freedom of working in public, with the medium they choose, without having to worry about what anyone else thinks. Because honestly, they don’t give a shit if you think their art is an eyesore when you sit at your desk and look out your office block window.
Street art is like Marmite; some people love it, others hate it. Though I can’t stand Marmite, anyone who knows me knows I am a massive fan of street art. I seem to have this sixth sense for sniffing it out in every new city I visit, and I’ve found it in some very surprising locations. Through my travels I’ve come to recognise the styles of some of the world’s better known artists, and found some new favourites along the way. Among my friends I have become somewhat of street art boffin; “saw this and thought of you,” my friends comment, tagging me in an Instagram post.
So where are the best places to find street art? I haven’t been everywhere yet, obviously, but of the countries and cities that I have been, I’d say these are the top 11 to visit if you want to pap pics of some beautiful works of art…
1. Brussels, Belgium.
Definitely my number one city for street art, Brussels was the place that first sparked my passion for the creative form. It was in Brussels that I found Exit Enter, a relatively unknown artist who draws little stick figures, usually at the bottom of other people’s murals. I loved his style and went on an Exit Enter spotting mission. On the way I also spotted pieces by other artists like Brussel’s own Bue and Pol Cosmo.
If you’re a fan of street art, I’d definitely recommend a trip to Brussels. Though I didn’t do one myself, there are plenty of guided street art tours you can take, too.
For an added bonus, the Belgian city of Ghent also provided me with some street art gems, including this very early work by native artist, Roa. Roa is, without doubt, my favourite street artist, and stumbling upon this rare piece while exploring an abandoned warehouse during my trip to Belgium in 2014 was like finding the holy grail of street art.
2. Bogotá, Colombia.
Some of the bigger, more colourful pieces I’ve seen have been in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.
Colombian street artist Guache had several murals in the “Candelaria” area of the city, and his art is known for combining ancestral imagery with geometric patterns and shapes (bottom right). And for something a little more risque, Toxicomano is a Bogotá-based collective who mix punk and propaganda in their statement stencils that poke fun at advertising techniques and mass media (top right).
3. Barcelona, Spain.
Barcelona is definitely my favourite European city, and not just because of the amazing pieces of street art I spotted there during my trip in February 2016. The street art in Barcelona is poppy, bright and colourful, but with a side of edginess, a bit like me I think.
My favourite piece was a big mural in a skatepark that my friend and I stumbled upon, done by Spanish street artist Pez. Easily identifiable by his cartoon characters with big eyes and thick outlines, I’ve actually spotted work by Pez in London and Oslo – but seeing it in his hometown of Barcelona was definitely the best place.
4. Oslo, Norway.
A somewhat surprising entry in at number 4, the Norwegian capital, Oslo. I didn’t expect to find any street art in this city, as it’s renowned for being quite a clean and green city, full of young professionals who appreciate fresh air and minimal levels of pollution. It’s also known as one of the most expensive cities in the world, so I thought everything would be upmarket, shiny and modern.
But a bit of unplanned wandering (aka getting lost) found me some of the most beautiful pieces of street art in Oslo. I instantly recognised the big, Cartoon Network style characters by Pez, and a massive mural of a crocodile-come-dinosaur creature by Phlegm. But it was in Oslo I first discovered Le Chat, who’s colourful cats brightened up a full, grey dead end in the Grünerløkka district.
Anyone who knows me knows I love cats even more than I love street art, so street art cats are like my kryptonite.
5. Reykjavík, Iceland.
With just four hours of daylight to explore during my visit to Iceland last December, it’s a wonder I found any street art. But during my brief exploration of the capital, Reykjavík, I managed to snap a few pics of some amazing murals.
Though the majority were verging on the dark, creepy side of art, they were beautiful nevertheless.
6. San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Caribbean coastline is never short of colour – from the bright, bold shades in Colombia’s Cartagena, to the pretty pastels of Puerto Rico’s “second” capital city, Ponce. But it was the island’s real capital, San Juan, that stole my heart in the street art stakes.
Though I didn’t recognise any of the styles or artists of the pieces I saw while there back in March 2016, it was so fun wandering round the city spotting them with my mum, who accompanied me on the trip. “Look, is that a street art?” she said as we turned a corner and saw a massive mural of a frog. Yep, my mum’s a street art spotter now too.
7. London, UK.
Ahhh London, home of Westminster, Big Ben, the O2, Borough Market, Portobello Road, and of Shoreditch – the best place in the city to find street art. I’ve seen works by Shok, Roa, Pez, Le Chat, Stik and Bambi, and of course, the UK’s own Banksy.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start your street art journey, then London is definitely the place to go, as it attracts artists from all over the world.
8. Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Though at first glance Playa del Carmen might not seem to have a large art scene, if you dig a little deeper and search a little further than just the Avenida Quinta, you will find that there is in fact a large collection of artists who live and visit Playa.
Like San Juan in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean coastal city of Playa Del Carmen in Mexico oozes colour and charm. But head to the north and around every street corner there is another bigger and brighter piece of art to catch your attention (and make you nearly fall off your bike when cycling through the city!). Some of my favourite pieces were by Senkoe, a local artist from Playa who paints with every colour of the rainbow.
9. Amsterdam, Netherlands.
I didn’t see nearly as much street art in Amsterdam as I’d have liked, but it was winter so the days were short, wet and pretty dark. The pieces I did see though included some colourful work by one of my favourites, Dotsy, and some pieces by Amsterdam-born artist Hero de Janiero, which featured lots and lots of tiny jigsaw pieces.
I’m itching to get back to the Dutch capital – and when I do, I’m definitely going to take an organised street art tour.
10. Dublin, Ireland.
There’s more to Dublin than just Guinness (though I did drink a lot of the black stuff when I visited the Irish capital in February 2017).
Over the dreary, damp weekend I managed to snap some colourful pics, which certainly brightened the place up. These included a beautiful piece by Dublin’s own Solus, and a controversial Trump piece by Irish stencil artist ADW. The piece, which only went up the week before I arrived, caused quite a stir in the the Irish news.
11. Amman, Jordan.
One of the most surprising places I’ve found street art on my travels was the capital city of Jordan, Amman. Unlike some of the other murals and pictures I’ve shared above, the colourful streets and staircases in Amman are not street art in the conventional sense of the word, but are certainly artistic. But then that’s the beauty of street art, it’s not conventional at all.
You’ll have to look hard to find these amazing steps though, as they’re not where you’d expect (ie, the road named Rainbow Street had no rainbows).
Do you know of any cities or towns that are particularly good for street art spotters like me? Where would you recommend I visit next to feed my street art obsession. Let me know in the comments below.