Artists all over the world have taken to the streets to express their views, be it political or personal. Buildings are used as blank canvases for bursts of colour and intricate stencils, conveying messages of love, hope and defiance. In this guide, we look at some of the best places to see street art, with the help of local artists and galleries.
In Argentina, arts organisation graffitimundo works to increase awareness of the country’s rich heritage and dynamic culture of urban art. We caught up with tour guide Cecilia to find out more, “The contemporary urban art scene in Buenos Aires is a product of the city’s turbulent history and tradition of public expression. To understand the role it plays in public life, we need to examine the roots of this form of expression and challenge preconceptions about graffiti and street art.
“Mexican muralism left a big impression in the Argentina of the 1930s, which used art to connect with the working class and the masses to spread its political and social ideas. This movement required a politically involved artist with a social message to convey through its public artworks. David Alfaro Siqueiros was exiled in Buenos Aires in 1933 and though he was not allowed permission to work on a public wall as he’d requested, he quickly turned to the streets using a stencil, to challenge the dictatorship of the time.”
Demonstrations, protests and action in public spaces were widespread during periods of military rule. According to Cecilia, Argentina began to develop its own visual language of protest and resistance, with the focus being on the city streets. Stencils became one of the most common forms of street art. “The stencil has almost 100 years of history as a tool for activism and expressions,” Cecilia told us. “When stencil art exploded onto the streets in the aftermath of the 2011 economic crisis, it drew upon the symbolic power the stencil holds with Argentinian society.
“When the street became suffocated with propaganda and negativity following the economic crash, art collectives such as DOMA & FASE tried to restore positivity to public spaces by creating collective artwork which broke the monotony of political graffiti. They targeted neglected parts of the city and painted colourful cartoon characters at enormous scales - simple, vibrant images which contrasted their surroundings. It was a bold concept which helped redefine the relationship people had with public space.”
Launched in 2009 from the city’s famous Blender Studios, Melbourne Street Art Tours works with local street artists to give visitors an in-depth guide through Melbourne. We chatted to Piya, manager of Melbourne Street Art Tours, to find out more, “We realised that if the tour guides were street artists then the artists get jobs and the tour remains unique and underground. It’s also a great way to get a behind the scenes look into the underground Melbourne art scene, including the infamous Blender Studios. And who better to give you the down low than the artists that created the art since the beginning?”
According to Piya, Melbourne’s street art scene poured into the laneways and walls of the city from 1999. When Blender Studios opened in 2001, it became the hub of urban art in Australia. Piya added, “With many artists meeting up at Blender and then heading out to paint the city. The city was under siege! Times have changed and the Melbourne street scene has become massive. Melbourne is one of the top cities in the world for urban art. The laneways are the veins of a city fast becoming a world-class creative city. The only way to really see the good stuff, including Banksy and Blek Le Rat, is to do a Melbourne street tour.”
As with Berlin, Lisbon and Prague, Melbourne’s street art scene has changed the city. “20 years ago the CBD was largely empty,” said Piya. “But thanks to the urban art scene and new government policies, the city has become a very different place. Tourists travel from all over the world to see the art and the hidden lanes that make Melbourne so special. Lonely Planet voted Hosier Lane the number one free tourist attraction in Australia, so that gives you an idea of how huge it has become.”
With a population of around 330,000 people, Iceland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Despite this, Iceland’s street art scene is booming. According to Salvör Bergmann, writer and journalist at Guide to Iceland, the history of graffiti and street art in this desolate yet spectacular country is fascinating.
“Iceland was quite geographically and culturally isolated for the longest time,” said Salvör. “So street art only began to appear in the capital in the early 1990s. That also means that the first generation of taggers and tag crews are very much still around, creating an interesting canon of graffiti that is easy to follow for enthusiasts.”
Although it took some time before the scene really took off in Iceland, there were hints of a movement in the making. “This timeline doesn’t mean the graffiti was non-existent before the caded of hip-hop and skateboards,” Salvör told us. “By the foot of Mt. Esja outside Reykjavík, there’s a cement wall that was constructed in the late 1970s to shelter passing cars from sand and dirt from a resident gravel mine. Since the early 1980s, depending on different sources, a mysterious graffiti slogan has appeared and reappeared until today. It reads, “FLATUS LIFIR,” and nobody really knows what it means or who started it.
“Every resident of Iceland has driven this road at some point, so everyone is familiar with this original graffiti. Since the early 2000s, graffiti crews have revamped the slogan and created colourful murals around it, so one might call it an unanticipated landmark of rural, urban art.”
The modern street art scene is thriving in this unique Icelandic city. Salvör explained there’s plenty to see for all art enthusiasts when on a cruise to Iceland, “Reykjavík offers plenty of both spectrums of the street art practice; the illegal graffiti and tagging, as well as elaborate and often commissioned murals. The city has waged war on graffiti many times over but still, the general social consensus seems to favour the practice, be it done right. What constitutes right, however, naturally differs greatly from person to person. The fact of the matter is that street art is here to stay since it represents a freedom of expression and an open form of art and creation.”
Although the streets of Reykjavík are covered in beautiful murals and colourful depictions, there are some that Salvör feels stand out from the rest, “What more people notice when walking through the city are the Wall Poetry murals, commissioned by Urban Nation of Berlin and the Iceland Airwaves music festival. There, international street artists were paired up with Icelandic musicians to create song-inspired murals. However, none of the street artists of the project was Icelandic. Still, the murals are truly gorgeous and greatly favoured by the city’s residents.”
As graffiti and street art has been a point of contention in the country, we asked Salvör how significant the practice is in Icelandic culture today, “It’s hard to say. It’s more that it is simply an integral part of the culture and important as such. I personally feel it to represent something of the society as a whole, since it pops up in spaces urban planning has forsaken or forgotten, in underpasses, on construction sites, on houses waiting to be demolished etc.
“It also goes hand in hand with youth culture, so if the youth isn’t attended to or given spaces to exist, it revolts. If, however, these kids are granted places to practice their art in a safe space, the graffiti blossoms and is less likely to spill over to unwanted surfaces.”
It’s almost impossible to wander through Lisbon without stumbling across some form of street art, mural or graffiti. Vibrant illustrations, political messages and beautiful tapestries can be spotted on the city’s ancient, crumbling walls, trains and trams. Lisbon Street Art Tours, founded in 2013, helps tourists to explore the urban art scene in Lisbon. We spoke to the team to find out more, “Already in the early 70s, the people of Portugal started to express themselves in the streets with paint and brushes. It was a revolutionary act, in times of limited civil rights under the fascist dictatorship. People started to use the walls of the city as an expression-field for equal rights.
“The political muralism inspired many generations after. In the 80s, the graffiti-wave from the United States landed in Europe and this brought along many youngsters in search of identity by tagging the walls of the city, as well as any other medium surrounding, like train tracks, subway tunnels and abandoned spaces.
“The evolution doesn’t necessarily differ from anywhere else in the world but within Lisbon and surrounding areas, many different projects and associations exist nowadays to express oneself in a public space and/or on private walls. The urban landscape of Lisbon is conquered by a wide range of people from Portugal as well as other parts of the world.” According to Lisbon Street Art Tours, walking is the best way to truly explore the city, “We want to introduce people to a big amount of creative expressions within the field of graffiti and street art. But we also aim to sensitise people about the different perspectives one can have on the urban landscape. These tours are walking tours for the reason that we do pass by little alleys and forgotten spaces that are not always reachable by car/bike. And Lisbon is best to be discovered on foot, no matter how many ups and downs.”
The team explain various styles and techniques as well as showing visitors work by international artists throughout Lisbon. They added, “We highlight the political, economic and social issues that gave rise to Lisbon’s street art and graffiti scenery. Based on the edutainment principle, the tour is meant to be fun as you learn something new. Depending on the different options of tours, we will make a little stop for the participants to leave their mark in the city. And, of course, nothing better than to end with a little shot of inspiration in a cosy bar.”