Street art and graffiti have developed at different rates worldwide, though today we see a somewhat leveled playing field, with artists across the globe engaged in these vibrant art forms. From its nascent days during both World Wars, through the mid-century advent of Latin American spray graffiti, and into its acceptance in the 1980s New York downtown scene, street art has provided avenues for artists of myriad backgrounds to reach the public with their stories. In the new millennia, street art has evolved into a beast with two heads, acting as both a platform for social commentary and commercial gain. Today, there are many cities that vie for the title of street art capital of the world, though not as many are viable places to live and work as a street artist. In cities like New York and London, lauded for their roles in the history of street art and brimming with prime examples of it, contemporary artists face many difficulties, such as high living costs, difficulty finding walls, and an oversaturated market. Below, we share six cities that are conducive to the needs of street artists, in terms of commercial and collaborative opportunities, legality, and geography, plus insights from artists on each.
Artwork by Fin DAC, Los Angeles. Photo by Lord Jim, via Flickr.
Street art has a long and storied history in Los Angeles, dating back to the 1970s. The traditional murals of Kent Twitchell, Willie Herrón, and those reacting to the political upheavals of the L.A. riots in the ’90s set a precedent for contemporary street artists in the city. After a 10-year ban on the art form ended in October 2013, L.A. has seen something of a street art renaissance. Irish artist Fin DAC has painted walls all over the city, from the arts district to Venice Beach, and prefers painting there to his home in London. According to the artist, Los Angeles has taken great care to both preserve and elevate its street art scene. “L.A. was ahead of the game with its mural conservation and ordinance programs,” Fin DAC says. “So government-wise, it would seem that they’re all for it. As for the public, I’ve never had one negative word said about me or my work whether whilst I’m painting, or in the aftermath.”
The L.A. mural ordinance clearly outlines the procedures artists must go through to paint a wall. As a result, most of the large-scale pieces seen these days are done legally. While this dynamic may inhibit the rebellious roots of the art form, it means that commissions are on the rise, and the spaces for artists to create are only growing. “There’s lots of different people and groups acting as facilitators that ease the process of painting a wall for an outsider,” Fin DAC adds. “In L.A. the warehouse buildings provide massive and seemingly endless canvases for street artists. Downtown Los Angeles’s arts and fashion districts have long been a hub of creativity spanning many different genres and industries.” With spaces such as the Container Yard facilitating the work of both international and local artists, and organizations like the Mobile Mural Lab encouraging the next generation, Los Angeles is poised to continue to produce and court world-class street artists.
Collaborative mural by Ever and ROA, Buenos Aires. Photo by Ever, via Flickr.
Argentine street art is deeply rooted in social commentary, beginning during the years of dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s. Street art movements gained momentum, then faltered in pace with the country’s erratic political dynamics. According to Jaz, a street artist based in Buenos Aires, the art form really took off in the nation’s capital around 2001, after the economic crash, and has been gaining ground ever since. The city’s highly stylized, Parisian-esque architecture makes large walls difficult to paint, so the majority of street art is highly concentrated in neighborhoods with accessible walls on the street level such as San Telmo.
According to Jaz, the government is putting a great deal of funds into beautifying certain neighborhoods, which creates many opportunities for artists, but brings about questions of gentrification common in today’s worldwide street art community. On this dynamic, Jaz says, “In terms of the common people on the streets, in Buenos Aires they are always super welcoming. I have so many good experiences painting in the streets, making friends that pass by, stop, and come back with food, drinks, or even money.” The contemporary street art community in Argentina has distanced itself somewhat from its political past, in line with the current trend of commodifying street art. Advertising agencies and production companies are major patrons of the art form. These commissions, along with the promotional work of groups such as Graffiti Mundo, founded by two expats from the U.K., are helping Argentina-based artists reach the world stage. While a great deal of work in Buenos Aires is being funded by the aforementioned entities, Jaz says that thanks to the increase in government commissions, the police are hardly an issue, even for those making work illegally in areas already saturated with street art.
Artwork by Vhils, Lisbon. Photo courtesy of the artist.
“Lisbon has a unique poetic ambience emanating from its very particular faded glamour. It is an old city, steeped in culture and the past,” Portuguese street artist Vhils tells me. “Once the capital of a thriving global empire, it spent half of the 20th century stifled under a conservative dictatorship, falling into disrepair. It only really began regenerating itself in the last two decades, and is now seen as one of Europe’s most stylish and appealing cities.” Urban art, as Vhils calls it, has been a big part of the city’s revival. After the 1974 revolution in Portugal, the nation experienced a case of split identity between the utopian ideals of the art produced during the revolution, and the rise of capitalism and mass advertising. Despite these economic pressures, being a small city within a small country, Lisbon and its artists have managed to maintain a level of artistic purity in their tight-knit community.
According to Vhils, the graffiti writers are quite competitive with one another, while the street artists and muralists share a spirit of collaboration. Both communities are able to thrive due to the layout of the city. “It is a city of small nooks and hidden details; it differs greatly from one district to the next, depending on when it was built, so it’s really like several different towns rolled into one,” Vhils explains. “Growing up with this decay made me aware of how the layers that form these walls reflect the passage of time and history; bits and pieces of the past are exposed by this decay.” The current generation of street artists have built upon that history with the CRONO Project festival and the Underdogs Public Art Program, which allows local artists to interface with a host of international stars. As a result, many of Lisbon’s premier artists have begun taking their talents abroad, leaving more opportunities for others to do commissioned work for both the private sector and an accepting city council.
Okuda at work in Hong Kong. Photo by Cheung Chi-Wai, courtesy of HK Walls.
Unlike other cities on this list, Hong Kong’s street art scene is an unprecedented phenomenon. The Special Administrative Region has had its fair share of political conflicts, with the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014 spurring public art and sticker bombing during the protest. However, apart from this isolated period, street art in Asia’s commercial center has been largely removed from politics, with the imposing presence of Beijing discouraging politicized work. The inception of Hong Kong’s scene is more in line with the growing trend of commercial street art. With the exception of a few graffiti writers working through the ’90s and the early 2000s, street art has taken off in the last five years or so, attracting artists from around the world to the city. Organizations, festivals, and events—like HKWalls, Clockenflap, and Secret Walls—plus a number of pioneering galleries, have supported the growing trend. Additionally, the influx of talent entering the city has inspired a small group of local artists to assert the vitality and excellence of the city’s homegrown talent.
JCorp, a Hong Kong native who’s lived in New York since 2010, reminisces about her last trip home. “The last time I was there, I didn’t do anything commissioned. I actually started street art after I left, so this was my first time painting there, and it was easier than I thought to just go out and do something,” she explains. “It was really easy for me to fly under the radar since I know the city so well.” Many artists in Hong Kong will echo this sentiment—that despite foreign preconceptions about Chinese hierarchy and discipline, there are many spaces for young street artists to experiment without trouble from the authorities. As a result, many of these homegrown artists are participating in the aforementioned events in Hong Kong, and taking that experience with them abroad. And while the cost of living in Hong Kong is steep, artists are able to supplement their street art ventures with income from day jobs as designers, as well as merchandising and commissioned work.
Tram art by Rone. Photo by Yarra Trams, via Flickr.
The street art movement in Melbourne, Australia, evolved in the early 2000s without much precedent. According to Melbourne street artist Rone, the scene evolved out of the skateboarding culture at the time. Skaters and artists were already out in the streets putting up paste-ups and stickers, though the city’s layout led them to become more ambitious. “The geography of the city and the town planning is set up so that between every street there’s a laneway to access the backs of all the stores,” Rone says. “So that just means that all the way through downtown there’s hundreds of these laneways, so it’s perfect to paint.” As part of the pioneering group called the Everfresh Crew, Rone and his peers had a wealth of freedom.
He notes that the laneways are sparsely policed, and the community very accepting of the artwork. That’s not to say that some artists haven’t gotten themselves in trouble taking advantage of this leniency, as the law actually differentiates strictly between street art and graffiti. The City of Melbourne’s website describes street art pieces as “larger, more artistic pieces or murals placed in appropriate locations with the required permission.” Graffiti, by the city’s definition, refers to quick tags done with a marker or spray can in acts of vandalism. However, Rone says that nowadays, many artists are able to do commissioned work legally, thanks to the wealth of job opportunities in the city. Another geographic factor which has contributed to Melbourne’s rise as a street art powerhouse is just how far it is from everywhere else. Unless an artist plans to paint in New Zealand or the Polynesian Islands, as many do, they’ll have to pay a hefty sum to work abroad. While artists like Rone can foot the bill, others cannot, which means the scene continues to thrive and push itself internally, with enough walls to sustain the large community.
Artwork by Jaz, Rabat. Photo courtesy of the artist.
In Morocco’s major cities, art has been accessible on the street and in public spaces since times of antiquity—intricately patterned Zillij tiles, meticulously carved woodwork, and the flowing characters of Arabic calligraphy adorn the mosques and medinas of Rabat, Marrakech, Fez, and Casablanca. The Moroccan government is investing heavily in the arts by both preserving historical sites and encouraging engagement in contemporary art, including street art. After unveiling Rabat’s Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the city hosted the Jidar street art festival in 2015 and 2016. The landmark event brought artists from around the world to paint alongside domestic talents. Those artists were given the opportunity to paint massive walls around the city. The pieces on display form a fascinating blend of styles and cultures. The geometry and calligraphic elements of traditional Islamic art were well represented alongside surrealistic figurative works.
Argentinian artist Jaz and Spanish artist Okuda have both participated in the Jidar festival. Jaz counts the experience as one of his best, saying, “Rabat in Morocco is one city where I have such a great response of the people.” Okuda echoes this sentiment: “You work more for the community, and you feel how your work makes a positive change in the neighborhood and in the people.” When working in historically conservative cities like Rabat, artists coming from the outside must challenge themselves to innovate and paint with consideration to political and social expectations. The collaborative efforts of Jidar, between the people, their government, and the artists, represents a fresh take on ancient practices.