Living in Berlin has given me a new appreciation for street art. Up until now, I thought “street art” meant graffiti tags all over the place – the kind of ugly, bubbly letters you’ll find spray-painted on every bare wall around the city. But a little Berlin walking tour changed my mind. First of all, yes, graffiti can be ugly. But sometimes the story behind the graffiti is fascinating, and rebellious, and impressive. And there’s a difference between street art and graffiti. Street art tends to be commissioned by building owners or by the city, and usually involves the work of a renowned artist. Graffiti is illegal, and often ugly. Sure, maybe that won’t entirely convince you that graffiti and street art help make up the fabric of a city. On the other hand, why not learn a little more?
In a place like Berlin, you’d be right to expect much of the artwork to be political. The East Coast Gallery is a perfect example. When the Berlin Wall came down, a section of it in Friedrichshain was preserved so that artists could adorn it with some colour, and of course, some heavy-handed political messages popped up. “The Kiss” is a perfect example – a large painting shows Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev locking lips with East Germany President Erich Honecker. You’ll find more epic street art in Kreuzberg, including the famous Spaceman created by Victor Ash. It’s the biggest stencil in the world, and when the sun goes down, shadows create a flag in the astronaut’s hand.
Street art is very fluid in Berlin. A gigantic mural might be there one day and gone the next. A perfect example comes from Italian artist Blu, who created two of the most famous works in Berlin. One of those was the “business man chained by his golden watches.” Another was an East Side West Side piece. Because of gentrification in the area, and because Blu didn’t want developers to profit from his artwork, he destroyed both legendary pieces.
Finally, pay attention to the little smiley faces you’ll see all over town. Mein Lieber Prost is responsible for those – but those are considered graffiti. In fact, Mein Lieber Prost was once arrested and served a massive 25,000EUR fine…and then the Berlin community rallied a huge party and raised enough money to pay it off. (Can’t you tell why I love Berlin?)
Reykjavik street art tends to be fun, colourful, and less political than other cities. In this case, the street art usually captures Icelandic folklore and storytelling, or music. Also, Reykjavik is quite strict about where and what kind of artwork is being displayed, and so you’ll find much more actual street art than graffiti tags.
In 2015, Reykjavik launched a project called Wall Poetry – a creative mission by Yasha Young to combine music and street art. The results are some pretty phenomenal artwork. On Hverfisgata 42, you’ll see a gorgeous piece inspired by the song “We’ll meet again” by Dikta. On Skulagata 4, there’s a painting of a wizened old fisherman that was inspired by “Gonna Make Time” by Saun and Starr.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are countless others. All you have to do is simply wander around Reykjavik, and you’ll easily cover most of the city on foot. There’s literally something new on every corner.
I love Athens and its gritty political nature. I especially love Exarcheia, the anarchist district, where punks, students and eccentric folks all hang out to drink beer, smoke shisha, study in cafes, and yes, protest some issue or other. (The last time I visited, there was a demonstration about marijuana legalization.) Did you know that the word “graffiti” actually comes from the Greek word “graphi,” to write?
Graffiti and street art tend to emerge during dire economic times, and with Greece’s recent crisis, anti-austerity artwork started showing up everywhere. Some are simply political messages, including those by N_Grams and Cacao Rocks. Their most popular artwork is the giant EU flag with the words N€IN written across it. There’s also the pointful “Europe without Greece is like a party without drugs.” Stefano, another street artist, creates some beautiful artwork that’s also politically charged. Mostly the art involves Euro bills somehow, like Greek men lifting a coffin that’s been transformed into a 100EUR note.
Spend some time in Prague and you’ll quickly realize how quirky, wonderful, and weird this entire place is. Because of this delightful weirdness, it’s one of my favourite cities. The street art is no exception. The most famous artwork of all is the John Lennon Wall, in the Old Town. In the 1980s, lyrics inspired by The Beatles started showing up. And then Czechs started using the wall to air their grievances about communism. Today, it’s still used for messages of peace and love…even by tourists. Another must-see is the mural dedicated to Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech writer that was essentially the prime example of that quirky Czech personality. The mural shows him surrounded by his cats. How did he die? He fell out the window while feeding pigeons.
When I lived in Montreal, I never paid much attention to the street art. I wish I had because in recent years it’s really turned into something spectacular. In fact, Montreal even hosts an annual MURAL International Public Art Festival – 11 days of events, workshops, street markets, artwork, and block parties. You’ll find a good deal of it on Saint Laurent…this makes sense because that place is just awesome. Pro tip: Behind an abandoned village in the downtown area, near the Quartier des Spectacles, there’s a huge new mural gallery organized by an NYC street artist. The gallery features 42 Montreal artists. You might have to explore a little to find it, but it’s worth it.
The street art in Belfast was some of the most memorable for me. Much of it has to do with The Troubles and is about as politically charged as it gets. If you can, hop on a tour with someone from Belfast. Someone who has lived through such terrible times will be able to tell you the best stories. There are two types of political murals: republican and loyalist. Look for the mural featuring Bobby Sands, a member of the IRA who was arrested in connection with a bombing. He’s an important figure because he pushed for prison reform, went on a hunger strike, garnered enough media attention that he was elected to government (despite being still imprisoned), and then died.
Other important pieces include a loyalist portrait of King William III on Sandy Row. But then there is the peace mural, “No More,” showing that the Northern Irish want to put their past behind them to go on living in peace. One of my favourites was the armed gunman – it doesn’t matter what angle you look at it from, you’re still glaring down the barrel of a shotgun.
Melbourne, “the world’s most livable city,” is no stranger to street art! In fact, it’s gained international notoriety for its gorgeous works. There’s even a Melbourne Stencil Festival. Melbourne is said to be the stencil capital. (Stenciling tends to be a “safe” way for graffiti artists to leave their art behind because their elaborate pieces are constructed first in a studio, and then layered on a building somewhere.) Hosier Lane is the most popular laneway for street art, but you’ll find art scattered everywhere over this sprawling metropolis. Even artists like Banksy, Fafi, and Bleck le Rat have contributed to Melbourne’s street art scene.