There was a time — not too long ago, actually — when all graffiti, despite its theme or message, was immediately classified as vandalism, but those days are pretty much gone. Many cities simply couldn't beat the trend, so they joined in, and today, street art is not only accepted but encouraged and respected in cities around the world.
Throughout the past 50 years, street art has evolved from a means of propaganda, to rebellious tagging, to the profound art form it often is today. Artists like the anonymous British graffitero Banksy are creating massive works of art on public spaces: on abandoned buildings, bridges, boats, sidewalks, tin roofs, metro stations, and every surface in between. These spray paint masterpieces would sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and they do!), but lucky for everyone, they're on display in our cities for free.
These days, authorities not only tolerate street art, but actually embrace the graffiti as part of their cities' unique culture. After all, these urban artworks serve so many purposes, from screaming weighty socio-political statements, to simply putting a smile on a few faces or brightening up a drab street. Here are 20 cities around the world with the best street art scenes.
20 Rishikesh, North India
Not only is Rishikesh the "Yoga Capital of the World," it also has tons of creative street art hidden away in gardens, inside abandoned buildings and beneath bridges. This unassuming city is where The Beetles learned to meditate, and the ashram they visited is now decorated with murals of the musical group. The paintings sprawl over tin roofs and bridges around the city, but to keep things under control, Rishikesh has attempted to contain it to the Rishikesh Street Art Festival, held once a year. This city is outrageously (and covertly) cool, so add it to your bucket list before it's discovered.
19 Mexico City, Mexico
More than ever before, Mexico City is becoming an artists' mecca. It used to be that the late iconic artist and feminist Frida Kahlo ruled the city's art scene. Visitors would line up outside her former Casa Azul to see the possessions she left behind, and still do, but they also come to worship more than Frida now. Some would argue that Mexico City is perhaps even leading today's global art trends on many levels. The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, for instance, named it the 2018 "world design capital." Vibrant graffiti decorates shop shutters in the historic center and the walls of Roma-Condesa.
18 Bristol, UK
This English harborside city has been tagged countless times by a rather infamous graffiti artist who grew up here: the one and only Banksy. The anonymous artist's work has sold for more money than most people's homes are worth, but it can be viewed for free on the streets of Bristol. Some of Banksy's earliest work from the '80s, during which Bristol was having a big graffiti art moment, are still on display here. Visit Bristol has even created a Banksy Walking Tour which features seven of his most famous local pieces. But Banksy isn't the only artist in town — this city is full of street art, and it embraces its graffiti culture through an annual urban painting festival dubbed Upfest.
17 Granada, Spain
Granada graffiti artist El Niño de las Pinturas is also called "the Banksy of Spain." His top-notch paintings, often depicting watercolor-esque portraits, have adorned the sides of buildings in this Spanish city since the '90s, but he's no longer the only tagger on the block. "Granada's street artists aren't typical scribble-and-run graffiteros," Lonely Planet says. "Their thoughtful and whimsical murals overlaid with clever, sometimes witty aphorisms written in Spanish are — in the view of many locals — more of an inspiration than an eyesore." These public arts are nearly everywhere you look in the Realejo neighborhood.
16 New York City, USA
A haven for arts and culture in the U.S., it only makes sense that the Big Apple is a center for street art, too. During the early stages of the graffiti craze, in the '70s, artist Keith Haring painted a mural on what is now known as the Houston Bowery Wall. Still one of the most popular and iconic examples of street art in New York City, the Bowery Wall is ever-changing, showcasing the many talented muralists of New York. Earlier this year, Banksy took the Bowery Wall over with a political protest piece — calling attention to an imprisoned Turkish painter and journalist by the name of Zehra Dogan — which was completely erased after three months.
15 Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon's business district is home to a slew of neglected buildings that were recently at risk of falling into the hands of developers who sought to tear them down and start anew, but the Crono Project saved them through street art. As a means of preserving their heritage, the year-long project, which concluded in 2011, commissioned artists to breathe life back into these dilapidated buildings by bedecking them with beautiful art. Perhaps the most noticeable of these works was a 40-foot burglar stretching across a six-story building. Even since the Crono Project, though, the Lisbon street art scene has erupted, especially in the boroughs of Mouraria, Bairro Alto, Alcântara, Alfama, São Vicente, and Graça.
14 Prague, Czech Republic
Graffiti art started popping up around Prague in the '80s, during the Czech Republic's communist rule, according to Urban Adventures. These early works depicted messages of positivity as a result of the country's political change at the time. It was a group of John Lennon followers — "Lennonists" — who really set the stage for street art here with the John Lennon Wall, an iconic Prague landmark still. Now, the city's urban art scene is more alive than ever before, and the optimistic undertones that its earliest pieces were known for still lives in paintings throughout the city today.
13 Penang, Malaysia
Penang's capital of Georgetown is a colorful, multicultural city that's seemingly frozen in time. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town's British colonial buildings and picturesque Chinese shophouses attract visitors from all over the world. Even more, Georgetown has started a street art trend nationwide. It all started when the Penang government commissioned artists from Sculpture At Work to create steel art for Georgetown in 2010, Lonely Planet says. The 3D murals they created were so well-liked that the 2012 Georgetown Festival then commissioned artist Ernest Zacharevic to paint public pieces around the city. Georgetown's street art became so popular that it flooded into another Malaysian city, Melaka, thus putting Southeast Asia on the map for street art.
12 Toronto, Canada
Street art was so big in Toronto that the city had to implement a Graffiti Management Plan. The plan aims to embrace the street art as part of the city's culture, while reducing outright vandalism to keep things looking clean, thus it has developed a program called StART (StreetARToronto). The first legalized graffiti zone in the city is now called Graffiti Alley, a backstreet running almost one kilometer long and chockful of colorful murals, which are now becoming a major tourist attraction for Toronto. Since the legalization of street art in 2011, StART has revitalized Underpass Park as well.
11 London, UK
In 1985, the late, London-based graffiti artist King Robbo famously tagged a well-known tunnel in Camden. In 2009, Banksy covered much of it with his own controversial piece: a painter who appeared to be wallpapering over the notable image. Thus, the battle between Banksy and Robbo commenced. For years, they defaced each other's works around London, painting over them with their own creations. Robbo fans weighed in with their support, tagging "team Robbo" all around the city. Camden, the original location of Robbo's early work, is still a popular hub for street art today. Perhaps the best hidden gem in London, though, is the Leake Street Tunnel near Waterloo, covered in colorful graffiti from the floor to the ceiling.
10 Buenos Aires, Argentina
The abundance of abandoned buildings in this Latin American capital city is what brings international graffiti artists to the streets of Buenos Aires, The Culture Trip says. The lively city has long been known for its massive murals because there aren't any laws forbidding street art. In 2014 Buenos Aires Street Art teamed up with the Google Cultural Institute to launch the Google Street Art Project in 2015, which documents graffiti from around the world in a virtual library. Much of the Argentinian capital's street art depicts the city's history and carries a political message, BBC says.
9 Paris, France
You don't need to visit the Louvre to see world-class art in Paris; simply wander about the streets and you'll find masterpieces for free. According to Time Out Paris, the city's street art movement started during the '60s when artists would hang their work on posters around the city. Then in the '80s, Paris saw the emergence of such noteworthy artists as Jef Aérosol and Jérôme Mesnager, whose works are featured around the world, including, for both, the Great Wall of China. Street art in Paris is supported by the authorities and encourage by Le Mur association, a council founded by fellow artist Jean Faucheur, BBC says. Today, graffiti art is on display all throughout the city.
8 Lodz, Poland
Lodz is a little-known Polish city known for its booming industrialism and the ghetto that was built here during World War II. Recently, though, the street art that has begun to appear around town is putting Lodz on the map as a destination for art and culture. During the '60s and '70s, outdoor wall space was used for advertisingin the communist era. Only recently, Lodz residents started waking up to colorful murals along the streets. In 2009, the Urban Forms Foundation officially backed the street art movement by turning a display into an open-air gallery in an attempt to improve the image of the city, according to In Your Pocket. The new murals around the city have breathed color and life back into Lodz.
7 Cape Town, South Africa
When it comes to street art, the African continent is not to be forgotten. Cape Town's Woodstock suburb is the birthplace of some of the best graffiti art around. A few decades ago, the neighborhood of Woodstock, overrun by crime and industry, was not an ideal destination for tourism, but it started undergoing change in the '90s. Today, Woodstock is a mecca for hipsters, artists, and creatives alike. Even the houses in this 'hood are painted with vibrant scenes, but most of the murals here occupy the lanes and alleyways between Albert Street and Victoria Road, The Guardian says.
6 San Francisco, USA
With thousands of murals and public graffiti pieces around the city, San Francisco, California, is like one big free, outdoor art gallery. The Mission District, particularly, famed for its culture-heavy hipster vibe, is full of must-see murals, depicting everything from honey bears, Frida Kahlo, a skinless wolf and between, according to Time Out San Francisco. San Francisco is amongst the three top U.S. cities for street art, alongside Los Angeles and New York City. Clarion Alley and Balmy Alley are huge graffiti hotspots, but Curbed SF has put together a map of 49 murals worth seeing outside of these conventional high-traffic zones.
5 Moscow, Russia
Russia's best-known street artist, also known as "the Russian Banksy" and "Bankski," officially goes by P183. The artist was featured on The Telegraph for a unique piece he created not with paint, but with snow. For this particular piece, P183 drew gigantic glasses frames in snow that had covered an open courtyard. He integrated a lamppost into the design by using it as one of the arms of the colossal spectacles. More permanent designs can be viewed outside the Flacon Design Factory, on various metro stations, and even electrical transformer booths throughout the city.
4 Santiago, Chile
Such as the case with many places, street art in Chile started with propaganda. During the late '60s and early '70s, graffiti art featured socialist themes and political undertones. Now, there are an estimated 600 to 1,000 graffiteros around Santiago whose paintings still sometimes carry political messages, but more often depict more colorful, happier themes. The Culture Trip says you can steal a glimpse of these murals in Barrio Bellavista, San Miguel, Barrio Brasil, and a few Downtown as well. Santiago's neighbor city, Valparaiso, is also known for its street art, so graffiti fans will want to make a stop there, too.
3 Berlin, Germany
In 2017, Berlin opened the "world's first major institution built to champion and archive street art and graffiti," The Guardian reported. Urban Nation's opening show featured work by more than 100 graffiteros. Of course, the outside of it is covered in art, too, as is the nearby metro station. This city claims that its street art history begins with the Berlin Wall, which, in the '80s, provided a 14-foot-tall message board. The world-renowned landmark that has since fallen was once a meeting point for early graffiti artists, says Berlin Street Art. Even in today's graffiti community, Berlin is still king.
2 Melbourne, Australia
Among the most popular tourism pitstops in Australia's hipster city of Melbourne are its colorfully decorated laneways. From the pure rock-and-roll of AC/DC Lane (once tagged by the famous Banksy) to the somber Drewery Lane, whose art remembers those who've lost their lives in the service, there truly is street art for everyone in Melb. While there is art to be found everywhere in this city, there are about a dozen laneways that have famous displays, including the colorful Hosier Lane, the poetic Higson Lane, and the very tiny lane with big personality, Union Lane.
1 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Any mental image of Rio de Janeiro is likely to look like an explosion of life and color, so it's no surprise that this South American city is bursting with street art, too. In fact, here is home to the largest graffiti wall in the world, according to Atlas Obscura. Along the waterfront, Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra has earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the largest street art mural, a 32,300-square-foot wall on Olympic Boulevard, whose scene depicts indigenous people from America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia, representing "humanity's common ancestors," Atlas Obscura says.