Underrated US cities for street art
Step aside, stuffy art museums — street art has taken over the nation as the most important contemporary art movement of our time. What began as a subversive form of art about 40 years ago is now, in many urban areas, city sanctioned. Earlier this year, Chicago even launched a mural registry dedicated to protecting the city’s prolific public paintings.
Thanks to the popularity of the mural movement, once-derelict streets in Brooklyn and Los Angeles have turned into free open-air galleries, and places like Wynwood in Miami and Eastern Market in Detroit have garnered critical acclaim for their artsy alleyways. But these aren’t the only places promoting street art in America. Here are 11 spots in the United States that recently started turning their grey walls into blank canvases. These under-represented street art scenes are quickly transforming America’s lesser-known urban areas into tourist destinations and cultural centers worthy of global praise.
1. Oklahoma City, OK
From down-and-out neighborhood to modern-art hub, Oklahoma City’s trendy Plaza District is proof of public art’s transformative power. Only a decade ago, the alley at 1739 Northwest 16th Street was a place locals avoided. Now, it’s a top tourist destination, largely thanks to local artists Dylan Bradway and Kristopher Kanaly. In 2015, the duo launched the Plaza Walls mural project, an outdoor exhibition that hosts a rotating roster of work by top-tier street artists. With the help of local painters, Bradway and Kanaly turned the crime-ridden alley into an outdoor museum.
The critical element of Plaza Walls’ success is its celebration of community. One of the most coveted wall spaces, on 16th and Indiana Avenue, is painted fresh by a different mural master every month. This gives new artists a chance to share their work and onlookers a reason to return to the scene.
The Plaza District isn’t the only OKC neighborhood to embrace the street art movement. Film Row, a trendy area adjacent to the Arts District, is home to a bunch of colorful walls, including a massive portrait of the Thunder’s star basketball player, Steven Adams, painted by Mr. G (aka Graham Hoete) on 701 W Sheridan Avenue. Midtown and Automobile Alley are areas worth checking out as well, particularly for Victor Ving and Lisa Beggs’ “Greetings from OKC” at 301 NW 10th Street. The duo has painted 41 “Greetings from…” murals in 20 different states, all celebrating the culture of local towns in postcard-style paintings.
2. Sacramento, California
For a long time, Sacramento was a nowhere town overshadowed by its urban neighbor to the west, San Francisco. But as the price of living continues to push people out of SF proper, nearby areas are starting to spring up as hamlets for those seeking refuge from continually rising rents. Sacramento is one of those havens. The most visible expression of this change is in the nascent street art scene taking place in Sacramento’s Midtown.
In 2016, the Wide Open Walls project began as a way to transform Sacramento’s sleepy city into an eye-popping tourist destination. With over 80 murals painted by local and international artists, and an annual festival that attracts 4,000 yearly visitors, the project has been an enormous success.
For a self-guided tour of Midtown’s murals, stick between K and I Streets and 15th and 25th Streets. You’ll find the best work, including pieces by Caratoes, Okuda, and Pixel Pancho in this area. A great place to start is at Maren Conrad’s love letter to the movie Lady Bird on 16th & I Street. Walk over to K Street to see the sky-high mural by NYC artists How & Nosm, and then weave your way eastward toward 22nd Street to admire even more.
3. Dallas, Texas
In Dallas, commuting by car is a necessary part of local life, but just off the I-75, the sidewalks of Deep Ellum are pulsing with the beat of pedestrian feet. It’s easy to see why people choose to walk instead of drive in this funky arts district. The walls of this neighborhood — home to trendy boutiques, live music venues, and delicious restaurants — form an outdoor art gallery that you’ll miss if you don’t put your sneakers to use.
In 2009, the Deep Ellum Mural Project began painting Deep Ellum’s dull industrial buildings with site-specific street art. Since then, it has turned over 8,000 square feet of wall space into artwork for the community to enjoy. On top of that, the 42 Murals Project, which began in 2012, commissioned 42 Texan muralists to decorate even more of the neighborhood’s walls. The result of both projects is a maze of colorful streets that promote a community-oriented vibe.
The majority of the area’s best murals can be seen by weaving around Canton, Commerce, Main, and Elm Streets between Good Latimer Expressway and Exposition Avenue. Head to 2913 Elm Street to get a whole parking lot’s worth of love from the enormous “I Love You” mural. Check out Jerod Davies’ “#trustlove” painting of lovers on a bicycle at 2653 Main Street. Jorge Gutierrez’s Mexican-themed cartoons on 2801 Elm Street and Mike Cruz’s Frida Kahlo skeleton head on 2810 Main Street celebrate the city’s Latinx community.
4. Reno, Nevada
Reno is often overshadowed by the glitz and glam of Las Vegas. The casinos are older and the winters colder than what you’ll find in Sin City. Lax divorce laws made Reno famous in the first half of the 20th century, and it wasn’t uncommon to get hitched in Vegas and call it quits here. Las Vegas was built on dreams; Reno was where those dreams went to die.
Today, all that has changed — Reno is now where dreams blossom into public art pieces. A gateway for people passing to and from the popular annual Burning Man festival, this kitsch-tastic town is regularly inundated with contemporary artists and their admirers. As a result, the city has become a gathering place for the Burners, and the large-scale art installations and site-specific murals they’re bringing with them are turning this dusty Nevada city into street art central.
You’ll find a ton of artwork downtown on Virginia Street between the Truckee River and East 9th Street. Head to East Plaza and Virginia Street to see Reno native Erik Burke’s “Blueprint of a Mother,” a six-story high portrait of a woman decorated in mountains and flowers. Walk in and out of nearby alleys for other great works, and keep an eye out for Joe C. Rock’s mural of his mother’s arm at 210 North Sierra Street. The Playa Art Park on North Virginia is another excellent area to see Reno’s Burning Man-inspired public works. The park, flanked by two long murals, is filled with sculptures created by Burners during their Black Rock Desert bash.
5. Denver, Colorado
The only thing that seems to match Denver’s exponential population growth in recent years is the city’s prolific street art scene. Over the past decade, much of the town has become a canvas for photo-worthy wall scrawls and murals. You can spot them while whizzing down the Cherry Creek Trail bike path, near galleries in the Art District on Santa Fe, and around nightlife venues on East Colfax Avenue. No area, however, is more kaleidoscopically spectacular than a section of the River North Art District (RiNo) on Larimer between 20th Street and 37th Street.
RiNo’s explosively colorful streets are thanks to Crush Walls, an arts initiative began by Robin Munro in 2010 to showcase the work of both local and international muralists. Every September, the organization throws a week-long festival featuring new murals both in RiNo and around the city. The organization is celebrating a decade of urban beautification this year, and its influence on Denver is evident. With over 100 murals to see, RiNo’s free open-air gallery has turned the neighborhood into a must-visit destination. As a result, hip beer halls, food markets, and boutique shopping have sprung up around the once-defunct area.
Stroll through Art Alley to spot the glut of RiNo’s greatest work, or hop on a Bird scooter and glide through the many murals between Art Alley and Larimer Street. One of the most ingenious works is Jeremy Burns’s “Larimer Boy and Girl” on 27th and Larimer. The two-sided piece uses a building’s concrete fin panels to create a double portrait that changes depending on which side of the street you walk down. Other notable works include local artists Pedro Barrios and Jaime Molina’s five-story-high mountain man on 3201 Brighton Boulevard and GAMMA’s expertly executed “Skin Condition” on 31st and Larimer.
6. West Palm Beach, Florida
It’s easy to assume the cities of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach are the same principality. Travelers must, after all, pass through one to get to the other. But while Palm Beach is home to Mar-a-Lago and everything it entails, West Palm Beach is home to the revolution, evidenced by the many murals that have sprouted up around the city in recent years.
There’s no doubt that West Palm Beach has been influenced by Wynwood’s outdoor art scene. Just an hour south along Florida’s eastern seaboard, Wynwood is a Miami neighborhood internationally respected for its murals. In recent years, a significant number of its muralists have spilled over to the streets of West Palm to bomb the town’s walls with their beautiful works. Brazilians Kobra and Sipros, Los Angelinos Tristan Eaton and WRDSMTH, and Croatian-based artist Lonac are only a few of the many acclaimed artists responsible for the public art scattered about town. Most of these works are thanks to CANVAS, a program at the forefront of turning West Palm Beach into an open-air art show since 2015. The bulk of CANVAS’s commissioned pieces can be seen in the Arts and Entertainment district, concentrated around Clematis Street between South Quadrille Boulevard and South Tamarind Avenue.
7. Cincinnati, Ohio
Only a decade ago, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was a place locals avoided. Thanks to recent revitalization efforts, it has once again become a place to enjoy. The proliferation of street art has played a large part; the OTR has been reborn as one of the country’s must-visit hubs for mural lovers.
The most inspiring part of Cincinnati’s street art renaissance is that it’s genuinely a community-oriented endeavor. Murals are mainly Cincinnati-themed, showcasing famous locals (like Rosemary Clooney in a mural painted by Natalie Lanese at 1606 Pleasant Street), city folklore (like “The Cincinnati Strong Man: Henry Holtgrewe,” immortalized by Jason Snell at 1215 Vine Street), and local celebrities (like Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon, which spent her final days in the Cincinnati Zoo, painted at 15 East 8th Street.) They also incorporate the talents of the local community. Even work by international artists (like Kobra, whose mural of Neil Armstrong can be seen on East 6th and Walnut Street) employs the hands of local teens, who learn from the mural masters as a part of the city’s ArtWorks program. Cincinnati’s 100-plus murals is one of America’s best examples of art by the people for the people.
8. Washington, DC
Washington DC’s no-fee Smithsonian museums serve as shining examples of American art and are some of the highest-regarded and often-visited museums in America. DC’s street art, on the other hand, may seem incongruous in a city stereotypically known for its pure white walls and suit-and-tie inhabitants. This juxtaposition is what makes the vibrant mural scene here unique — and it’s a welcome surprise.
The clash of Washingtonian elegance and urban art is most evident at Blind Whino (700 Delaware Avenue Southwest). A former Victorian-style church, Blind Whino is now an arts center painted by the muralist HENSE. The building’s colorful walls are a striking sight mere blocks from the National Mall’s white-marble monuments.
You’ll find over 100 noteworthy murals sprinkled around DC, but the highest concentration is in the Shaw and NoMa neighborhoods. Blagden Alley, located in Shaw, is home to a dozen rotating murals that wind through the backs of brick carriage-houses filled with beer halls, coffee shops, and restaurants. Union Market, located in NoMa, is surrounded by blocks covered in street art and grittier graffiti. Pieces range from a Hirshorn-curated black-and-white message designed by Yoko Ono and located on the side of the market — “Relax! Your Heart Is Stronger Than What You Think!” — to a building-sized portrait of George Washington at nearby 33 North Street Northeast. Painted by Mark Paul Deren, this acid-tripping rendition of America’s first President is at the antipode of Washington’s portrait hanging in The National Gallery.
9. Eugene, Oregon
Located an hour-and-a-half south of Portland in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Eugene shares quite a bit with its “weird” sister city to the north. They’re both hippy-loving college towns with easy access to nature, their very own Voodoo Donuts shops, and globally recognized art scenes. Sure, Eugene may be much smaller in scale, but the contemporary art scene here, undoubtedly influenced by nearby Portland, has recently upped the ante on its wow factor. You’ll find pieces by street artists like Blek le Rat (France), Hush (United Kingdom), Telmo Miel (Netherlands), and Shamsia Hassani (Afghanistan’s first female street artist) all over Eugene’s pedestrian-friendly downtown.
The recent explosion of murals is mostly thanks to the 20×21 EUG Mural Project, which began in 2015. An initiative created by the City of Eugene’s Public Art Program, the project is inviting world-renowned artists to paint 20 new murals around the city before the year 2021. Urban Canvas, another public arts initiative in the city, aims to offer opportunities for local artists interested in creating murals.
Head over to 100 East Broadway to see some of Blek le Rat’s paste-up pieces. The granddaddy of modern stencil art used by artists like Banksy, Blek le Rat’s subtle black-and-white works are some of the most quirky in town. You’ll find other great murals by winding down Willamette Street between 7th and 14th Avenues.
10. Richmond, Virginia
When it comes to street art, Richmond ranks next to big-name cities like New York and Los Angeles. Modern murals fill entire city streets, providing a poetic juxtaposition to the Revolutionary War-era architecture scattered about town.
The massive amount of public paintings is thanks to two arts organizations: the RVA Street Art Festival and Richmond Mural Project. The Street Art Festival, which began in 2012, brings local artists and students to neglected areas of Richmond and beautifies them with murals. The festival has turned a bus station, old grain silos, and even the city’s floodwall into public art. The Richmond Mural Project, founded by Shane Pomajambo in 2012, brings the world’s greatest artists to Richmond’s city streets. In the first five years, the project created over 100 murals by the medium’s top talents and continues to host internationally respected street artists at its annual events.
If you want to see tons of murals on foot, the three best places to explore are along West Main Street in the Fan District (keep your eyes peeled for Aryz’s purple elephant and Greg Mike’s furry blue monster), on West Cary Street in Carytown between Arthur Ashe Boulevard and South Thompson Street, and along the Canal Walk near Shockoe Bottom.
11. Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta is arguably the cultural capital of the South. The city is home to a thriving film industry, an award-winning food scene, and public green spaces that have garnered national praise. Most recently, the Big Peach has added beautiful murals to its artistic scene, transforming the city into a big canvas for contemporary art. Thanks to many mural festivals and a growing number of internationally recognized local artists organizing them, Atlanta now gives street art cities like Chicago a run for their money.
There are so many wall-scrawled neighborhoods in Atlanta that it’s hard to pick a favorite. If pressed for time, though, you should check the murals along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, a pedestrian-only pathway that runs from Midtown to Reynoldstown. The path features about a dozen paintings, including pieces by HENSE, Kyle Brooks, and Karen Anderson, whose whimsical tiny doors can be spotted all over the city. Krog Street Tunnel, mere feet from the BeltLine, is also a worthy stop. The graffiti-strewn passage attracts people from all walks of life who are intrigued by its continually changing public canvas.
Aside from the trail, the industrial buildings of Cabbage Town and Inman Park are home to an endless array of murals. Head to Edgewood Avenue and Krog Street to see a few pieces by Atlanta-based artist Greg Mike. There’s plenty of art along Glen Iris Drive Northeast in the Old Fourth Ward, and the busy strip of Little Five Points is painted in all sorts of bright colors, too. Perhaps the most Insta-worthy mural outside of these neighborhoods is the “Atlanta” mural on the corner of Baker and Marietta near the Georgia Aquarium.
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