Last Updated on May 23, 2020
In cities large and small around the globe, simple graffiti tagging has long since given way to incredible pieces of gifted street art. Often, while others head to check out typical tourist attractions, we take to the streets instead, to look for work by our favorite artists. This was definitely the case during out time in New York this summer, but it turned out that although the city is a mecca for all things art, music and especially hip-hop culture, which is so intertwined in the graffiti and street art, street art spotting was more difficult than in the South American cities we had just come from. Sadly, the nature of street art is that it isn’t eternal, which is why I photographed every single piece I saw – and while most of the street art in New York City I am sharing here in this article can’t be found on those walls anymore, these pieces will live on this little website forever.
In Buenos Aires, Santiago and even now here in Berlin, there is mind-blowing street art around every corner, but for a city its size, New York required a bit more hunting for the great pieces, and we made it a goal to find the Big Apple’s street art hot spots.
Originally Jess and I had assumed that every street artist in the world would want a piece on the walls of this city, but it turns out that while some cities turn a blind eye to graffiti and in others (like Buenos Aires) it is essentially legal, it is illegal to spray paint walls in the U.S. and New York is particularly strict on the issue. Mayor Giuliani even set up a strict Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995, which began a crackdown of graffiti vandals in the city and banned the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans to children under 18.
Why is the city so strict about this? In the 1970s, graffiti and tagging became popular with kids in New York. The scribbles, markers and more evolved sprayed tags were suddenly found everywhere from subway cars to the bottoms of any empty wall. Back then, it was all about tagging and ‘marking your territory’ without getting caught. There was arguably much less ‘art’ involved and was seen much more as vandalism.
As graffiti skills evolved into the 1980s, street artists became much more creative and took more pride in their paintings. The goal shifted from territory marking to showing whose skills were better with unique, intricate pieces starting to develop around the city.
As the quality of street art evolved around the world, New York City fought back, increasing penalties and creating public policies and strategies to combat it. Subway trains were covered in a slick material that spray paint and marker couldn’t stick to and authorities erected higher fences and patrolled outside the subway stations at night so vigilantly until there was effectively no more tagging or art on any trains in the city.
In the area around Wythe Ave, Bedford Ave and Berry Street between Metropolitan Ave and 11th Street in Williamsburg, we spent hours admiring the street art and we even stumbled across this squirrel piece by one of our absolute favorites, the Belgian street artist ROA.
There is a lesser known spot that some consider a street art mecca in New York that we would have never heard about, but we met up with Laura, an awesome New Yorker and reader of our site. Laura recommended we should check out 5 Pointz in Long Island City, Queens. We are glad that we did because when I returned to 5Pointz in May 2014, this street art mecca had disappeared:
5 Pointz was a five-story former warehouse with 200,000 square feet of surface painted by local and world renown street artists alike. Laura had told us that there had been rumors that 5Pointz was going to be torn down, and it turned out, she was right. In November 2013, the entire warehouse was painted over with white paint.
All these amazing pieces were gone – instead, this is what you see now when you visit 5Pointz:
I think it is horrible that they left the building like this until it is torn down, instead allowing talented street artists from all over the world to continue to express their art here – at least until the warehouse is torn down (and replaced by luxurious condominiums, of course).
Street Art in the East Village
Since we had enjoyed our street art tour in Buenos Aires so much, we have decided to hop on street art tours whenever we can. We did our research and found a street art tour in New York we decided to join to learn more about the gems in Manhattan, too.
We opted for a 90-minute tour with Grafftours and within five minutes of the tour, we knew we had made the right decision! This was the first piece we were shown:
We had actually walked down the street where it was several times before the tour and had never seen this tribute to Steve Jobs until our guide pointed it out.
From there, we padded around the East Village, including a community garden where we saw yet another piece by ROA. Like many of the top street artists, ROA most often gets permission for his pieces, as he did here in this garden. We learned there are three types of street art: No-permission – where the street artist does the piece regardless whose property it is, Permission pieces – where the owners give the artist permission to put a piece up, and commission pieces – where building owners or collectors actually commission and pay for a piece to go up.
Although this little spot on the stairs just down the street was not given permission, ROA’s piece on them just a few feet from the garden is a welcome addition to the building, they say, as it ups the property / rental value to have such a famous artist’s piece on the stairs.
Not far from Roa’s paintings, we saw a little Invader piece. We’re always on the look-out for Invader’s tiles around the world, but again we missed this piece until the guide pointed it out.
We also got to see the centre-fuge Public Art Project, an abandoned construction work trailer on 1st Street, which has been transformed into a rotating street gallery with colorful stencil pieces.
We also learned more about the Paul Richard street portraits. We spotted the one on the left in Williamsburg the week before the tour, and the one on the right on the tour in the East Village. It turns out, he has several of these around the city which we find incredible because he captures facial features with nothing more than a few drips of paint on the sidewalk! You can check out how he paints his dribble sidewalk paintings and also some of his more traditional portraits in this video.
Our tour ended at the Bowery Graffiti Wall, one of the most famous street art spots in New York. Keith Haring was the first one to paint this wall in 1982, and since then, famous street artists such as Shepard Fairey or Lady Aiko were part of the rotating murals that are shown on the giant wall, currently displaying Crash’s massive Popeye mural.
As we continued to explore street art around the city, we found more favorites like this one:
We also loved this giant paste up by JR in Williamsburg:
The best thing about street art? It is always changing! We are already looking forward to returning to New York City next month to check out which new pieces have gone up at 5 Pointz and in Williamsburg.
Take a New York Graffiti Tour
Grafftours runs tours in the East Village every Sunday from 1pm -2:30pm for $25. Reservations are required. They also offer similar tours in Williamsburg and Bushwick, and 90-minute graffiti workshops in Brooklyn, where you can become a street artist for the day, spraying on a local wall with the guidance of street artists.