By Chris Price
The Writing’s on the Wall: Graffiti in the modern city.
Graffiti is an interesting concept, straddling the lines between art and anti-social behaviour, freedom of expression and downright nuisance, depending on your point of view. Stemming from the Italian word graffio (“scratch”), graffiti (“incised inscriptions,” plural but often used as singular) is a form which has a long and intriguing history. Graffiti can be found all throughout history, from ancient cave art to markings amongst the ruins of classical Roman and Greek buildings, from inscriptions scored on the walls of Mayan cities to characters and words carved in the beams of medieval churches.
It also seems to stem from everything from boredom and idle gossip to political subversion and rabble-rousing slogans. During the 20th century, it was most closely associated with criminal activity and territorial markings but has also more recently fulfilled the role of public art in the modern world. There is often much debate as to where graffiti falls between acceptable art and criminal activity, a debate which seems to make the act even more attractive to many who take part in its creation.
In many of today’s cities, there is a certain amount of leeway given to graffiti artists, with free spaces allocated for it and many of its artists going on to have broader and more lucrative careers in art. Such art, legal and otherwise adds an interesting attraction to city-breakers, whether actively seeking out famous sites or just revelling in the unexpected and transitory qualities of such guerrilla artwork.
Here are some of the best cities to see graffiti in Europe
If New York is the place where graffiti originated and evolved as a form of cultural and artistic expression, Berlin was where it was used as a political tool. When the Berlin Wall, historically a symbol of division and political separation, was reconstructed, renovated and increased in height in the 80’s it unwittingly became the perfect blank canvas for would-be graffiti artists of West Berlin.
The wall became a meeting point for a generation of graffiti artists and it revelled in a heady mix of the frustrations of those living in a divided city and more far-flung influences added by the children of US personal stationed there. In 1989 the wall was famously torn down and the whole city became a playground for artists armed with a newfound sense of freedom.
The most famous part of the wall, still easily visited today, is The East Side Gallery, one of the largest open-air galleries in the world, a monument to healing divisions and world peace and one of the cities busiest tourist attractions.
With this as its temple, Berlin has become a “graffiti Mecca” and although the act of making such illicit art still comes with large fines, the tourism euro which it brings in has meant that the powers that be often tun a blind eye to such activity.
Much like Berlin, Belfast’s street art traditions were borne out of unrest. More often taking the form of murals on the ends of houses and public buildings, they were initially fiercely political and territorial. They formed unseen boundaries, the artwork indicating whether you were heading into a Catholic or Protestant area, each religion closely linked to political ideology and strong feelings of identity.
And although many of those older, often more amateurish, murals are still there to be seen, acting as a reminder of how much has changed in just a quarter of a century, modern Belfast is embracing a more modern type of mural.
Taking the traditions of street murals but adopting a more professional and certainly less political form, Belfast is now home to some amazing works of art. The streets are filled with everything from ‘The Lobster Pot,’ an eye-catching portrait found in High Street Court to ‘The Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight’ a comment on colonialism, ‘Still Waters’ a reminder of the city’s shipbuilding heritage and all manner of celebrations of Belfast’s famous sons and daughters as well as the fun and the frivolous.
Many of these have been created as part of an annual street art festival and so over time they get replaced and painted over, reminding us that graffiti, by its very nature, is a transitory thing and ever-evolving art form.
Kaunas’ embrace of graffiti street art is a more recent love affair and is born of purely artistic motives. Unlike other cities where themes and ideas running through the work tells you something of the past politics and history of the cities that they are found in, there is a randomness and element of surprise to the art that this Lithuanian city has decorated itself with.
Because of this, although you can find great street guides and suggested walk-through maps with ease, it is perhaps more in the spirit of the city to just lose yourselves in its artistic charms, wander slightly aimlessly and be surprised by what greets you as you turn the next corner. Everything from Contemporary Ladies to The Wise Old Man to Pink Elephants will jump out at you and The Yard Gallery in E. Ožeškienės Street is a wonderful courtyard home for smaller but no less glorious creations.
Like most cities, London has an interesting relationship with its graffiti and street art. Although illegal, as it is everywhere else, there seems to be an unofficial point where such work moves from being a nuisance or criminal act to being art which is not only tolerated but actively touted. It is at this point that a tourist industry begins to grow around it and nowhere has embraced this more actively than London.
The most famous example of this is Leake Street which is also known as Banksy Tunnel, a 300 metre stretch of road where graffiti is tolerated, much of the main art having been established as part of the Cans Festival. The area is open to pedestrians only and the very nature of the work and the environment it is in means that it is constantly changing.
There are plenty of organised tours to be had, particularly around the East End of the city where such street art is particularly prevalent and encompasses everything from graffiti and murals to 3D works, slogans and portraits and even a working London cab which reflects the artistic colour and drama of the region.
To lovers of Alicante who have spent decades going there on holiday, seeing graffiti pop up around the city was undesirable to many but cool to some. The city centre and the old town of Alicante have plenty of grafitti to see these days. Head to around Mercado Central for a full graffiti experience. Also around the port is a fantastic spot to admire the personal expression of Alicante’s street artists.
Zarateman / CC0
Alicante has a wonderful variety of street art from iconic Hollywood legends, to comic book characters and lots in between. In fact, many of the business owners employ street artists to decorate the walls. You can also have your own image sketched down at the Explanada of España.
Central Alicante and its historic neighbourhoods are full of such images. Once you come down to the El Barrio (also called El Casco Antiguo) along the narrow streets you’ll come across the town hall, the cathedral, the old covent and plenty of restaurants and bars but also street art and modernist design scattered here and there.
‘Hi, I’m Chris, owner of CMP Travel a unique travel blog looking at the more unique destinations in Europe. My blog is focused on those looking for great new ways to travel and save money while they go. I am a keen traveller, photographer, writer and reader of all things travel, always happy to have a conversation on travel, no matter what time of day!’