Summer has arrived in New York City, and with warm weather and extra hours of sunshine to spend outside, why not check out some of the revered works of street art the Big Apple is known for?
With displays from acclaimed groups like Tats Cru as well as new trailblazing works by the likes of OSGEMEOS, discover vibrant and dynamic artwork on city blocks from the Bronx to Bushwick.
What is urban art?
Despite its deep cultural association with New York City in the 1970s and 80s, urban art can be traced back to early cave art dating back thousands of years ago, with the ancient Greeks and Romans following suit by writing protest poems on buildings centuries later. Even soldiers during World War II tagged building edifices with the now-famous Kilroy Was Here meme in the 1940s. But modern graffiti as we know it today emerged out of Philadelphia in the 1960s and slowly made its way to the Big Apple by the later half of the decade. Known interchangeably as street art and graffiti, urban art is characterized as existing in the public space and often takes the form of murals, three-dimensional displays, posters and even yarn-bombing (the decorative practice of covering public infrastructure with colorful wool).
Stark images of street art in 1970s New York City captured by photographers like Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper helped to cement New York City’s image as a gritty, graffiti-covered landscape in the public eye. And though street art was considered a lesser art form at best (vandalism at worst) by critics, its admirers in the art world sought to boost the medium’s reputation by the early 1980s with documentaries like Style Wars and Stations of the Elevated. In fact, it was The New York Times writer Norman Mailer who initially coined the term graffiti in his 1974 essay The Faith of Graffiti, which explored the New York movement’s political and artistic implications and served as one of the first attempts to validate graffiti as an art form to the masses.
But what once served as a medium of art limited to underground reverence has now skyrocketed in popularity with exhibits in world-renowned museums and represents a medium with some of the most recognizable household names in modern art. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy have received international recognition for their works sprayed on the street and on buildings, with the latter even breaking his own records for selling a piece for over $25 million in 2018.
Best places to check out street art in New York City:
- Graffiti Hall of Fame: Kicking off our list representing East Harlem, the Graffiti Hall of Fame can be found at the J.H.S. 013 Jackie Robinson Educational Complex schoolyard on the corner of Park Avenue and 106th Street. The site, founded by New York artist Ray “StingRay” Rodriguez in 1980 as an attempt to highlight some of the movement’s trailblazing local stars, is open year-round and features seasonal works by the likes of infamous street art group Tats Cru and solo artists like Wane One.
- First Street Green Art Park: Located in New York’s Lower East Side near Houston and 2nd Avenue, First Street Green Art Park offers the rare chance for artists to practice graffiti without breaking any rules. That is, interested artists must submit plans to the park’s curation team to turn an idea into a public display of art in one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods.
- The New Allen: Founded by restaurateurs Franco Noriega and Milan Kelez, this new art collective connects artists with sponsors and blank walls around the Lower East Side. If you’re pursuing Allen Street between Houston and Delancey Streets, there’s a chance you’ll find contributions from famed street artists representing Los Angeles to Italy.
- Big Pun Memorial Mural: As a heartfelt tribute to Bronx native Big Pun, Bronx collective Tats Cru repaints this living memorial annually on the Puerto-Rican musician’s birthday, Nov. 10. The mural can be found at 910 Rogers Place in the Bronx.
- Houston Bowery Wall: Also known as the Bowery Wall, this famous mural wall on Houston Street and Bowery has been a popular spot for graffiti artists since the 1980s, when the likes of Keith Haring created large-scale murals for the public eye. While Goldman Properties acquired the site in 1984 for advertisements, the wall was regularly vandalized and, in 2008, Goldman handed mural curation duties to Jeffrey Deitch. New pieces are now regularly displayed, promoting the works of artists like Shephard Fairey, Aiko Nakagawa and OSGEMEOS.
- 11th Street and First Avenue: At an East Village street corner once occupied by the work of Shepard Fairey, street artist Elle unveiled a striking portrait of the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020. With striking colors and myriad feminist motifs surrounding Ginsburg, this Manhattan location isn’t a sight to miss.
- Audubon Mural Project: Bird enthusiasts and street art lovers, unite! In partnership with Hamilton Heights’ Filter & ____ Gallery, bird conservation organization the Audubon Society has supported larger-than-life murals of vivid bird depictions in dozens of locations around Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx (you can find an up-to-date map here). Since the project began, over 138 birds have been painted in 100 murals across the Big Apple.
- Bushwick Collective: Brooklyn’s Bushwick Collective has displayed the works of local and international artists in and around Troutman Street and St. Nicholas Avenue for over a decade now. In fact, there are dozens of blocks in and around the Bushwick Collective area featuring acclaimed artists Sipros and Dean Zeus Colman, so be sure to check out displays on nearby Jefferson Street, Wyckoff Avenue, and Johnson Avenue
- JMZ Walls: Adjacent to Bushwick Collective is JMZ Walls, an organization of Bushwick residents providing blank space in the Brooklyn community for vibrant street art. While the project spans the length of the JMZ train tracks on Broadway in Bushwick, visitors can find a treasure trove of JMZ-backed art in and around the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway.
- Banksy’s “Hammer Boy”: What’s a street art roundup without a Banksy mention? Viewers can take a trip to the Upper West Side’s 79th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue to see the infamous U.K. artist’s “Hammer Boy” stencil, part of a month-long residency in New York City completed in 2013. Although a rogue critic attempted to deface the work not long after its debut, the building’s owner has since installed a Plexiglas barrier around the art to preserve the unique piece.
Street art, with its humble underground roots, is now displayed proudly in galleries and museums like the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum alongside the Museum of Street Art and grassroots public projects. While the perpetual debate over the legality of graffiti in public spaces remains, there continue to be ample modern installations of street art in virtually every corner of the Big Apple for the public to enjoy.
What’s your favorite spot to see graffiti or street art in New York City? What do you think it takes to be a great street artist? Sound off in the comments.
I’m a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve covered areas from breaking news to investigations to culture for publications like NBC New York, Patch, and Law360, among others. As a former manager at Patch, I led the New Jersey local news team of veteran journalists covering crime, politics, education, and features.