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The Streets of the Cities We Are Still Building

My first tag was in Bangkok (I write that as if I did more, but there was only one lame attempt). It was premeditated, illegal, and fun as hell.  It was lame because I couldn’t even come up with my own tag idea, I bought a book of pre fab stencil tags in the Hong Kong airport and used that….it was fast…..easy…..I am no artist and unashamed.  There was a walking corridor that was going to open from the new airport in Bangkok to a new express train station, this was my blank canvas. I knew for years I wanted to try this and plotted over a few weeks of guiding trips in Myanmar knowing I would be returning to Bangkok. I stayed at the airport Novotel only for the fact that I wanted to tag this tunnel, I set my alarm for the middle of the night, awoke, put on a hoodie, and away I went into the steamy night.  I tagged and ran, the next morning it was already gone but that didn’t matter, I had done the deed and coursed it out of my system.  

But there was a quality to the act of tagging that I was familiar with. I had felt the same when surfing, biking, motorcycling, hiking, and traveling. There was an activity that was really just a venue to get me out of my comfort zone and into another place that I normally would not be in.  I would normally not wake up in the middle of the night and go walking through tunnels of Bangkok, but doing this activity forced me into that place and it is exciting.  And that energy translates into the art, when you see a wall painted in a city, you can picture the folks who painted it, looking over their shoulder, plotting when and where, working out the lines.  Not that all street art is illicit.    

Like the Blues and Jazz, street art found a home in the youth and chaos of the Americas.  You could argue that neanderthal cave drawings were the start, and perhaps so, but it really blew up when a handful of disgruntled youth in New York and Philadelphia decided to start expanding from doodles on a classroom desk to painting whole sides of trains tipping their collective hats to the hobos of the early 20th century.  Connecting motion, travel, time, the inevitability of fade and decay, and the secret illegal announcement that I am here, see my work!   (Some even say the first New York modern graffiti popped up in direct connection to jazz when Charlie Parker died and fans wanted to remember him by writing “Bird Lives” on sidewalks and walls of the five Boroughs).  There is something loudly exciting that you can feel when you see a wall of painted city – or annoying depending on whom you ask –  but something that is immediate and which communicates.  It comes from the same places that skating, surfing, backpacking, garage bands and punk indie rock, jazz, an innocent do-it-yourself childlike yearning to be seen and to leave a mark that might, for a while, show the others around us that we are here.  Like a sandcastle that we build up just to smash, street art is put up, knowing that it quickly will fade, or be tagged over.  It is temporal, and while cities like New York, London, LA, are known for their street art scene, there are a lot of places out there these days that are perfect incubators for this form.  And just like those hobos bouncing around in the backs of trains, we have spent our collective lives traveling, collecting our tags, just ours have been in our passports.  Here is a list of cities that remind us through their street art, and inspire us to get up, get out, and see it with our own eyes before they fade away into some other thing.  Think of this as a tool to help you navigate the urban art scape, figure out whom you like, and follow them around the great spray-painted globe.  There are millions of stories in the streets of the cities we are still building, here are a few that should be seen.  


People think Northern Lights, gnomes, fermented shark, Bjork and Sigur Ros, but the Icelandic capital is also home to Sara Riel and Davíð Örn Halldórsson whose work you can find all over town.  And Iceland, being a chunk of rock in the middle of the north Atlantic, is a crossroads for not only fiber optic cables, but a good place to meet across the pond.  Because of this you see a lot of imported guest artists who have come in and left their mark on the city.  Folks like Guido van Helten, Theresa Himmer, UK’s “The London Police” and American artist “Above.”


There is a lot that is happening in the big smoke and it ain’t just Banksy, although don’t let radio overplay ruin his talents, his stuff is fun to spot around town.  

London A Lynch


In addition to flaky crusted cheese pies, and the cradle of western thought, this place is cold-hard-jivin’ in its street art scene.  In much the same way that there are different tones to other art forms (music can be classical or death metal), street art can have different flavors.  In Athens there is a particular taste mixing politics, art history commentary, and indie rock. 

Buenos Aires

BsAs has a reputation in South America, like any of that short list of unique urban landscapes (I am thinking New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, London…..that same list you see on the front page of an old book dolling out the publishing houses).  A reputation such that if you are from BsAs, you view it as the centre of the world, and if you live outside of it then you judge it as a snobby place.  I love BsAs for that, for its confidence and comfort in its own clothes.  Comfortable enough to not have a city wide approval system for street art, you just have to rock up, ask the building owner if he wants a blank wall filled with art, et voila.  This has drawn both the local and international crowd to paint its walls with tags, pieces, and throw-ups.    


The BOG is a city that impresses, I think because it has a low bar of expectation before you arrive.  I had no idea what to expect when i first went there and landed in a modern, well built city, with wide avenues and interesting neighborhoods.  I thought it was going to be a burnt out car of a city, but was surprised that it was much more modern looking than many North American cities.  I was also surprised at the art and food of this city, it was booming and young.  



City of buccaneers and indulgences, it feels, smells, and tastes like a Tom Waits song.  Walled alley ways with hidden stories and secret palaces, the city provides a perfect atmosphere for searching out street art.  



By using the sides of barns and country adobe houses, the rural graffiti in Peru becomes political propagating a candidate or party platform, think the Shinning path.  The Peruvian equivalent of sticking a VOTE FOR ___ sign in your front yard, is allowing the local candidate to paint the side of your highway facing farmhouse.  Here is one of my favorites from time spent in the sacred valley: 

Sacred Valley, Peru


This city is a thick oil painting that has been worked on for decades, ancient temples under elevated highways. 


The street art I found here was particular to politics and advertising…at first, over the past few years things have changed and punk rock has moved in to town.  


Sicily [with thanks to Meredith Frye]

The Sicilian reverence for classical art is profound, making it all the more exceptional that modern day street artists can thrive on this powerfully diverse island. It would take decades to properly admire every majestic cathedral, Baroque masterpiece and architectural wonder in Sicily and now there is yet another genre at play. Five prominent street artists have the opportunity to strut their stuff each year at the Festiwall event in Ragusa. In Palermo, an underprivileged neighbourhood called the Borgo Vecchio has been given new vitality thanks to a social promotion project/documentary called Borgo Vecchio Factory.  This project, which set up a six month cycle of creative painting workshops for children of the Borgo Vecchio neighourhood, was developed by the non-profit called, ‘PUSH’ in collaboration with street artist Ema Jons. Another hotbed of Sicilian creativity can be seen in Catania, where silos have been transformed from an eye sore along the port to an aesthetically pleasing welcome by boat. And what could be more Italian than that? 

Caltagirone, Sicily

There is something loudly exciting that you can feel when you see a wall of painted city - or annoying depending on whom you ask -  but something that is immediate and which communicates.