The street art in New York City sits squarely at the center of an explosive, global urban art movement. The city overflows with murals from local talent as well as international artists. Scope out the world class street art of New York with this guide. Of course, I’ll show you the popular spots but I’ve also included the inside scoop on offbeat neighborhoods, hidden stairwells and crazy alleyways.
Why is Street Art in New York Such a Thing?
New York’s graffiti movement was born in the 1970’s and grew up alongside the hip hop culture. Many of the kids doing the tagging felt invisible. They were ignored by the mainstream American culture (and economic opportunities). Tagging walls and subway cars with stylized names became a way to force visibility onto a complacent public.
Taggers like Blade used the subway system as a moving canvas, spreading graffiti to all corners of New York. After the city figured out how to prevent the tagging on subway cars, the graffiti artists move on to delivery trucks, storefronts and derelict buildings.
New York was way ahead of the curve regarding the modern street art scene. I have been on street art tours from Bristol UK to Tartu Estonia and Bogota Colombia and they all talk about how their local movements were a direct result of what was going on with the New York graffiti artists.
Today, there is still plenty of grit and graffiti all over NYC. However, there is also a coordinated effort to commission legal murals. Two such efforts include the Bushwick Collective, which runs an annual mural festival in Brooklyn and the L.I.S.A. Project which commissions small murals on storefront grates and in select spots in Little Italy.
Find another mythology inspired piece by Stanton on this Nashville murals guide.
Finding the Street Art of New York
There is street art and graffiti all over New York and you could spend a lifetime seeking it all out. But unless you live there, you’ll need to prioritize. This NYC street art tour features four specific places where you can find a high concentration of it. It covers Bushwick Brooklyn, the Meresole district in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and the Museum of Street Art (MOSA) in the Bowery.
Here’s a map that shows you the general locations discussed in this guide. You can use it to do a DIY tour of street art in New York…OR…you can take one of the guided tours mentioned below. Either way, get ready for some burnt retina because what you’ll find in New York is anything but boring.
Murals in NYC’s Bushwick Collective
Joe Ficalora is a longtime resident of Brooklyn and he developed the Bushwick Collective as a way to enliven a neighborhood plagued by tagging and crime. Ficalora works with local building owners and he curates selected artists to come and work on the walls. The Collective also sponsors an annual Bushwick block party every June.
The result is a 6-ish square block area stuffed with a rotating collection of world class art featuring heavy hitters like Stik, Beau Stanton, Buff Monster, Phlem and Pixel Pancho.
Take a guided tour: Brooklyn Unplugged does a two-hour tour of the Bushwick Collective. You can check pricing and reserve it here.
You can spot another FKDL piece, along with Shepard Fairey and D-Face in this Paris street art tour.
“I rethink, subvert and literally deface imagery drawn from a refuse of materialistic consumption”D-Face
Murals around Meresole Street in Brooklyn
I was met on Meresole by Audrey aka @bytegirl. She is an unapologetic cheerleader for New York street art and she is dialed into the local scene. While on tour with her, you get a running commentary on the state of politics in New York, who’s riffing on whose work and who’s zooming who.
Take a guided tour: You can tour this neighborhood by booking with Graff Tours.
From Bytegirl, I learned that the Merisole area once housed a German brewery in the 1800’s. I learned that people are calling this area “Williamsburg East” in an effort to artisinally gentrify the housing prices. I learned that this old school working class neighborhood is the wild west when it comes to street art culture. And also that, like the Arts District in LA and Telliskivi Creative District in Estonia, it’s full of artist studios (mixed in with the odd metal shop and bartending school).
I learned that because a local prude lodged a complaint about a nude mural, someone went around appending existing murals with penises and bare breasts. Because street artists are like that.
There is a rich collection of murals and graffiti in the industrial buildings around Meresole, but it’s messy. The works aren’t officially commissioned, but the artists will often get the local “Orthodox handshake”, which is an informal permission from the building owner. Building owners who don’t do the handshake get tagged. Those who do, might end up with a bodacious ostrich, or one of the thoughtful and well-crafted murals below.
MOSA Features Street Art That Isn’t in the Street
The Museum of Street Art (MOSA) in the Bowery isn’t a conventional museum. It is an indoor mural gallery that plummets down a full twenty floors of stairwell at the CitizenM Bowery hotel. CitizenM is a cool hotel chain with a modern edge and they also have street art surrounding their property in Shoreditch London. The designers for the Bowery project wanted to honor New York’s street art culture. They worked with Marie Flageul to curate a collection from twenty artists who had been part of the 5 Pointz collective.
5 Pointz was an old warehouse district that had been adopted by aerosol artists. It was slated for redevelopment but the developer defied a court order and whitewashed the works before they could be properly documented. The artists sued and won a judgment. The CitizenM has chosen to given them a space to flex their creative muscle and celebrate New York’s history and culture.
Take a self-guided tour: You can do a free self-guided tour of the stairwell. They control how many people are in the stairwell at any given time and prefer that you book it ahead on the MOSA website. However, if it’s a slow day and you are in the neighborhood, stop in and ask nicely at the reception desk.
“Art should be an encounter and moreover a source of knowledge, inspiration and delight”Liesbeth Willems
New York’s Street Art on the Lower East Side
I met up with Bytegirl once again for a tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The area has historically provided high density tenement housing for newcomers to America. The Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration in order to “preserve American homogeneity”, a concept which disturbingly resurfaced in 21st century America. These laws had a particularly negative effect on Asians (as a whole), Italians and Eastern European Jews. These practices codified discrimination and those who were able to immigrate, clustered on the Lower East Side.
It remained a rough and tumble area well into the 1980’s when the crack and AIDs epidemics crushed the creative class who had moved into the neighborhood.
Immigrant history paired with a scrappy creative class and a cheap housing market creates the perfect conditions for street art to thrive. This is also true for San Francisco’s Mission district and Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
The L.I.S.A Project fertilizes those conditions by working with artists and building owners to keep the area’s street art fresh. You’ll note on the NYC street art map above that the art is spread all over the Lower East Side, including the Bowery, SoHo and Little Italy.
Take a guided tour: The L.I.S.A Project offers tours that cover the Lower East Side and Little Italy. Check out their schedule and book here.
Find more STIK in Bristol England.
Six More Resources for Finding Street Art in NYC
If your appetite for street art is as voracious as mine, then the four locations explored here may not be enough for you. So, check out the following resources for finding and learning more about NYC’s street art scene.
- Listen to Bytegirl’s In the Spray Room podcast.
- Visit 3rd Ethos Gallery in Brooklyn.
- Check out the Peanuts Global Artist’s Collective. I’m delighted that the Charles Schultz estate is having fun with street art.
- Go birding in Harlem with the Audubon mural project.
- Explore the Wellington Court Mural Project in Queens.
- Stroll the High Line and keep an eye out for ongoing commissions.
If you know of some additional hot spots for finding the street art of New York City, please comment below or find me on Facebook. I’d love to hear about it.
I simply cannot stop myself. If you can’t either, join the monthly #streetartchat on Twitter to fuel your addiction.
Find More Great Global Street Art
Study great street art in other cities by checking out my guides to:
Top Street Art Cities in the World | Buenos Aires | San Diego | San Francisco | Los Angeles | Chicago | London | Reykjavik | Havana | Belfast | Bristol | Paris | Estonia | Nashville | Victoria Australia | Bogota
Follow my street art board in Pinterest for more eye candy.
Learn more about great global artists with a street art encyclopedia like the New Street Art, Street Artists 2: The Complete Guide, the World Atlas of Street Art & Graffiti or Lonely Planet Street Art.
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One more picture because I just can’t control myself: