When learning about the history and development of street art, it would be impossible to overlook New York City’s huge role in it. While public art, in the form of murals or sculptures, has been around since the birth of civilization, many credit 1970’s NYC youth culture with the creation of what we now call graffiti.
Graffiti culture rose in conjunction with the early hip hop and breakdancing scenes. It started with kids (like Taki 183) tagging their nicknames around the city, though it could hardly be considered a form of artistic expression at the time. But as more and more people joined in, these acts of vandalism gradually evolved into an art form. Early graffiti writers began stylizing their names, resulting in the colorful, three-dimensional tags that can be seen all around the world today.
But NYC has changed a lot since the ’80’s, with many of the city’s most creative neighborhoods having been turned into posh shopping and entertainment districts. Does modern-day New York City street art do the city’s historical role justice?
Fortunately, the city still has plenty of excellent street art to discover, much of it in the form of large murals. While the days of young artists ‘bombing’ entire subway cars may be long gone, projects like the Bushwick Street Art Collective and the Welling Court Mural Project have provided ample opportunities for artists to display their talents.
In this guide, we’ll be covering street art within three of New York’s five boroughs. Starting in Bushwick, we’ll head west toward DUMBO before covering street art in lower Manhattan. We’ll then make our way northward up the island before finishing up in Astoria, Queens.
There’s way too much to see in just a day or two, however. At least several days in the city are required to visit all of the locations featured in this guide, while there’s even lots more to see in places like the Bronx. As is the nature of street art, things may or may not resemble the pictures below by the time of your visit.
If you have a short time to spend in the city, the Bushwick Street Art Collective is arguably the best single location to experience street art in NYC. The project was started in 2013 by local artist Joe Ficalora, who grew up in the neighborhood during its darkest days. Wanting to add some color and beauty to his surroundings, he began asking nearby property owners if they’d allow their walls to be painted. Fortunately, many of them agreed.
The project began to grow and grow, with many of the top street artists – from both the area and around the world – being invited to add their contributions.
The Bushwick Street Art Collective is spread out around multiple blocks. Furthermore, there’s plenty of other great street art in the neighborhood that’s not officially part of the project. Therefore, to see as much as you can, it’s best to have a plan of action. There are numerous suggested walking routes on the web, but I found this one especially useful.
Getting off at Jefferson Street Station on the L line, start by walking around the area to enjoy the dozens of large murals all around you.
Eventually, you’ll want to head southwest down Troutman St, where there are a bunch more murals to check out. Turn right on Irving Ave and then head down the main road, Flushing Ave, for a bit to check out some larger murals. Then head back to Thames St, making your way in the direction of Morgan Ave Station.
You’ll pass by the famous pizza shop Roberta’s, which features numerous murals around it and elsewhere down the block. It’s also worth exploring nearby side streets. Eventually, head north on White Street, then make a right on Johnson Ave before heading north again on Morgan Ave.
You’ll soon pass by a series of loft apartments that have been entirely covered in colorful murals. (Once having some friends that lived here, I used to frequent this particular area years ago, and there definitely wasn’t any mural art at the time. I was surprised and delighted by the transformation.)
You’ll want to continue heading west until eventually ending your journey at Montrose Ave Station, also on the L line. If you’re not already tired from all the walking, this whole area is covered in excellent murals, too, many of them humongous in size.
Elsewhere in Bushwick
If you’re really in an exploratory mood, there are some more murals to explore in Bushwick. In the eastern end of the neighborhood, along Broadway and in between Gates Ave and Chauncey St stations, you can find numerous large murals on both the main and adjacent roads.
DUMBO, which stands for ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,’ is well worth a visit during your time in NYC. Not only does it provide excellent views of the Manhattan skyline, but the neighborhood also has an abundance of street art, added in 2012 as part of the DUMBO Walls project.
DUMBO may not have the most amazing street art in all of NYC, but you will come across a couple of gems. And the murals can mostly be explored within 10-15 minutes. Around the area, you can spot works by artists like MOMO (whose work I also recently spotted in St. Louis), Craig Anthony Miller and Yuko Shimizu.
World Trade Center
One of New York’s newest areas for street art is, of all places, the World Trade Center. Over the past few years, Silverstein Properties has been inviting artists to paint murals on office buildings and metal sheds used to house equipment for upcoming construction projects. As such, the murals are only intended to be on display here temporarily.
Lower East Side
Though not so obvious today, the Lower East Side long had a reputation for being a rough place. For decades, the district was mostly inhabited by immigrant communities who lived in cramped tenement buildings. And thanks to its cheap rent, the area became a hotbed for art throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Nowadays, LES is regarded as one of NYC’s trendiest districts. And while rent prices are now well out of reach for most up-and-coming artists, the area manages to retain some of the creative spirit that helped make it famous. The Lower East Side is still home to numerous art galleries and an abundance of street art.
In addition to exploring random smaller street and alleyways, be sure to walk down Allen Street where you’ll find some impressive larger pieces. And there’s a lot you can find around the edge of Chinatown.
While many murals are visible at all times of day, lots of pieces painted on store shutters (much like Mexico City) only reveal themselves in the evenings or early mornings.
Just next to the Lower East Side, there are also a few gems around the Little Italy district. This is thanks to the L.I.S.A. Project which started adding art to the area in 2012. While there are some larger pieces you can’t miss, there are a number of great pieces situated on the small spaces in between neighboring Italian restaurants.
On Rivington St, just off of Bowery, don’t miss Freeman’s Alley. The dead-end alley is completely covered in stencil art, stickers, and graffiti tags. It’s a little rough around the edges, but most likely intentionally so. The alley seems to be a small slice of what NYC street art would’ve been like in the the 70’s and 80’s.
The space is associated with the nearby Salon 94 Freemans art gallery.
On the corner Bowery and Houston, you can find one of New York’s most important walls for street art. It was first painted in 1982 by legendary artist Keith Haring, and his work remained intact up until his death in 1990.
The space is now owned by Goldman Properties, and since 2008 it’s functioned as a public showcase for work by established artists from around the world. Each mural only lasts for 4 months before being replaced, so you never know what kind of art you might find there.
Just nearby, don’t miss the First Street Garden, which features a plethora of high quality murals. Furthermore, there’s more art to explore in the nearby East Village area. And 189 Bowery is where you can find the Museum of Street Art (MOSA), an indoor street art ‘museum’ painted on a hotel staircase.
The West Village is now home to New York’s largest mural. Added in 2018, there are actually two murals at the spot which you can find on Hudson Street in between Clarkson and West Houston.
The mural on the left is ‘Soul Ancestors’ by Argentine artist Magda Love. Supposedly, local officials halted the project soon after it began, forcing the organizers to wait a year for multiple permits (revealing much about the current NYC creative scene)!
The other huge mural on the right is Ellis by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra. The faces are based on the photos of five real immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island around 100 years ago. Kobra also has numerous other murals throughout the city, easily identifiable by the colorful patterns overlaying the realistic portraiture.
If you thought the building looked like a school, you’d be right. It’s called City-As-School and remains a fully functioning alternative public high school. Founded in 1972, the school encourages real world experience via internships and apprenticeships.
Notice the ‘SAMO©’ in the middle of the photo above. This was the graffiti duo started by Jean Michel-Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz – both former students of City As School!
Also be sure to walk around to the school entrance, which has been entirely decorated in smaller murals. What a cool place to be a student! And aside from the school itself, there are also a few other murals here and there to discover around the vicinity.
The Chelsea area is home to a number of notable murals. On 17th Street and 6th Ave, don’t miss ‘I Heart NY’ by English veteran artist Nick Walker, who helped popularize ‘stencil graffiti’ in the 1980s.
His bowler hat-wearing character named ‘The Vandal’ can be seen in plenty of other murals around town. But this one, added in 2012, is the largest and most well-known.
Located on 14th street, this double mural by Brazilian duo (twins, in fact) Os Gemeos is now among the most famous in the city. Os Gemeos previously had other murals in NYC, such as at the Bowery. But as is natural for street art, the others have long since disappeared. The colorful murals here were painted in homage to hip hop and breakdancing crews of 1980’s New York.
The High Line is a pedestrian walkway and public garden situated along a former elevated railroad track. Opened in 2009, it stretches out to 1.4 miles (2.3 km). And in addition to various art sculptures on the High Line itself, the path provides great vantage points of all kinds of murals, both big and small.
There are various points from which to walk up to the High Line, but a good place to start would be near the Chelsea Market.
Still in the Chelsea area, don’t miss the opportunity to explore 14th Street / 8th Ave Station. While you won’t find any murals, you will find some unique sculpture art specific to this station. The series is called ‘Life Underground’ and it was created by artist Tom Otterness.
There are supposedly over 100 of these cute bronze statues – many of which convey a deeper political message.
Banksy's Hammer Boy
While there’s not much street art to see in the Upper West Side, the area (at the time of writing, at least) is home to the last surviving piece by Banksy in NYC. Titled ‘Hammer Boy.’
The piece is rather unremarkable compared to other works by Banksy. Nevertheless, it’s easy to get to before or after exploring Central Park. You can find it near W 79th St Station.
Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame takes just a few minutes to see, but it’s an essential location for those with an interest in the early history of graffiti. The walls have been hosting graffiti since as far back as 1980, when Ray ‘Sting Ray’ Rodriguez conceived of the idea for a place where local artists could get together and practice.
The wall is actually part of an elementary school which is still in operation today. As such, most visitors will only get the chance to see the graffiti from the other side of a chainlink fence. Supposedly, the school grounds do open up for visitors from time to time, but it’s unclear exactly when.
In any case, it’s pretty remarkable that an elementary school has gone through so much effort to preserve this historic spot. And regular yearly events still take place to update the works. This is a good place to visit for those specifically looking for graffiti instead of murals.
Astoria, Queens is a great neighborhood that many visitors to NYC overlook. In addition to being one of NYC’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, it’s also home to a plethora of street art. And that’s mostly thanks to the Welling Court Mural Project, which started in 2010.
While predating the Bushwick Street Art Collective by a few years, the two projects are very similar. The Welling Court Mural Project is also a multi-block installation featuring works by dozens of prominent artists, and is without a doubt one of the best places to experience street art in NYC.
The project was devised as a way to beautify the area and to bring free, high-quality art to the public who don’t normally get the chance to visit museums. The first art was brought to the area by Bushwick’s Ad Hoc art gallery. But since then, the project has seen yearly additions every June by renowned international artists. (Many of the more notable murals get left alone, however.)
To get there, take the N or W line to 30 Avenue station, and then walk about 10 minutes west toward the river. You’ll know it as soon as you’ve arrived. While most of the works are situated along the streets near the river, there are plenty of murals closer to the local residences as well. Expect to spend up to a couple of hours exploring.
I spotted works by numerous artists I’d seen elsewhere around town, such as MOMO. And I even found some familiar mosaic pieces by Isaiah Zagar of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
While in the area, it’s well worth stopping by the Socrates Sculpture Park, which is just about ten minutes south of the murals.
Choosing where to stay in a city as vast (and expensive) as NYC is not easy. And the most desirable neighborhoods are often going to be off-limits for travelers on a budget. Ultimately, you should go with the most convenient area that you can afford.
But what exactly is ‘convenient’ in New York City? It’s going to mean something a little different for everyone, depending on what your interests are and which neighborhoods you plan to explore.
Many of the more well-known tourist attractions (such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and the MET, among many others) are scattered throughout Manhattan. If you can afford to stay somewhere in Manhattan, then you can’t really go wrong (except for the far north or East Harlem). The island is incredibly well-connected by subway and it’s overall quite walkable. And the downtown portion of the island is linked with Brooklyn at various points.
For those staying in Brooklyn, most of the borough’s trendy neighborhoods are situated at its western end, like Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg. These would all make good bases for your journeys throughout the rest of the city, as they’re all short rides away from Manhattan. Fort Greene is another area worth considering, while Bushwick has been undergoing a major resurgence as of late.
Farther north, Astoria in Queens is another neighborhood to consider. But it will take you longer to get to lower Manhattan and Brooklyn from there.
The safety situation in New York is a little bit strange. Most of Manhattan is quite safe, and so is the western portion of Brooklyn. But even as you head further eastward, it’s hard to categorize the different neighborhoods as either entirely safe or dangerous (unless it’s somewhere like Brownsville or East New York, which you should avoid entirely).
The safety situation can sometimes change from block to block. Therefore, if you’re staying in one of the more off-the-beaten-path districts of NYC, it’s best to consult with a local about which sections or streets of the neighborhood to avoid.
Note that your AirBnb host may downplay the potential safety concerns, so be sure to do some research online if you don’t know any other locals. With that said, NYC overall is among the safest major cities in America.
New York City is probably the only city in the entire USA where most residents can live comfortably without a car. And that’s good news for temporary visitors who are used to navigating cities independently via public transportation.
You can get just about anywhere with the subway which is run by the MTA. An individual ride costs $2.75 regardless of distance. You’ll need to buy a Metrocard from the machines located at each station, which accept card or cash. While you can pay per ride, it’s best to fill it up with $10 or $20 at a time so that you don’t always need to think about it.
Note that the L train, a convenient line which runs through Manhattan and Brooklyn, is not currently running on weekends. And numerous other lines change their course or stop running completely due to scheduled repairs (or oftentimes, seemingly at random).
There are numerous apps for navigating New York’s complex and ever-changing subway system. But when it comes to getting straightforward, real-time updates regarding delays or schedule changes, I find the best app to be the most obvious one: Google Maps.
Manhattan is highly walkable, while walking from one district to another within Brooklyn is a pain. Just like in the movies, New York is full of taxis and you shouldn’t have difficulty finding one to hail down from the street. Nowadays, though, many people just hire an Uber or Lyft.