I hadn’t come to Oaxaca with the intention of focusing on its street art. Admittedly, after having created street art guides for numerous cities throughout the world, I largely lost interest in the subject. Nevertheless, during my initial walks through Oaxaca’s colorful streets, something inspired me to seek out and photograph all the murals I could find.
Throughout the world, the most popular destinations for street art typically tend to be sprawling megacities. And while you will indeed find jaw-dropping pieces in places like Mexico City, New York or Bangkok, it often seems like these murals are there to distract one from the shortcomings of modern-day architects and city planners.
When visiting smaller cities like Aswan or Kuching, in contrast, street art serves a deeper function than simply adding color to a drab concrete jungle. Rather, the murals act as mirrors of the city’s natural surroundings and local traditions. This is also what makes street art in Oaxaca so compelling.
With that being said, Oaxaca also happens to be filled with political pieces, often done in the form of woodcut prints. While the political aspect of Oaxaca street art is often the main focus of other articles on the topic, these pieces, quite frankly, do not interest me.
The following guide, therefore, is not an exhaustive compilation of all the public art one can find in Oaxaca, but a curated selection of pieces that were mostly inspired by Mexican folk and pre-Hispanic art.
Overall, Oaxaca is a small city and easily traversable on foot. But if you only had time to explore a single neighborhood to experience Oaxaca street art, make it Jalatlaco, located northeast of the center.
Jalatlaco is a historic colonial district. And even without its murals, it would still be a colorful place, with most of its buildings having been painted a vibrant hue. With the high-quality murals added in, it’s easily one of Mexico’s most eye-catching barrios.
Murals both big and small adorn the walls of most streets and alleyways throughout the district. As you turn the corner, you never quite know what you’re going to find.
A common motif you’ll spot throughout the artwork here is the calavera, or an artistic depiction of a skeleton that has become synonymous with Mexican folk art.
But what exactly is the origin of these skeletons, and why are they featured so prominently?
Skeletons have long played a major role in pre-Hispanic art, with various ‘Lords of the Underworld’ appearing in skeleton form.
As we know, Mexico would become majority Catholic from the Colonial period, and skeletons have long been an important part of certain Catholic art styles as well.
The Memento Mori style, for example, utilizes skeletal imagery to remind people of their inevitable fate – and thus the importance of not wasting time in life.
More recently in Mexico, artist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) used calaveras to depict certain people or groups as a means of political satire.
These calaveras would then go on to become an important part of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos celebrations.
As Oaxaca is renowned for being one of the best places to experience the holiday in Mexico, it’s fitting that Day of the Dead themes play such a prominent role in its street murals.
During your visit to the area, it’s also worth spending some time walking through the streets and alleyways of the district’s outskirts. While less dense, you will indeed find more amazing murals scattered throughout the area.
The other prominent district for street art in Oaxaca is Xochimilco, located to the north of Santo Domingo. Originally established by the Aztecs upon their invasion of the region, Xochimilco is now most known for its aqueduct, constructed by the Spanish in the 18th century.
Being a historical landmark, the aqueduct itself isn’t where you’ll want to look for murals (though there are, unfortunately, plenty of ugly illegal tags). Just nearby, however, you’ll find colorful streets that rival those of Jalatlaco.
Plenty of eye-catching murals can be found on the streets near Highway 190 – both to the north and south. Again, you’ll find some familiar motifs like calaveras, though the art in Xochimilco is a bit more eclectic overall.
Many of the pieces around here have more of an abstract, modern feel. On the other hand, you’ll also find realistic depictions of people in traditional dress, as well as what seem to be characters from old movies.
As is the case with Jalatlaco, Xochimilco would be an attractive neighborhood even without its murals, but the abundance of street art makes it a truly special district.
Compared with Centro, Xochimilco also happens to be a much quieter neighborhood with little traffic. This makes it the perfect environment to explore and appreciate some of the region’s top murals.
Sometimes considered a part of Centro (which is more the area surrounding the Zócalo), the Santo Domingo district is comprised of the blocks surrounding the Church of Santo Domingo.
Home to many of Oaxaca’s prominent landmarks, it’s unsurprisingly a great place to find street art as well.
Generally speaking, when compared with Jalatlaco and Xochimilco, the art here is a bit smaller in scale, often taking on the form of mythological creatures painted on local storefronts.
The best art around Santo Domingo is often stumbled upon by accident. Located within a small shopping center in between Quintana Roo and Reforma streets, for example, is a large abstract mural depicting fantastical beings from local folklore.
And right by it is a photorealistic piece of a woman in traditional dress. Both are located in front of an ordinary car park.
There are indeed some murals in Santo Domingo, however, that are hard to miss. While exploring the area, be sure to check out a large and vivid mural covering the entrance to Mercado Sánchez Pascuas. It appears to be an homage to both the cultural traditions and gastronomy of the region.
As mentioned above, Oaxaca is small enough that you can easily explore the neighborhoods of Jalatlalco and Xochimilco by yourself on foot.
But if you’re short on time, or if you’d like to experience Oaxaca street art through the eyes of a local, this bicycle tour is a very popular choice.
Oaxaca is not a very large city and as long as you’re staying relatively central, you can easily get around on foot. Many look for accommodation near the central square, or Zócalo, which is indeed a good location. Popular hotels here include Hotel Casona Oaxaca and La Catrina del Alcala.
If you can, an even more ideal location than the Zócalo would be a bit further north near the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán or El Llano park. While still very central, I consider this to be a nicer area than that of the Zócalo, (Oaxaca is so compact, though, that the two areas are just 15 minutes apart on foot.)
A popular affordable hotel around here is Posada Don Mario.
Alternatively, the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco are very popular places to stay and are within walking distance of the historical center. A highly-rated hotel in Xochimilco is Hotel Fortin Plaza, and in Jalatlaco, Hotel Cazomalli Oaxaca.
Further north, Reforma is another popular district. Mision de Los Angeles would offer easy access to all of the city’s main areas.
Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same name, and the city (officially known as Oaxaca de Juárez) is easily one of Mexico’s most popular tourism destinations.
With that being said, the city is relatively isolated geographically. While numerous bus routes exist, it will likely be a long journey no matter which direction you’re coming from.
ADO and its associated companies run direct buses from Mexico City (both TAPO and Norte stations) which last 6-7 hours. Direct buses from Puebla’s CAPU, meanwhile, take about 5 hours.
For those coming from the east, you can catch a direct OCC bus from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The ride last around 10 hours and most of the routes are night buses. You can also ride directly from Comitán, Chiapas, which takes 12-13 hours.
For those coming from Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, the journey is not a quick or easy one either. Coach buses from Huatulco take no less than 9 hours, while buses from Puerto Escondido (via Huatulco) take more than 11!
While there is a more direct minivan route from Puerto Escondido which lasts 6-7 hours, it’s not for the faint of heart. Even those not normally prone to motion sickness often find themselves regretting the nausea-inducing journey through mountainous roads. Fortunately, a new highway is being worked on, but it’s not yet ready at the time of writing.
If you’re not into long bus rides, you can simply fly. The Xoxocotlán International Airport has direct flights from cities throughout the country, along with a few from the US (Houston, Dallas and LA).