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Art Tourism, Graffiti Street Art and How Art Can Amplify Your Travels

Women on the Road

finding art in everyday travel

Art and travel may seem like strange bedfellows, yet art is an intrinsic part of travel for those of us who happen to love art in any of its many forms.

We may structure our entire trip around art, or visit important museums or galleries, or even represent what we see in our own art. 

Edward Lear's Temple of Venus and Rome, in Rome, painted in 1840 during a trip to Italy

Painting and drawing were probably the most common travel art forms, with sculptures also commemorating distant lands and events.

Who hasn't been moved or inspired by a lovely piece of landscape art?

The story of travel and art

A few centuries ago, travel began to change. It was once a way of getting from one place to another but somewhere along the line, travel became about seeing things, about exploration and discovery.

And travel became democratized.

We humans have always had a need to record our experiences in some way and while some travelers wrote books, others painted and sketched: how else would they be able to share their travels with friends and family when they returned home? (These days, we simply upload a photo to Instagram...)

Travel art became increasingly political as new cultures and ways of life were discovered and, eventually, the power of the visual was understood, and then harnessed.

Eventually, art tourism was born, as people recorded what they saw, or traveled for the simple pleasure of seeing great works, or destinations themselves used art as a way to attract visitors.

There are many kinds of art on offer — and not just inside the grand buildings of national museums or selective galleries. All around you on the streets of cities, towns, and villages, you'll find murals and street art and art gardens, all vying to unveil some aspect of their location to you.

Or places of historical interest: people will travel to visit the pharaohs' tombs in Egypt or Picasso's Guernica in Madrid.

In fact, by choosing a destination partly because of a museum or building or work of art, you are indulging in art tourism even without realizing it.

There are many art forms in the world; here, baskets at the Berardo Museum in Lisbon

Architecture as history

Do you ever look at your camera roll after a trip and wonder about those hundreds of building photographs you took but don't remember? We all do this and it makes perfect sense to take photographs of things we find interesting or visually pleasing.

Buildings aren’t just great photography subjects. They can also tell us about what design styles were popular in what era and when in history a place thrived the most (most buildings that are grouped will probably be of one particular style).

As well as hinting at history, architecture can offer an insight into the climate – buildings painted white indicate a hot destination, while a series of modern buildings can suggest a potential earthquake or natural disaster from which a city recovered. 

Look to contemporary examples of architecture, too, to get an idea of the kinds of styles that are valued at present, and to get an inkling of what the place might be like in the future.

Architecture, the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake

National museums, always a must-see

Museums are extremely important for learning about real-life events and about the evolution of a place. You can see how values have changed, uncover what was important in the past and compare that to what is important today. By simply visiting a cultural or historical museum, you'll quickly understand how life has evolved over the years.

Everything can provide you with insight.

Take traditional clothing exhibitions: Why was one item particularly popular in the past? Is it because it went hand-in-hand with a traditional activity?

Sculpture is another example: What tools were available then and now? How have styles changed? How were models clothed? This last one will give you a clear picture of morals and mores at that time.

Churches — all about belief systems

Churches often go hand-in-hand with museums and are a popular attraction for visitors. Even if you’re not religious, visiting churches will help you determine which religions are dominant in a certain place and to learn more about its religious past.

Knowing when most of the churches were built and looking at their frescoes will help uncover a place's religious origins and influences. Stained glass windows offer much the same insight, as do paintings or icons held inside, explaining what aspects of religion were important and what ideas most valued.

Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium

Contemporary art galleries, going local

Where national museums can highlight how things have changed, contemporary art galleries show you what’s important today. As is the case with street art, you can discover trending political issues and which values are important by dropping into a gallery.

Particularly important are art galleries that feature local artists. These artists are often inspired by their surroundings, so their work will reflect the destination but also their own viewpoint, providing an excellent window into how locals themselves view their home.

Visiting an art gallery can be a trying adventure, however. Many are quite snooty, and unless you're decked out in designer clothing, you may feel like the diner seated next to the potted palm. So seek out the right gallery and believe me, they do exist, and are part of a trend of galleries for the people or the community.

My favorite little art gallery is hidden in an industrial area in southwestern France, in the Basque country, in the small town of Anglet. You'd never know it was there if you hadn't heard about it. It is warm and welcoming, and you get the feeling management actually wants you to come in, dirty hiking shoes and all. If you're ever in that part of the world, please drop by ArtTraffik and say Hi to Laurent from me, or check them out online for a great selection of emerging artists who are actually affordable. 

Sculptures and statues

Sculptures are common everywhere in the world — whether to commemorate a past leader or simply as an ornament. These days, many sculptures and statues have become the objects and subjects of political statements.

Whatever their intent, they will help shed light on a place. Very rarely will you find a sculpture dumped in an insignificant location for no reason: most often, there is a fascinating story behind why it is where it is, and what it represents.

The vast majority of sculptures will have a label on or near them with the artist's name, as well as the significance of the piece. This is the starting point and from here you can always do more research. Sculptures have a way of pushing our boundaries by educating us about little-known facts or forcing us to reimagine reality through new or unexpected shapes.

Contemporary animal sculptures in Sintra, Portugal
Botero Medellin reclining woman sculptureOne of the many public Botero sculptures in Medellin, Colombia ©WOTR

travel and art IN ACTION: A LJUBLJANA CASE STUDY

Let's look at Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, to see how travel around art works in practice and how art can teach us more about place.

Street art

The street art in Ljubljana is bright and with few macabre scenes showing, perhaps, that it is a happy city without major issues. A few little phrases dotted around, such as “Capitalism is boring” and “Normal = Bad word” show another side to this vibrant city. 

Architecture

Ljubljana boasts a wildly diverse collection of buildings – from elaborate, colourful facades to sleek, modern offerings. In the old city you’ll find a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, while the outskirts are more modern, usually low and cubic with masses of glass. Walking into the old town from the outskirts is similar like a walk back in time.

National museums

The National Museum of Slovenia (also the Natural History Museum) has a huge display of rocks and precious gemstones, showing these are an important part of the city’s history. Downstairs, an entire room is dedicated to puppets and puppetry, which demonstrates their importance to some aspect of life in Ljubljana. For example, between the wars, partisan puppetry was popular, representing political view and socially appropriate themes.

Churches

Ljubljana has a number of Catholic churches as well as a central cathedral, which tells us that the predominant religion is Catholicism. The Venetian-style exteriors of the religious buildings point to the Baroque period.

Contemporary art galleries

Ljubljana has a number of contemporary art galleries with work by local artists as well as artists from the rest of the world. The Graphic Design Museum, for example, highlights the value of product design throughout the city, and the Museum of Contemporary Art provides a very pointed insight into what themes and issues are important today.

Sculptures and statues

Ljubljana is home to numerous sculptures, from golden artistic wonders to stone fountain designs. Take the dragon statue, for example, which sits on the Dragon Bridge and represents the city’s coat of arms: it symbolizes strength and courage.

Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge, in all its power and majesty (Central Slovenia Tourism)

HOW TO VISIT ANY MUSEUM WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW THE FIRST THING ABOUT ART

Visiting museums is all well and good, but what if you don't have an art background, or if you have no idea of what you're looking at?

Some people are lucky: they may know nothing about art, but they know what they like and that's enough for them. They can simply find art to their taste, and admire it, feeling fulfilled and moving on.

But many of us know little, but would love to know more. We don't have time to study Art History or even leaf through a weighty tome filled with color plates, but we still want to visit this or that museum at our destination. After all, everyone else is going, it's in the guidebook, on everyone’s lips, in every magazine, so it must be THE thing to see.

Yet once you stand in line and brave the crowds, you look around — and may have no clue about what you’re seeing. Paintings, sculptures, strange shapes or lines, all being studiously stared at by hundreds of people who, while they appear engrossed, may be every bit as confused as you are about the meaning of that red square inside a green triangle.

You can easily reduce that confusion and take a few steps to prepare your visit so that once you get there, you'll see what you want, and understand what you're looking at.

Easy steps to planning the perfect museum visit

  • Do some pre-research: find out about opening hours and days, and buy an advance ticket if you can (you don't want to waste half a day of your precious travel time standing in line). Try to avoid the busiest times (especially when the tour buses arrive!) and pack some comfortable shoes.
  • Visit the museum's website to download and print a floor plan. Locate key spots like bathrooms, places to sit or a cafeteria. Find out about accessibility if this is an issue.
  • Look up the main pieces you'd like to see — perhaps you've always dreamed of seeing a particular painting or statue, or you've heard so much about a work of art you want to see what all the fuss is about. Map out its location.
  • Now do some proper research. Get on Wikipedia or any other reference site (see additional resources below) and read about those special works — even if it's just a paragraph or two. What you then see will have much more meaning.
  • Once you arrive at the museum, get any maps or pamphlets that are available, and ask the desk what are the 'must-sees' of the day. There may be a special exhibition you may not know about.
  • Should you get that audio guide? It depends. If you want a birds' eye view of the museum then yes, by all means. But if you plan to focus on a few key works,  then no. You're better off researching those works on your own because the audio guide will be far too superficial.
  • You may want to wander around and get your bearings first. Or look around before you settle down. Or read a few labels. There are no rules: do as you please.
  • Once you've found your art, spend some time with it. Stare at every corner and don't let anyone get in the way of your enjoyment.
  • Be ruthlessly selective. Do not try to see it all or you will ruin your experience and quickly go from awesome to tedious. It is better to dip your toe into the exceptional than to shower in the mundane.
  • Plan something else in the neighborhood, something that will give you joy, whether it's a good meal or a show or a visit to a special shop. That provides boundaries to your visit and you'll know how much time you have left.

the significance of street art

Street art reflects the state of a particular society by helping us understand where it stands on issues. Street art can be political, it can be romantic, it can be strictly visual or simply reflect a mood or an opinion.

The great thing about it is its accessibility — it is everywhere. All you have to do is walk.

Street art has now become mainstream and what was once dismissed as graffiti is an art form in its own right. 

It is also quite up to date because it is ephemeral, and often painted over with something newer, better, more contemporary. This gives it a particular vibrancy and energy that can compel you to sit and stare whether you understand what you're looking at or not.

Street art can range from a few daubs on a fence to sophisticated trompe l'oeil murals, like you'll find in Lyon, France, for example, or like this one below in Evian.

Street Mural in Evian, France, a reminder of the town's lakeside history ©WOTR

A well-executed mural can provide a snapshot of a place and time and tell you what is important to residents, what they believe in and what they are fighting for.

Look beyond the colour and brushstrokes and search for telltale slogans, and images and icons that have hidden connotations. Not only will you learn a little more about a place, but it’s also fun to interpret each piece in your own way. 

Bright mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn, hints at its past as a major port ©WOTR
Street art graffiti San FranciscoArt on the streets of San Francisco
Street art graffiti Havana CubaStreet art as political expression in Havana (photo Annabel Haslop)

What is it street art, exactly?

Finding a suitable street art definition is complicated.

According to the Asian site Art Radar, street art is “an amorphous beast encompassing art which is found in or inspired by the urban environment. With anti-capitalist and rebellious undertones, it is a democratic form of popular public art probably best understood by seeing it in situ.”

It’s a solid definition – the words urban, public, anti-capitalist and rebellious align well with how we perceive it.

Art Republic says it “can include traditional graffiti art work, as well as stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting and street poster art, video projection, art intervention, guerrilla art, flash mobbing and street installations.”

So yes, there are many types of street art. (One of its more enchanting facets is the utter confusion into which it can thrust the uninitiated.)

Graffiti street art stickerOne rather large street art 'sticker'

It’s hard to keep them all ordered, but these are some of the more popular street art genres.

  • Stencil – painting with a stencil, or a cutout
  • Sticker – simple, this: a wall is covered in stickers, often of a political nature
  • Tag – a spray-painted name; I remember when these first started appearing – graffiti with some vague sense of aesthetics
  • Traditional – says what it is, a painting which just happens to be on a street rather than on a canvas
  • Video projection – a sophisticated ‘light show’ of this sort can cost thousands
  • Wildstyle – wild tags, or tags gone wild
  • Wood blocking – still rare, this involves bolting a piece of wood to a surface, often to cover what’s underneath
  • Yarn bombing – I just discovered this one in California and love it: just cover an object with knitting wool (it’s designed to make things look purty)

Mental Floss lists even more: a piece (for masterpiece), legal wall (what it says), crew (when… a crew gets together and paints), character (typical of a particular artist, like a brand or a logo). And there are certainly more styles of street art, undoubtedly being created as quickly as this article is being typed.

graffiti street art in BarcelonaArtist painting on a legal wall in Barcelona

In addition to being public and urban, street art in its early days was often anonymous. Now it has its heroes and heroines and most pieces of any note are signed.

Another characteristic is its ephemeral nature, here today, gone tomorrow.

According to Ron English, writing in the Huffington Post, “Street Art is an experience, and then it's a photo, a You Are Not Here moment. These moments are meant to mark time, and to remark on times. And times change.”

That said, efforts are being made to conserve certain pieces of street art deemed valuable.

Graffiti street art BorondoBorondo, a street artist in London, paints on the window and then scratches around it. You'll see a plastic protection halfway down the window... protection of street art is unusual.

Street art vs graffiti

Do you like street art? Do you like graffiti? And what differentiates street art from graffiti?

One person’s masterpiece is another person’s mess, and much ink has flowed in pitting the one against the other, like this ‘manifesto’ from Graffiti Action Hero.

So how did street art start?

It has existed throughout history – from the Mayans in Guatemala to the Vikings in Rome and Ireland. Everywhere human civilization has spread, we have stamped our opinions or beliefs for others to see.

Ancient Roman street art graffitiLike this ancient wall description in Pompeii commenting on… boring graffiti (courtesy Wikipedia)

In modern times it began surfacing in the early 20th century but burst into the limelight in the 1970s, accelerated by the arrival of the aerosol can – and tagging.

I remember seeing slogans on walls, ugly scribblings that marred buildings speeding by the windows of a train – if indeed the graffiti on the windows themselves allowed anyone to see outside.

And then something interesting happened: those scrawls began to take shape, and morphed into images, complex, colorful and full of energy. I remember gazing in awe at abandoned railway stations and overpasses, trying to decide whether this was the work of daring artists or senseless teenagers on a suicidal mission.

Martin Irvine of Georgetown University encapsulates it well: “Street art began as an underground, anarchic, in-your-face appropriation of public visual surfaces, and has now become a major part of visual space in many cities and a recognized art movement crossing over into the museum and gallery system.”

The fact is that street art is globally accessible, and it’s not relegated to any subculture anymore – it is now mainstream, and in many ways that sets it apart from more traditional art.

Here's a great quote by Nicholas Alden Riggle, a philosopher at New York University: “Imagine an art practice that, instead of delighting merely the refined sensibilities of an elite few, has the power to engage, effortlessly and aesthetically, the masses through its manifest creativity, skill, originality, depth of meaning, and beauty.” In other words, not elitist, and that to me is a beautiful way to conceive art.

Just a few short years ago anything painted on a wall was a signal to take out the soap and pail.

These days it is often the other way around: street art can be more attractive than what it covers.

Graffiti street art Rotterdam

So what exactly is street art, really?

Often, it is more than just art.

It can be highly political. In Egypt, during the Arab Spring, walls became privileged spaces where everyday people drew their hopes and pains. More graffiti than art, slogans like “No to Mubarak” and “Antique Dictator 4 Sale” could be seen on Tahrir Square. Art became a form of massive democratic participation.

The same happened during the leadership protests in Hong Kong, and in Latin America, street art is an honored tradition and helps inform and entertain people.

Often, street art is just as much about purpose or emotion as it is about appearance.

Think huge Communist propaganda walls in the Soviet Union, or China’s Democracy Wall.

Art, yes, but for a reason.

Street art graffiti BarcelonaAn entire block in Barcelona's Raval district is dedicated to street art against the killing of a protestor by police

Where to see the best street art

Some cities now pride themselves on their street art, or public art, as many prefer to call it.

The city of Nantes, in France, is a northern industrial city now reinventing itself through art. In New York, one of the best attractions of the Highline Park is the street art you get to see as you walk along it. 

Street art in Nantes, FranceNear the water in Nantes, France
Street art Highline New YorkHighline Park in New York

And most cities have graffiti or street art tours – like Barcelona or Krakow or Medellín or London – walking you around for a few hours with an expert, often a historian or an artist.

These days you can see street art almost anywhere, but these cities with the best street art seem to appear on most lists: Berlin, Bogotá, Bristol UK, Buenos Aires, Cape Town,  Istanbul, Lisbon, London,  Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Moscow, New York, Paris, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago (Chile) and São Paolo (Brazil).

After recent visits to Barcelona and San Francisco, I would add them as well. And in case you're curious about even more street art cities, here's another roundup.

Good or bad art?

The perennial discussion around street art is whether it is in fact art, or whether it is graffiti, as in destruction of property.

Here’s a sample of what's being discussed on forums all around the web:

  • It depends where – street art isn’t appropriate everywhere (like on my house, agreed, or on an existing work of art, a palace, a monument…)
  • If it embellishes, it’s art, if it defaces, it’s not.
  • It’s not vandalism if it can be easily removed by the owner.
  • Street art isn’t the same as graffiti.
  • It’s just part of city life.
  • (And inevitably:) It’s disgusting.

So yes, there are plenty of naysayers out there.

But one question still niggles.

Graffiti street art BrooklynSpotted in Brooklyn

Is street art legal?

It depends.

Sometimes it isn’t – and then it’s called graffiti or worse, vandalism. At other times it most certainly is – and is magically renamed ‘public art’.

To some people, the fact that street art is mostly illegal does make it vandalism.

Legal or not, exposure is everything. “While posting on private and city-owned surfaces ensures these works won’t be around for long, the street provides enviable visibility while they last,” says Steven Heller in The Atlantic

The future of street art

So where will street art go from here?

It can get ever more complex, more striking, more three-dimensional, more full of movement or appeal to other senses… It can cover every single ugly bare surface surviving in an urban area. It can be erased because a lot of it is illegal. It can be obliterated by new buildings or painted over by angry, unappreciative residents. Or it can be preserved by such projects as Google’s Street Art Project.

More street art reading and resources

Street art, like any other art, has its stars, some with world renown.

Possibly the most famous of these is Banksy, the British artist who rose on the coattails of his art, of course, but also of his anonymity and his political outspokenness. A headline that always sells well will run something like this: "Banksy Identity Revealed" or "Banksy Arrested!" Even a story about the hoax surrounding his arrest is so newsworthy it becomes viral.

He may be the first star of street art but many artists now boast a huge following. Here are 50 to choose from. And right behind them are up and coming luminaries, the stars of tomorrow.

What’s heartening is the generation of women street artists crowding into a traditionally male preserve, with stars like Bambi, called 'the new Banksy' by some, or these 10 women artists credited with being 'better than Banksy' - and more. Even in conservative countries – here’s an example from Dubai – women street artists are coming into their own. 

Think street art is only for the young? Think again.

—The first part of this piece is based on work by Lizzie Davie of Wanderarti

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