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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
And now, street art: omnipresent, inescapable, blustering street art.
It IS art, but it also 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.
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.
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.)
It’s hard to keep them all ordered, but these are some of the more popular street art genres.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
So yes, there are plenty of naysayers out there.
But one question still niggles.
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.
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.
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, like these.
—The first part of this piece is based on work by Lizzie Davie of Wanderarti