Exploring the Stories Behind Street Art

We can all appreciate street art for its beauty and scale – and the fact that it’s free and accessible to everyone – but on your next visit to one of the cities below, take some time to learn the stories behind the art and artists: what might look like a boring, sooty facade may uncover an exciting time in the city’s growth (literally and figuratively) with a fresh perspective; or yet another mural in a gritty alleyway may reveal a connection to women’s or LGBTQ causes; or a common indigenous symbol in a city’s art collection might surprisingly overturn a long-held stereotype.    

Below, we’ve included destinations that excel in telling the stories of their people and history.

Denver

Once heavily industrial and on the fringes of the city, Denver’s RiNo (River North) Art District is now one of the trendiest spots that attracts a sizable bar crowd. But even if you’re not into the booze scene, you’ll be blown away by the numerous art murals and street graffiti that cover every alley, building, dumpster, and telephone pole in sight. 

Recently, there’s been a movement pushing for more underrepresented artists, resulting in some truly incredible pieces of work by female, black, indigenous, and LGBTQ artists. 

Lindee Zimmer

A Colorado local, Zimmer has her work featured throughout all of Denver, recognizable by her colorful and sometimes psychedelic-looking backgrounds. Her work has included a beautiful dedication to Pride on the back alley wall of Odell Brewing Company as well as a narrow strip in the parking lot next to Denver Central Market. The latter, reading “None are free until all are free”, was completed with the help of local school kids.

Detour 303

Detour 303, aka Thomas Evans, is another artist with immediately identifiable works throughout the city. Look for a palette of cool blues, purples, and oranges, and unbelievable likenesses of leading black figures like Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and local activists and politicians.  

Alexandrea Pangburn

Put a bird on it. That’s what Alex Pangburn, Director of Curation for RiNo Art District and co-founder of Babe Walls, loves to feature on her usual spot at Larimer & 26th streets and represents an environmental trend in some of the statement pieces around RiNo. In recent years, Pangburn has steered the art district towards greater inclusivity, and her Babe Walls project has created a space for womxn and non-binary artists.

Philadelphia

When it comes to programs dedicated to funding and commissioning public art, it’s hard to beat Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has to date been responsible for around 4,000 murals scattered throughout the city. 

Philly Muses

Meg Saligman is a legendary figure in Philly’s art world. Arguably one of the most iconic and certainly awe-inspiring works can be viewed at 13th & Locust streets. Philadelphia Muses is a tribute to the city’s art and creativity, with each figure symbolizing forms of creative expression. Saligman’s large-scale works can be found all over town: check out her Mural Arts page to track each one down.

Legacy

Many of Philly’s larger murals are the product of collaboration, including the behemoth 10,000-square-foot Legacy by Josh Sarantitis and Eric Okdeh. Along with the help of five public schools, prison inmates, and other individuals, this dedication to the abolishment of slavery came to life in early 2016.

Mapping Courage: Honoring W.E.B. Du Bois & Engine #11

Philadelphia’s murals present a reliable “Who’s Who” inventory and help to capture a moment in time in the city’s ever changing — and gentrifying — neighborhoods. One such mural depicts the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in his efforts to conduct a comprehensive study of the African American community of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward during the late 1890s. Willis Humphrey’s mural also serves as a reminder of a time of disriminatory practices by the city’s higher learning institutions, among others.

A characteristic nature-oriented mural by David Guinn

A different sort of legacy: Colorful Legacy by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey & Keir Johnston

Miami

Wynwood Walls

Much like Denver’s RiNo Art District, the former industrial Wynwood neighborhood and its derelict warehouse walls have invited artists from all over to bring some much-needed color to the area. Today, this entertainment district is home to an outdoor exhibition of rotating street art featuring big names in the art world like Shepard Fairey and The London Police, as well as local Miami artists. 

Little Havana 

You don’t necessarily need to pay admission to enjoy Miami’s vibrant and colorful art, which is splashed on nearly every building lining Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street) in the neighborhood known as Little Havana. Keep an eye out for the wild and wonderful works by Reynaldo Artires and the countless smaller-scale murals and mosaics that preserve the area’s Cuban history and culture.

Photo by Noel de Christian