I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published November 23rd 2010
New York street art is at once largely anonymous and enormously popular. It is also illegal, which is perhaps why it keeps its edge. Among the many seductions of street art is its temporal nature. Much of it is here today and gone tomorrow. And some you can't get to at all, like the newly revealed Underbelly Project, a secret gallery of art that was encapsulated within a century-old section of New York's abandoned subway tunnels. The project, which was kept secret even from the MTA, can be seen in a video here.
That trend of utilizing unique but abandoned—even forbidden—spaces to compile some of the world's best street art has in the past been seen at installations in Soho at 11 Spring Street in 2006 (the site of a former carriage house that has since turned condo), at a temporary warehouse space rented by London's Lazarides Gallery on 282-284 Bowery for the "Outsiders" Show in 2007, and the temporary gallery HoneySpace in Chelsea—the site of Swoon's underground installation "Portrait of Sylvia Elena" in 2008. Famous British street artist Banksy opened a show around the same time at a "pop-up" gallery on the LES.
Despite the increased commercial desirability of street art, you can still find stunning examples in new work in open-air "galleries" that target specific neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Here is a list of ten hotspots to get you started:
1. D.U.M.B.O., Brooklyn
Long before the neighborhood was known for its lively art scene, D.U.M.B.O. (an acronym for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass") was a collection of abandoned century-old warehouses and quaint, but empty, cobblestone streets. Over the last decade, however, Dumbo has come into its own. Some older street art pieces can still be found along Water Street, but a walk throughout the neighborhood reveals newer commissioned works, an assortment of murals and wheat pastes put up for annual events such as the Dumbo Arts Festival, and a smattering of smaller anonymous works. Expect to see work by Imminent Disaster, Elbowtoe, Judith Supine, and more.
2. 5 Pointz, Queens This huge warehouse space—once dedicated to artist studios—has since been partly closed for renovations after an artist who was working there was injured in 2009, but the site remains among the most impressive graffiti spots in New York. Located down the street from MoMA PS1, it was first established in 1993 as Phun Phactory, a place where graffiti writers could spray legally. It remains a graffiti mecca and has since exploded in popularity, attracting famous street artists from all over the world. Interested parties can make arrangements for a guided tour, but it's way more fun to just show up to see the work at your own pace. Expect to see tags of every color and design, including some from famed Wild Style writers from the 1980s.
3. Chelsea, Manhattan
Once a neighborhood known largely for serving the meat packing plants, Chelsea is now among Manhattan's most fashionable sections of town complete with stylish boutiques, upscale restaurants, and New York's favorite elevated park, the HighLine. Street artists still flock to this neighborhood, though, if for nothing else than exposure. Chelsea is the epicenter of the art world, surpassing SoHo many years ago as ground zero for New York's contemporary gallery scene. Expect to see works by Gaia, Judith Supine, Shepard Fairey, Stickman, and more.
4. Wooster Street / SoHo
A walk around SoHo is often a safe bet for seeing random street art, but head to Wooster Street near Canal to see the Candy Factory, a building long deemed a target for many local and foreign artists. Wooster Street is so famous for its draw to street artists that a popular website is named after the street, Wooster Collective, which profiles the goings on in the global world of street art. Look for work in SoHo by Billi the Kid, Bast, MBW Campbell, Banksy, Matthew Rodriguez, and more. And while you're in the neighborhood, check out the graffiti mural on Houston Street by Barry "Twist" McGee.
5. Lower East Side
The east side of New York just south of Greenwich Village is a haven of street art sightings. Although there is no one distinct street or spot, works can be found almost everywhere: on abandoned buildings, under scaffolding, on doors and windows, and even in the streets themselves. Street art enthusiasts will not be disappointed with their yield of sightings on any given day. Look for pieces by Swoon, WK Interact, Mr. Brainwash, Neck Face, Faro, Borf, and many, many more.
6. 57th Street / Westside Highway
A stretch of 57th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues (pictured) and continuing until the West Side Highway lay a block-long stretch of possibly abandoned buildings that have been carefully orchestrated by many talented street artists. The careful lay-out of the pieces, their overall reach, and the draftsmanship calls attention to the fact that this site was likely planned, but the color is amazing and well worth the long walk west. Because the location is so far out on the island's periphery, there are few pieces that deliberately tag over existing work.
The Bowery, once the last vestige of the New York City street bum, has over the last few years become one of the city's most changing neighborhoods. Come and see the street art in this section of the city before it's gone for good. Check out areas near 190 Bowery (the multi-million dollar building that is owned by photographer Jay Maisel) who rarely removes new art, as well as areas along the thoroughfare and near Spring Street. Expect to see works by Shepard Fairey, Billi the Kid, Haculla, and more.
8. Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Known as the hipster haven of Brooklyn, this once quiet ethic neighborhood along the waterfront is a literal canvas of ever-changing street art. Check out work along N. Sixth Street as well as all along the waterfront. Expect to see work by the team known as Faile, Bast, and more.
9. Park Avenue / 106th Street
Formally known as the "Wall of Fame" for its years of legally hosting old school graffiti writers and taggers, this is an area of the city to pay homage to those old boys from the Bronx where the roots of hip hop and graffiti got their start, such as the days when taggers would hit up the subway trains and then wait to be discovered.
10. East Village
The East Village has come a long way since its heyday of the Fun Gallery in the 1980s and the street art era of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but there are still some interesting pieces to be found there, including a recent work on Twelfth Street by Parisian artist JR, whose large-scale murals have recently won him a $100,000 TED grant.