Spray-painting a designated historical building would have been considered sacrilege when UNESCO first published its list of 12 World Heritage Sites in 1978. Fast forward 40 years and you’ll find over 1,000 new places on that roster and a dramatically different opinion on street art around the world—one that has even been embraced in certain landmark places. Visual protests on the Berlin Wall and graffiti greats like Banksy, Keith Haring, and Shepard Fairey proved that when an aerosol can is put into the right hands, it can prompt needed conversation around social issues, marking the line between scribblings on a wall and powerful murals that make art more accessible to the masses.
Just like the world’s walls, UNESCO’s index has become a lot more colorful in recent decades as cities have begun commissioning or encouraging local street artists to add a contemporary hue to specific heritage sites; these artworks are seen as culturally significant additions to the historic spaces. Even in those places where graffiti is illegal, covertly painted murals have turned ancient, crumbling walls into destinations for art lovers. These five UNESCO-designated areas are as renowned for their art as they are for their heritage.
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Going on a street art scavenger hunt is a rite of passage for anyone visiting George Town. Malaysia’s architectural gem, with its mix of traditional Asian design and European colonial influences, became a mural wonderland shortly after being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Following the designation, the government wanted new, creative signage for the city’s streets, and so launched a competition called “The Marking of George Town,” inviting artists and designers to submit ideas for physically branding public spaces and historic buildings.
The installation of the winning design—52 steel-rod caricatures created by the studio Sculpture at Work—helped mark the beginning of the city’s street art movement. Four years later, the 2012 George Town Festival invited Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to paint a series of murals; his Little Children on a Bicycle and Little Girl in Blue are two of the most famous works in the city. Find these and other new and classic government-commissioned murals using the street art map available at Penang’s tourist information center.
Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean island, is best known for its cerulean waters and 18th-century buildings, but the capital, Willemstad, is fast gaining fame as a vibrant street art destination. Over the past decade, the city center (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997) has undergone a creative renaissance thanks to local artists like Omar Sling, who creates sculptures out of recycled materials.
Most recently, the artist-founded organization Street Art Skálo spearheaded an artistic revival of the Scharloo district (one of the historic area’s four districts). It aims to commission up to 40 new murals in the neighborhood, which is a hub for the island’s artists, designers, and tech startups. New murals include Garrick Marchena’s There Is More Than Meets the Eye and Francis Sling’s blue-and-yellow Three O’Clock Romance (pictured here), which is now one of the most Instagrammed spots on the island.
Casco Viejo, Panama
Two decades ago, Panama City’s 300-plus-year-old district of Casco Viejo (formally known as San Felipe) was a gang-filled neighborhood that most people happily avoided. Founded in 1519, the area is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Gentrification slowly rolled through the barrio, giving rise to the Frank Gehry–designed Biomuseo and a couple of luxury hotels.
Apart from a few approved murals commissioned for the 2013 Biennial of the South, graffiti is illegal here. Panama’s National Institute of Culture has ordered several business owners to whitewash their painted facades, including the restaurant Manolo Caracol, which once featured a mural by renowned local artist Rolo de Sedas. But the strict laws haven’t prevented artists from anonymously leaving their marks on the city’s walls—perhaps as a way of protest.
Current works to look for include the black-and-white Coati by internationally acclaimed Belgian artist ROA, as well as politically charged works such as Insano’s Vote for an Artistic Change mural.
Take a three-minute walk from the 299-foot-tall Belfry of Ghent (a tower inscribed by UNESCO in 1999) and you’ll arrive at the city’s alternative jewel: street art alley. In an attempt to contain a growing graffiti movement in the 1990s, the local government created Werregarenstraatje, this ever-evolving corridor of color.
The city council has designated new legal walls at the request of prominent local artists like ROA and Bué The Warrior, and Ghent now boasts over 100 street art sites. To view more than 50 of these street art hot spots, grab a Sorry, Not Sorry Street Art Map from Ghent’s tourist information center and follow the 4.6-mile walking route or the nine-mile cycling route.
Raw, creative energy and retro funiculars roll through the hilly streets of Valparaíso, earning it the nickname “the San Francisco of South America.” The city’s historic center was designated a World Heritage Site in 2003 and inspired many creatives, including Nobel Prize–winning poet Pablo Neruda, who lived in the city while penning many of his masterpieces.
In the 1970s, during the regime of Augusto Pinochet, local writers of the street art variety used graffiti as a silent form of protest. The political climate has since improved, and today Valparaíso is the only city in Chile where street art is not only legal, but also embraced, with new artists carrying on the traditions of the original “Valpo vandals.”
For an overview of the scene, go on a free tour with Valpo Street Art Tours or simply wander; there are 42 barrios to explore, including the bohemian hillside neighborhoods of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, so there is no shortage of visual poetry.