Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s “Little Children on a Bicycle” is one of George Town’s most famous murals.
At these five spots, contemporary street art and cultural heritage go hand-in-hand.
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
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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
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.Ghent, Belgium
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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.
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.
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