Updated May 25, 2019
We do a lot of walking when we travel. And we do so with purpose. We love architecture, urban green spaces, and the serendipity of discovery, whether that’s a neighborhood coffee shop or a bistro at the end of a nondescript alleyway. But first and foremost, we’re on the hunt for street art. There’s no better way to get a finger on the pulse of a city. Street art is an expression of a city’s past, the issues it grapples with present day, and its aspirations for the future. Through incredible initiatives such as MuralsDC, an organization collaborating with the city’s Department of Public Works and Commission on Arts and Humanities, DC has created a veritable cornucopia of street art. The goal is to replace illegal graffiti with artistic revitalization projects, and in this endeavor they have been very successful.
So whether you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for your #OOTD or you’re looking to discover some great local artists, here are some of the best places to find street art in Washington DC.
Blagden Alley is the name given to a collective network of small alleyways boxed in by 9th and 10th Streets and M and N Streets. The area was designated as a National Register Historic District in 1990, and growing reinvestment has turned it into a haven for hip bars and eateries. The Dabney is one of the best restaurants in DC, and SUNdeVICH is a local foodie favorite. The spacious La Colombe is worth visiting, not just for its delicious Draft Latte (we might be mildly obsessed!), but for its stunning space. The exposed brick building with high ceilings and tall garage doors was likely a horse stable in the 1800s, and still maintains an air of antiquity.
But here’s where the old and the new harmonize beautifully. The area is also home to The DC Alley Museum, which came about through the combined efforts of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Blagden Alley neighbors. Commissioned murals cover garage doors and facades, and plaques carrying the name of the piece and the artist can be found beside them, like in any other museum. But since Blagden Alley has grown in reputation as a street art hub, uncommissioned murals now also fill its nooks and crannies.
Street artist highlight
The 2017 LOVE mural by Lisa Marie Thalhammer covers four gates and still remains an Instagram favorite till this day. The artist used a thirteen-color rainbow to communicate the most simple, yet universal, message of inclusivity and acceptance. Thalhammer is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and sending messages of hope is core to her work. She was a co-founder of the Blagden Alley project, and was named Best Artist by the Washington Blade Readers’ Choice Awards in 2018.
Pro Tip: Blagden Alley gives you the most bang for your buck, but strolling around the Shaw neighborhood will yield many other street art treasures. Pop over to Dacha Beer Garden for the larger-than-life mural of Elizabeth Taylor. Or head to Q Street between 11th and 12th Streets and feast your eyes on the Watermelon House.
Any city of consequence has enduring institutions, but the sign of a great city is the way in which it reinvents itself. For famous examples, look no further than New York City’s High Line or Seattle’s Gas Works Park. And Washington DC has reinvented itself, too, with projects both big and small. One shining example is Dupont Underground, a former subterranean streetcar station that has been repurposed into a 15,000 sq.ft. multidisciplinary platform for creative expression.
At the core of Dupont Underground is Up From The Underground, an exhibition of contemporary and historic graffiti from six generations of local artists. Murals have become a trendy way to spruce up a space, so it’s common to see commissioned work from well-known street artists in commercial and corporate locations. The old-school tags found on Dupont Underground’s walls are a far less common sight, but the departure is intentional. Dupont Underground invited some of DC’s oldest graffiti artists to tag the space to celebrate alternative art historically found in public spaces such as trolley stations, bridges and underpasses.You’ll find intricate, vibrantly colored tags and illustrations from the entrance to its terminus and every inch of its subway-tiled walls in between.
Street artist highlight
One of the graffiti artists, AREK, has been actively tagging since the 1980s. In 2008 he was featured in a National Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrating the influence of hip hop on visual art. It was the first time graffiti had been embraced by the Smithsonian. In the artist statement for the show, AREK and fellow graffiti artist CON said, “In the quest for shameless self-promotion and bravado, graffiti also serves as a therapeutic release from everyday life and personal struggle using a different, obscured identity. This is self-portraiture through a chosen word—your “tag”— and ultimately this tag becomes who you are. In this art of war, where the lines are literally drawn, we compete with rivals, friends, and ourselves in an endless battle to outshine and overcome with the best style, best placement, and most audacity. Every culture glorifies its royalty.”
Pro Tip: Checking Dupont Underground’s event calendar is a must. Beyond being an incredible street art destination, it hosts traveling exhibitions, festivals, concerts, and much, much more. You can also rent the space for private parties.
U Street Corridor
U Street was once home to Black Broadway, and its iconic clubs hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday. In the early 1900s it was the most populous African-American community in America, and it held a seminal role in shaping black culture. It continues to be the heart of DC’s music scene, but the U Street corridor has changed quite a bit since then. Improved transportation via metro and bus has brought increased traffic and growth to the area. It is now home to luxury condos, popular restaurants and bustling retail outlets.
The U Street Corridor has a number of memorable murals, the most famous of which can be found on the walls of eatery and local landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl. Ben’s Chili Bowl recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, and it has played a prominent role in Washington DC history during that time. It’s most significantly remembered as the only spot that was allowed to stay open during the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It continues to count many celebrities and politicians among its clientele, and the unveiling of its latest mural in 2017 brought out Washington DC’s mayor, celebrity Dave Chappelle, and a large crowd of community members.
Ben’s Chili Bowl’s mural was originally painted by Aniekan Udofia in 2012 and similarly featured prominent black figures. But Bill Cosby was among them, and thanks to the scandal surrounding the actor, his face was plastered with a floating Kim Jong Un head in 2015. The 2017 mural brought a welcome update, and each figure was selected by the community. Over 30,000 people voted on who they wanted to see on the mural, which now includes Barack and Michelle Obama, Taraji P. Henson, and Muhammad Ali. But Ben’s Chili Bowl is just the tip of the iceberg. If you walk along U Street and take the time to look down the alleys, you’ll find most of the walls are home to striking street art, some extending the length of the entire building.
Street artist highlight
Aniekan Udofia is the artist behind the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl mural, but you’ll find more of his work along U Street and around other parts of the city. His early portraits of Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglass caught the attention of the masses and earned him campaigns with American Express and Heineken. But he’s also continued to work closely with Murals DC on local beautification projects. Udofia creates pieces with political and social overtones, and has never shied away from speaking his truth. In his Reloaded series, he armed his characters with a pencil, stating “The pencil is the weapon that can solve our problems and create solutions and ideas, whereas the gun has not a single good attribute; it only destroys.”
Pro Tip: While you’re here, you can fold in the Greater U Street Heritage Trail, which highlights important African American history that took place in the neighborhood. Whether you choose to download the audio tour or just follow the map, you’ll learn about leaders in civil rights, law, science, and the arts such as Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall who have all left their mark here.
NoMa and the Metropolitan Branch Trail
New York City loves its abbreviated names for neighborhoods, and so does DC. NoMa stands for North of Massachusetts Avenue, which covers the area between Union Station and trendy food hall Union Market. Thanks to POW! WOW! Washington DC, murals by artists from all over the world blanket NoMa and extend all the way up the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The Met Branch Trail is a busy urban rail-with-trail that shares a corridor with Metro’s Red Line, MARC commuter service, CSX freight trains and Amtrak.
POW! WOW! is an international mural festival that originated in Hawaii, but its week-long celebration of culture, music and art has since expanded across the globe. With its reach going as far as Israel and Japan, POW! WOW! seeks to go beyond simply beautifying the city. It aims to educate the community and inspire youth as well. Washington DC holds its annual festival 10 days in May, and events include guided walking tours. But don’t fret if you can’t make it out for the festival, the artwork can be easily visited year-round with their handy map. (Thanks for the tip, StreetArtChat!)
Street artist highlight
While at first glance the mural seems to honor Abraham Lincoln, “28 Blocks” is actually an homage to the people who built the Lincoln Memorial–to be specific, African-Americans and Italian immigrants. Black men quarried the white marble (28 blocks in total) and an Italian family carved it into the Lincoln Memorial that stands today. Artist Garin Baker said, “This statue and this work goes to the core of the actual men and women that built this country.” Baker was born and raised in New York City. Besides producing an impressive breadth of work, he also teaches at the world renowned Art Students League in New York City and runs a Public Art Mural Company which offers apprenticeships and workshops to students and artists.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our time in New York City, it’s that to understand a city, you have to walk its streets. And Washington DC is no different. It’s easy to get caught up in the monuments, government buildings, and world-class museums. But people live, work, and die there, day in and day out, like in any other city. So, challenge yourself to go out and explore. Get the street-level view of DC’s heart and soul: the character of its neighborhoods, the diversity of its residents, and the stories they have to tell. You’ll find it written somewhere on a wall.
And if you find yourself famished after all that street art hunting, check out our post on Washington DC restaurants every travel foodie must visit!
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