It only takes a minute or two of wandering around Barcelona to realize that some of the city’s most interesting art is located outside of museums. Color bursts from otherwise dingy corners. Narrow alleyways are a haven for elaborately stenciled designs. Even many of the metal roll-up doors belonging to vendors are spray-painted into something extraordinary.
When I found myself in the lively Catalan city last June, I was immediately struck by the countless murals, but I had no idea that Barcelona was one of the world’s premiere street art destinations.
I really knew nothing about the city, actually, least of all the details of its thriving street art scene. I had flown there on a whim after my WorkAway plans in France fell through. I didn’t know anyone and hadn’t done any research on what to do or see. As I sat in a square on my first evening there drinking sangria and eating tapas whose names I couldn't pronounce, I decided I would become acquainted with Barcelona by doing my favorite thing in a new place: walking everywhere.
Specifically, I planned on taking a free walking tour so I could learn a little bit about the city’s history. I’m not a huge guided tour fan, but I’ve enjoyed every walking tour I’ve taken because they aren’t stuffy or pretentious, and they usually showcase at least a few lesser-known spots.
I enjoyed the basic “History of Barcelona” tour so much that I returned for what was dubbed “The Alternative Walking Tour,” which promised to take us around Barcelona’s less touristy neighborhoods and teach us a thing or two about the incredible amount of street art, and what inspires all of it.
A Brief History Via Instagram Photos
In the early 2000’s, world-renowned street artists (Banksy, Pez, Obey, Os Gemeos and others) began painting, plastering and transforming the narrow streets of the El Born and El Raval neighborhoods into edgy masterpieces. There were plenty of opportunities to paint, and Barcelona had a burgeoning community of artists. It was the best time to be a street artist in the city.
But the government decided around 2005 it didn’t want tourists to see a city covered in graffiti, and police officers began dolling out hefty fines of up to 3,000 euros to those caught vandalizing city property. Even being in possession of a spray can was (and is) considered an offense, according to this site that outlines the graffiti laws.
The strict laws are still enforced today, but as evidenced by the absurd number of murals, scrawled graffiti and paste-ups on every street, artists clearly don’t give a…ffffff. Our tour guide told us that they have adapted by using a lot of paste-ups (pre-painted sheets of paper that can be quickly glued to a surface) in order to get the job done stealthily.
Just like artists in many other places, those in Barcelona take to their spray-paint cans to create beautiful things for others, but also to express their political beliefs. The city has a long history of anarchists and rebels clashing with the police, and artists are not shy about highlighting the injustices they see.
Despite the strict laws and the massive amount of money the government spends to constantly paint over murals, new art keeps cropping up. It looks like street art will always be a part of Barcelona’s vibrant culture.
If you're intrigued and want to find out more about the history of the street art in Barcelona, this documentary is fascinating and has interviews with many of the artists.