We love a gallery, but sometimes you just want to get your culture fix in the great outdoors. Thankfully, Sydney is home to a vibrant community of street artists, always ready to bring a splash of colour, a touch of provocation, or just the perfect Instagram backdrop to our city’s streets. But as with just about every piece of real estate in Sydney, these unlikely canvases are hotly contested spaces. Here’s our pick of the city’s essential hotspots and artworks.
Sydney's best street art
Back in August 1991, artists Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken took to King Street in the dark of night with spraycans, ladders and a cherrypicker, and created Newtown’s most loved mural: a tribute to Martin Luther King and his eternal words. The pair had been denied approval to create the artwork twice, as the council wanted to reserve the site for advertising billboards. But the police who were called to the site turned a blind eye and allowed the painting to continue. Since then, it’s been restored, was the subject of a documentary, and was the star of a Coldplay music video (sorry, Chris Martin). And despite starting its life as an illegal work, it’s now heritage listed.
The long concrete wall that runs along the back of the south end of Sydney’s most famous beach has been a canvas for street artists since the 1970s. But things have changed a lot since then: it’s now regulated with the council approving a rotating roster of leading artists (mostly local but a handful of famous international stars) who get to take over their allocated segment of four or eight metres for a limited period. The other thing that’s changed since the '70s? Artists have recognised the growing influence of Instagram and often include their handles or hashtags on their work.
Scott Marsh has been one of Sydney’s most controversial street artists in recent years, thanks to his fiercely political works, including one showing former NSW premier Mike Baird in the hands of the gambling industry, one of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull doing a shady deal with mining giant Adani, and another featuring former prime minister Tony Abbott and cardinal George Pell in a particularly provocative pose. But it was his painting of George Michael as a saint that became the subject of great scandal when it was vandalised during the marriage equality plebiscite in 2017.
The Chippendale mural we’ve picked – appropriately located in Teggs Lane, an alley full of rubbish bins – isn’t one of his more politically charged works, but it is a great, unlikely tribute to a Sydney icon: the ibis.
Melbourne artist Matt Adnate painted this portrait of Aboriginal rights activist and Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro in June 2016 onto the eastern side of Novotel Darling Square as part of a commission by ANZ. Munro founded the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern in 2014, in protest against the commercial redevelopment of the Block, and was part of the group that eventually secured a deal for affordable housing for Indigenous families. The six-storey high portrait took five days to complete. If you look closely, you can see a mountain landscape painted in Munro’s eyes.
What does Sydney’s much discussed and debated housing bubble actually look like? It’s probably a bit uglier than this whimsical painting by Sydney artist Fintan Magee – on the side of the Urban Hotel on Enmore Road, Newtown – but we’re still fans of this work.
This mural, showing scenes of Aboriginal life from the last 40,000 years, has greeted visitors to Redfern as they arrive at the station and exit onto Lawson Street since 1983. It was originally painted by a group of artists led by Carol Ruff – including Colin Nugent, Tracey Moffatt, Joe Geia, Avril Quill, Kristina Nehm and Charlie Aarons – and in 2018 was restored to its original glory by the Redfern Station Community Group. The subjects in the mural stretch back to ancient times, up to colonisation and beyond. There are portraits of community members such as Aunty Mona Donnelly, and one panel showing the 1979 Redfern All Blacks rugby league team.
This art project has been running since it was launched by Tugi Balog in 2000, bringing a range of graffiti artists to a formerly dark and quiet back alley near St Peters station. Yes, it’s a great Instagram backdrop but also has some serious artistic kudos – works developed by artists in May Lane have toured extensively to galleries around the country.
How do you represent a community as diverse as Woolloomooloo in one mural? It’s home to some of the city’s highest earners living alongside public housing tenants. This piece by community organisation Youth and Family Connect is painted on a retaining wall at the back of Woolloomooloo public tennis court and captures the richness of the suburb alongside some of its most recognisable sights, including the Art Gallery of NSW and St Mary’s Cathedral.
Colin Bebe’s mural showing roaming animals around the streets of Sydney had been on the corner of Enmore Road and Bailey Street Newtown for more than a decade until it was painted over in 2017 by an agency advertising Darren Aronofsky’s movie, Mother. Locals immediately protested, and Aronofsky himself spoke out about the agency’s actions. Just a few months later, the mural was restored.
You can learn to do just about anything at Redfern’s Work-Shop – they’ve got classes in everything from tattoo illustration to filleting a fish – but the building on the corner of Cleveland Street and Eveleigh Street is itself a brilliant canvas for street art. Right now there’s a stellar portrait of Rabbitohs hero Greg Inglis resplendent in green and red, overlooking the parking lot, as well as a long-standing mural of an Aboriginal boxer by street art star Anthony Lister.
This sprawling mural project from 2013 stretches 75 metres along Foley Street in Darlinghurst, running parallel to Oxford Street. It’s a collaboration between artists Sarah Howell, Dylan Demarchi, byrd, the Dirt and Gui Andrade, and speaks to the history of Oxford Street, including everything from the traditional owners and custodians of the land up to recent Mardi Gras parades. It's faded a little since it was painted, but that's part of its charm.