People in Tokyo follow the rules. All that in-line standing, traffic signal obeying, and urge-to-litter resisting is a big part of what makes our fair city one of the cleanest and safest in the world. But for many years, it also had the effect of making Tokyo a pretty boring city for street art.
A combination of cultural mores and tough anti-graffiti laws (we’ll say this upfront: tag Tokyo at your own risk!) meant that compared to metropolises like New York or Berlin, the amount of street art you’d encounter during your regular walk through the city was, for many years, on the low end of the scale.
However, Tokyo seems to be waking up to the idea that street art can help enrich a city. From hipster hotspots like Ura-Harajuku and Koenji to unexpected locations in the eastern part of the city, we’ve identified some pieces that’ll give you a feel for Tokyo’s (largely law-abiding) take on street art.
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The neighbourhood where bohemian musicians, curry fanatics and Awa Odori dancers collide, Koenji is also home to some cool new street art. It’s all part of the MCP, or Mural City Project, led by the folks at the BnA (Bed and Art) Hotel (enough acronyms for you?).
The MCP is a street art project done with the approval and support of the local government – hey, even Koenjiites follow the rules. There are currently four pieces scattered throughout Koenji, all of which can be tracked down with MCP’s Facebook page. Our favourite is the giant, 20-meter piece by artist unit Whole9 (pictured).
While you’re there: Check out the aforementioned BnA Hotel, which regularly holds art events and has a bar on its first floor.
Tennozu Isle, a piece of reclaimed land not far from Odaiba, is a part of town that’s been putting a lot of energy into attracting more visitors in recent years. One part of its renaissance was hosting Pow! Wow! Japan 2015, a street art festival that saw a number of pieces go up on the island.
Tennozu Isle is dotted with large warehouses, which, if you’re a street artist, are the perfect giant canvases. There are now dozens of murals in the area, but two of our favourites are the towering shamisen player by Californian artist ARYZ, which was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e woodcut print, and a beautiful blue flower by Japanese unit Hitotzuki. Check the Tennoz Art Festival website to discover more graffiti art in the area.
While you’re there: Chill out at TY Harbor, a brewpub overlooking the water.
Hitotzuki, the artist unit featured in Tennozu Isle, is made up of two artists, Sasu and Kami. A solo Sasu mural can be spotted on the other end of town in Nakameguro. The piece, entitled ‘To Remain Calm and Passionate’, was completed a decade ago in 2009, making it one of the older examples of street art on this list. But while it may be an oldie, it’s certainly a goodie, and there’s a bonus: it’s right by Junkadelic, one of the city’s best places to chomp down on Tex-Mex.
While you’re there: Eat at Junkadelic, duh!
Okay, so our entire thesis is that Japan is nice and law-abiding, and that most of its street art is painted after securing approval. Here’s one exception, though: the pixelated art of world-famous street artist Invader. Folks have spotted the Frenchman’s video game-inspired pieces all over the city, but the highest concentration is definitely in Shibuya.
Because his pieces are, well, an invasion of public and private property, they’re known to go up and down, but one piece we’ve seen hang around for years is the Astro Boy under the railway tracks near Shibuya’s Tower Records. Keep your eyes open, and you’re sure to see even more. And don’t forget to load up the official Invader-spotting app.
While you’re there: The Astro Boy piece is near EDGEof, a hip new Shibuya space that holds events and rooftop parties.
You may know Harajuku as a fashion-and-sweets capital aimed at high-energy teens, but if you can jam your away all the way down Takeshita Street, you’ll find yourself in Ura-Harajuku, a slightly more relaxed, grown-up part of the neighborhood. You’ll also find some great street art.
Most of our favourite stuff is painted in and around Design Festa, a café, bar and exhibition space devoted to art and design. Look out for the iconic, three-eyed baby by world-renowned street artist Alex Face.
While you’re there: Dig into some okonomiyaki at Sakura Tei, a restaurant on the grounds of Design Festa that features plenty of its own street art.
Not far from Design Festa is Bonobo, a cosy Harajuku bar and club that’s been drawing party people for years. Now there’s a new reason to visit this hip hole in the wall: ‘Harajuku Zombie’, a piece painted in 2018 by Lauren YS. The piece combines zombie movie and Japanese motifs into a haunting geisha who looks like she’s had one too many late nights in Harajuku.
While you’re there: If it’s too early to catch some tunes at Bonobo, take a short walk to Mokubaza, one of our favourite Japanese curry spots.
Egogawa, the shitamachi neighbourhood east of the Kanda River, is about as culturally far as you can get from hip Harajuku. This part of town is known more for its small family-owned factories and narrow winding streets than arty hangouts. But that’s part of what makes the Edogawall so cool.
The garage of a construction company, the space has featured the works of artists like Fin DAC, Dan Kitchener and Himbad – a true collaboration between old-school east Tokyo craftsmanship and world-renowned street artists. It’s a real company run by busy people, so be sure to show true Tokyo courtesy if you go over to have a look. Wednesday before 5pm on is said to be the best time.
While you’re there: Get a drink at legendary bar Fust Carlent, which is a treasure chest of rare liquors.
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