If you’ve ever gazed with wonder at the Statue of Liberty, studied the iron latticework of the Eiffel Tower, or thought How on earth did they do that? while staring at Mt. Rushmore, you are, in fact, a consumer of public art. Public art can inspire, engage, and evoke smiles, jaw drops, even tears. “Some communities see public art as a way of enhancing or personalizing otherwise impersonal spaces. Others view it as a means to activate civic dialogue or provide a vehicle for the community to express its identity,” wrote founder and executive director of Forecast Public Art Jack Becker in the Monograph, a journal for the Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education.
Art is fundamentally subjective and the intention and meaning behind public installations are manifold, owing both to contextual variability and artists’ individual motivations. Whether it’s a once-insecure kid who, now as an adult, is reminding Chicagoans that they are beautiful or guerrilla knitters draping Los Angeles street signs with colorful yarn, this mode of communal expression has a consistent power to remind us of our collective humanity and elevate the values of neighborhood and social good. There is so much art waiting to capture your attention and warm your heart right outside your door. To name a few, here are 15 of our favorite public art projects that are transforming where we live and, most importantly, how we see the world. It’s a lot brighter than most of us imagined.
Artist: Matthew Hoffman
Find it: In all 50 states and every continent, including Antarctica
Inspiring message: Whether it’s printed on an 80-foot sidewalk barrier in Brooklyn (pictured below), massive billboard in Buffalo, or Rice Mill Lofts building in New Orleans, the message is loud and clear: “You Are Beautiful.” The intent is simpler: To help people remember how special they are, inside and out. The idea for this uplifting art project came to Matthew Hoffman 10 years ago when he moved to Chicago after graduating college with a degree in graphic design.
“Growing up, I moved around a lot, and I had self-esteem issues from always being the new kid, trying to figure out how to navigate life and make friends. As an adult…the feelings were the same. I wanted to create something that told people, ‘You’re OK just as you are,’” he says. He started with small rectangular “You Are Beautiful” stickers that people were encouraged to slap on street signs, lampposts, in library books and more. It blossomed into artwork from there. “I’ve always enjoyed creating a conversation with the public,” Hoffman adds. “I like to put an idea out there, and let the viewer take it however they need to in that moment.”
Artist: Tyree Guyton
Find it: Detroit, Michigan
Inspiring message: Tyree Guyton started the Heidelberg Project (HP) in 1986 as a creative response to the general state of deterioration and disrepair that he saw in his neighborhood following the 1967 riots. At his side were Guyton’s housepainter grandfather and mentor, Sam Mackey, who always encouraged his grandson to choose art over guns and drugs, plus Guyton’s former wife, Karen, and kids from the local community. Together, they cultivated an outdoor art environment that “uses everyday, discarded objects to create a two-block area full of color, symbolism, and intrigue,” according to the project’s homepage.
HP consists of a group of abandoned houses on Detroit’s Heidelberg Street that have been whimsically painted with bright colorful designs and covered with found objects. Huge polkadots pave the sidewalks, guiding visitors from the Baby Doll House to the Obstruction of Justice house to the House of Soul, Penny House, and more. Not even a series of 12 arson fires in 2013 and 2014 could keep HP down for long. “I am opening up the minds of all people to help them to realize the possibility of change,” Guyton told the Huffington Post.
Artists: Hank Willis Thomas, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks
Find it: Brooklyn, New York
Inspiring message: Need to get something off your chest? You could turn to your confidant…or you could just visit the Truth Booth. Shaped like an enormous speech bubble, this 16-foot-tall mobile interactive video booth is emblazoned with the word “Truth”, inviting anyone and everyone to speak into a camera and record themself finishing the phrase “The truth is…[blank].” The two-minute responses range from dark confessions to regrets of failed relationships to heart-warming family memories. “The truth is ageless and timeless,” Thomas told Observer.com. The Truth Booth has traveled all over, from Cape Town, South Africa to Bamyan, Afghanistan, but is currently stationed in Brooklyn through June 2016.
4. Before I Die
Artist: Candy Chang
Find it: New Orleans, Louisiana, plus a few other states and 70+ countries
Inspiring message: Taiwanese-American artist Candy Chang is curious about your bucket list. So in 2011 she put together a stencil that read, “Before I die, I want to _____” and using chalkboard paint, spray-painted it multiple times on the side of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood. She then left some chalk at the location and waited. In less than 24 hours, “it was covered in chalk dreams as neighbors stopped and reflected on their lives,” Chang writes on her website.
As of today, more than 1,000 Before I Die walls have been erected in more than 70 countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq, Haiti, China, Ukraine, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Argentina, and South Africa, most in their native languages. NBC’s Brian Williams described it on his “Rock Center” TV show as “the stuff of everyday life from people of all walks of life.” He adds, “Young or old, rich or poor, the ‘Before I Die’ wall does make you think as you walk by.”
Artist: Assorted (This particular piece is by Alicia Porter)
Find it: Chicago, Illinois
Inspiring message: What started as a trio of like-minded individuals—a 70-year-old woman with an intellectual disability and mental illness, a self-taught artist, and a developmental disabilities professional—has grown into two studios that encourage and support those with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to explore the arts. Working in many mediums, from paint and photography to mixed media and fiber art, artists can display their pieces in local Starbucks, where they are also available for purchase.
“I’m working on abstract images like Picasso,” explains Alicia Porter in her artist’s statement on the website. “The paint goes one way and sometimes the other way; it’s very abstract. I don’t ever get upset with the way the paint moves, it just takes me in a different way and I have to deal with it. I get my ideas from my imagination or something I happen to see in the car or on the bus. I will capture that image and my mind will play with it.”
Artist: Jim Bachor
Find it: Chicago, Illinois
Inspiring message: Potholes generally get your attention when it gives your car a bounce or you trip over one. As unsightly, annoying, and sometimes damaging (drop your muffler or twist your ankle?) as potholes can be, it’s almost impossible to have any animosity toward the ones touched by Jim Bachor. The Chicago artist considers the Windy City’s pockmarked streets his canvas, filling potholes with mosaics of flowers, popsicles and ice cream cones, and even the phone number of a local car repair shop. Conditions must be perfect for Bachor to safely do his thing, which involves hundreds or thousands of tiny, hand-cut pieces of Italian glass and marble. That means no traffic and a temp of at least 60 degrees for eight to nine hours straight.
“Mr. Bachor and his art are proof that even the coldest, harshest winter cannot darken the spirits of Chicagoans,” city spokesman Bill McCaffery from the Chicago Department of Transportation told the Chicago Tribune. One thing is certain: With Chicago residents logging nearly 50,000 complaints about crumbling pavement in 2014 alone, Bachor won’t be running out of canvas anytime soon.
Artists: Lead artist Adam Frelin, lead architect Barbara Nelson, American Institute of Architects, and more than 25 community and private sector partners, including the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Find it: Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, New York
Inspiring message: Tackling a public art challenge to transform Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, Breathing Lights is on a mission to “breathe” life back into communities riddled with abandoned properties. Barbara Nelson calls them “zombie buildings” because “they’re just on the edge of life.” Lights are installed within these buildings, “set with timers to grow bright or dim at different times and frequencies, creating the appearance of life inside.”
Breathing Lights was one of four projects to receive a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies grant—some 240 cities across the country applied and only 12 were selected, including just one from New York State. “The issue of neighborhood revitalization is at the forefront of our efforts in Troy,” said city mayor Lou Rosamilia. “When we first heard about Breathing Lights, we immediately knew it was a way to literally shine a light on the issues of urban vacancy and community development. Breathing Lights is a creative way to engage residents and organizations across the region and produce meaningful transformation in our neighborhoods and cities.”
Find it: Hollywood
Inspiring message: Like famous English-based graffiti artist Banksy, the identity of WRDSMTH also remains somewhat elusive. No one knows who the person behind these witty remarks is, but we do know his gender based on his faceless Instagram. One website, Laist.com, recently took a crack at solving the mystery by piecing together these fun facts: WRDSMTH is a Cleveland-born L.A. transplant whose project began in 2014 with a daily mission of putting up one new wheatpaste poster and stencil (usually an old typewriter) featuring nuggets of wisdom or romantic, snarky, or funny quips. Some examples of WRDSMTH’s clever word-play include: “I have no luggage, but carry tons of baggage” (posted at the Los Angeles International Airport) and “Nobody puts baby in a corner” (placed strategically in, yes, a corner). “I write things on walls that I wished people would have said to me when I first moved here,” he told the LA Girl blog.
Artist: Luke Jerram
Find it: Canary Wharf, London as well as Hong Kong, China
Inspiring message: The cool concept first came to British artist Luke Jerram about seven years ago while sitting in his local laundromat as he explains on StreetPianos.com: “I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.” To date, more than 1,400 pianos have seemingly magically appeared in parks, markets, bus stations, and even on ferries in 47 cities worldwide. Every piano includes one message “Play Me, I’m Yours,” inviting anyone and everyone to tickle the ivories. Jerram likens this interactive social experiment to “a musical equivalent of Facebook designed to provoke people into engaging, activating, and claiming ownership of their urban landscape.”
Artist: Amy Reader
Find it: Richmond, Virginia
Inspiring message: This unique hanging art installation is composed of hundreds of crocheted wisteria vines—dangling yarn tendrils that, depending on the woman creating them, are thick, thin, long, short, and every color of the rainbow. The goal? To serve as “a representation of the strength, diversity, and individuality of women,” according to concept creator Amy Reader, who initially started the project as part of her Fine Arts undergraduate work at the University of Richmond. With an original ask of 100 vines, she received more than 400 from women around the globe.
Reader chose yarn as the medium because it’s a “conventional domestic material” with a reputation as something used by women who tend to stay home and care for others, according to her artist statement. She further adds, “Each piece that is crocheted will be unique to the creator. When they are all displayed together, it will be overwhelming, colorful and powerful…highlight[ing] the diversity of the female community and repurpose[ing] something that is thought of as belonging only in the home.”
Artist: Steve Powers
Find it: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Inspiring message: A string of 50 romantic rooftop murals spanning about 20 blocks along Philadelphia’s Market Street corridor “collectively express[es] a love letter from a guy to a girl, from an artist to his hometown, and from local residents to their neighborhood,” according to Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program’s website. The year-long project that was commissioned in the summer of 2009 required 1,200 cans of spray paint, 800 gallons of bucket paint, and 20 of the country’s best spray-painters to help make Steve Powers’ vision, A Love Letter for You, come to life. The Philadelphia-native, who is a graffiti artist and Fulbright scholar, sees the project as his “chance to put something on these rooftops that people would care about.”
12. The Tree is a City
Artists: Jennie Shanker and Eric Okdeh
Find it: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Inspiring message: Another star born out of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program is artist Eric Okdeh, who teamed up with youth, teachers, and community members to transform a local elementary school into a living, breathing piece of art. The Tree is a City is an uplifting “mix of paint and mosaic that emblazons the school’s institutional façades with trees, clouds, butterflies, birds, and flowers,” reports PhillyStyleMag.com. It features 3-D ceramic pieces from collaborator Jennie Shanker and a greening component that introduced plantings and tree-tending programs to the concrete schoolyard.
Okdeh also added a thoughtful high-tech component that allows viewers to use their smartphones to connect to audio clips and web posts via QR codes seamlessly embedded into the mural. “Using the Internet and technology is a great way to help people better figure out what the piece is about and make sure that the stories don’t die when the muralist isn’t around,” he explained to PhillyStyleMag.com.
13. Yarn Bomb
Artist: Susie Nicholson
Find it: St. Louis, MO
Inspiring message: “I was visiting St.Louis and installed this yarn bomb on Botanical Avenue,” says Nicholson. “The next day I was sitting in a cafe around the corner doing a yarn bomb there. A woman came in and asked if I did the yarn bomb on Botanical and I said yes. She told me there were several neighbors who had been feuding for a couple of years and she had just seen them standing around my yarn bomb chatting. Doesn’t get much better than that!” Art has the potential to fill the spaces between us.
14. Green Star Movement
Artist: Kamelia Hristeva
Find it: Chicago, Illinois
Inspiring message: Since 2005, Kamelia Hristeva’s Green Star Movement has brought mural arts programming to more than 5,000 mostly at-risk students. Together, they have turned gray concrete slabs, abandoned parks and deserted underpasses into glistening mirrored, colorfully grouted, ceramic-tiled urban canvases. The nonprofit partners with schools and neighborhoods to create urban public art projects throughout Chicago and abroad using a technique called bricolage, an intricate 3-D combination of mosaic, sculpture, painting, and photos that is accessible for artists of all ages and abilities as well as incredibly durable and resistant to vandalization.
Artist: Sharon S. Ma
Find it: Randall’s Island, New York
Inspiring message: Adele isn’t the only one reminding us of the power of “hello.” Sharon S. Ma’s 10-foot-tall sculpture artfully decorated with succulent plants, is also adding new meaning to the old greeting. Located at the base of the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge from Manhattan, this living art installation highlights “the enthusiasm and warmth generated by this simple five-letter word.” Ma first tested the succulents to ensure they wouldn’t be eaten by wildlife, and while she notes on FlowArtNYC.org that deer, squirrels, gopher, and other critters seem to stay away, some human visitors have been known to pluck a plant or two as a keepsake. Thankfully, most people are happy to snap a selfie and leave the vertical garden intact. “It’s been an interesting and amazing process so far,” Ma told the website. “People have been coming up to me, saying, ‘Hello,’ and asking about what I’m working on. To them, I say, ‘hello!’”