11 of the Most Legendary Pieces of Public Art in the World

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Art isn’t a stuffy thing that belongs in a museum.

Whether it makes a political statement or brings joy to the people who see it, the sign of a great piece of art is that it’s engaging for everybody—particularly those who don’t actively seek it out.

With that in mind, some of the world’s most interesting art is on the streets and easily accessible. Bringing art to the street is a challenging task, and it takes a great artist to make an endearing piece of public art.

The best work integrates into its location somehow. If locals nickname it, take pictures with it and fight for its preservation, the work of art becomes something greater than a sculpture. It becomes an emblem of a city, its people, and its culture.

From Chicago to Japan, these 11 statues, fountains, and paintings are some of the finest examples of public art in the world.


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Cloud Gate, Chicago

Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”, known colloquially as "The Bean" is a perfect example of when public art becomes part of the fabric of a city. The instillation in Millennium Park has become an identifier of the city and a top tourist destination (especially as a place to take distorted selfies and photos of the skyline). In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Kapoor admitted that he now calls the sculpture “The Bean,” too.


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East Side Gallery, Berlin

Although it’s cliche to say that the most beautiful art can come from the ugliest places, it’s hard to argue with the maxim at the East Side Gallery. The open-air collection of murals is made from the remnants of the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down in 1989, artists from around the world flocked to this 1,316-meter segment. There are works from 102 artists represented in the collection, which is free and accessible to the public 24/7.


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LOVE, Philadelphia

The city of brotherly love has adopted Robert Indiana’s iconic 1976 “LOVE” statue as its emblem. The park where it lives has been renamed as “Love Park” and replicas of the statue appear on Philadelphia t-shirts, jewelry, and magnets. The sculpture has had a rollercoaster relationship with the city. When it first appeared, some locals called it tacky. It disappeared after two years but came back after the public got upset and said they missed it. Now the city’s image is almost inseparable from its pop art installation.


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Parc Guell, Barcelona

Antoni Gaudi’s “Parc Guell” is perhaps one of the most successful, immersive public art installations of all time. The 45-acre park has some of the best views (and most interesting architecture) in all of Barcelona. Construction on the public park started in 1900 and continued until 1914, but it wasn’t until 1926 that it opened as a public park. Gaudi had originally intended that the park be a gated community for 60 families. Today, many more people get to enjoy the attraction as an estimated annual 2.9 million tourists visit the park annually.


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Maman, London

Outside the Tate Museum, a giant arachnid looms on spindly, larger-than-life legs. Although there are several different castings of this sculpture, the one in London is the original and the only one made of steel. Although it may seem ominous, the story of the spider is actually one of love. Louise Bourgeois used the motif to honor her mother (whom she called her best friend), who wove tapestries. She chose the spider as representation because her mother was “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” Everything is a matter of perspective.


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Pumpkin, Naoshima, Japan

Yayoi Kusama has become known for her immersive works of colorful, enchanting art. But her sculpture in Naoshima is fantastic because it thrusts visitors into a world of nothingness. Behind Kusama’s gigantic yellow pumpkin, there is nothing but water. The sculpture has become a destination and a must-see stop for visitors to Naoshima.


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Flying Balloon Girl, West Bank

Banksy has become almost a caricature of himself. But in 2005, he visited the West Bank Barrier and left a simple, touching work of art. The image of a young girl, floating to the top of the wall and suspended only by balloons has become an icon on the Palestinian side of the wall. A walk along the wall will reveal at least nine Banksy pieces, each of which deals with themes of peace, barriers, and escapism.


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Mission District Murals, San Francisco

If you want to pack as much art in as little time as possible, Mission District has one of the highest concentrations of public murals in the world. Balmy Alley’s constantly-changing circuit of murals is the place to start. It’s also one of the oldest “galleries” in the district, with a roster of art that dates back to the mid-1980s. The alleyway also inspired the nearby Clarion Alley, where the art often has political, social, or economic purpose.  


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The Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest

This touching piece of public art by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer sits on the bank of the Danube and invites viewers to reflect on the past, no matter how unpleasant. The memorial was made in 2005 to honor the 20,000 killed by fascist militia (who worked in cooperation with the Nazis) in 1944 and 1945 on the banks of the river. The victims were forced to remove their shoes. Then they were shot, falling into the Danube where their bodies were washed away. Now 60 pairs of iron shoes are forever on the riverbank in their memory.


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Stravinsky Fountain, Paris

Just outside the walls of the Centre Pompidou contemporary art museum, another work of art draws visitors with bright swatches of color and whimsical splashes of water. Niki de Saint Phalle created the 16 sculptures, inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” that dance around the black basin. Her husband, Jean Tinguely, mechanized the colorful works, which he designed to dance “like street performers” for the passersby. It was installed in the Place Stravinsky in 1983.


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La Joute, Montreal

“La Joute” translates into English as “the joust,” but you may hear people refer to this work of art as the “fountain of fire.” It was created by Jean-Paul Riopelle in 1969, ahead of the Montreal Olympics in 1976. It relocated to the Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle in downtown Montreal in 2003 so it could be seen by more visitors. The fire fountain is one of Montreal’s most spectacular attractions as it smokes and splashes each night. When you visit, plan to get to the fountain a few minutes before the hour as the fountain puts on a kinetic spectacle—the display happens from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the summer and lasts 32 minutes.