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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 20 statues, fountains, and paintings are some of the finest examples of public art in the world.
Jeff Koons’ balloon sculptures made him a household name, but the artist is also known for representing everyday objects in various media. In 1992, Koons created an enormous sculpture of a West Highland terrier and covered it in colorful bedding plants. The work of art is now on display outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Puppy was inspired by 18th-century English gardens and juxtaposes high- and low-brow references, such as topiary and dog breeding.
Les Voyageurs, Marseilles
Bruno Catalano’s gravity-defying sculptures, Les Voyageurs, were created in 2013 to celebrate Marseilles’ status as the European capital of culture. The 10 surrealist works of art are displayed along the city’s waterfront and are partly inspired by Catalano’s life. The artist was born in Morocco, but his family was forced to immigrate to Marseille when he was a teenager. “Coming from Morocco myself, I carried these suitcases full of memories that I represent so often. They do not only contain images but also experiences, desires: my roots in motion,” the artist wrote on his website.
Vigeland Sculpture Park, Norway
More than 200 pieces in bronze, granite, and cast iron are displayed in the world’s largest sculpture park by a single artist. It took Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland 20 years to create all of them, after which he donated the sculptures to the city of Oslo (Vigeland also designed the architectural outline of the park itself). While some of the statues have proven somewhat controversial, such as Man Attacked by Babies, which represents a naked man fighting off four flying babies, the sculptures are a study of the human form—something that Vigeland dedicated his entire life to. The park now receives more than one million visitors per year.
Franz Kafka's Head, Prague
There are many reasons to visit Prague, and Czech artist David Cerny’s modern works of art are certainly one of them. The controversial sculptor rose to prominence in 1991 after he painted a memorial Soviet tank in pink. Since then, Cerny’s kinetic works of art have been installed all around the globe (including one in North Carolina, METALmorphosis), but most of them are on display in the Czech capital. In 2014, he created Franz Kafka's Head, a 36-foot tall bust of the writer, comprised of 42 constantly moving layers of stainless steel representing Kafka’s tortured self.
Prada Marfa, Texas
Berlin-based artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset are behind the hyper-realistic sculpture of a Prada boutique alongside Highway 90 in the Chihuahuan Desert. The fake store was installed in 2005 as a commentary of commercialism and gentrification and has since turned into a Texas landmark. The structure is made from adobe bricks covered in white stucco. Inside, 20 high-heeled right shoes and several Prada handbags, curated by Miuccia Prada herself from the brand’s fall 2005 collection, are displayed on shelves and pedestals.
Statue of Liberty, New York City
Arguably one of the most famous examples of public art in the world, the Statue of Liberty has become a symbol of its home city, the United States, and the universal strive for freedom and human rights. The 305-foot statue was famously given by the people of France to the United States to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our country’s independence. French politician Edouard Laboulaye tasked sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi with the massive project that took 13 years to complete. The statue, which was initially named "La Liberté Éclairant Le Monde" (Liberty Enlightening the World), was put together in France and then disassembled and moved to Liberty Island.
Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minneapolis
When it comes to iconic (and playful) pieces of public art, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture is a true classic. Located at Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the massive aluminum-and-stainless-steel fountain sculpture was partially inspired by van Bruggen’s joyous moments during a childhood spent under the shadow of World War II.
Escadaria Selarón, Brazil
The Selarón steps are one of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous landmarks and arguably the city’s most beautiful staircase. It is the work of Chilean-born ceramic artist and painter Jorge Selaron, who moved to Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood in the ‘80s. One day, he noticed that the stairs across from his house needed renovation, so he started covering the steps with brightly hued tiles. Little by little, his pastime project turned into the most important work of art. You may notice that yellow, green, and blue are dominant colors—Selarón wanted to honor Brazil and its people by using the country’s flag shades. Interestingly enough, as his project gained notoriety, people started sending him tiles from all over the world to incorporate into the staircase, which makes Escadaria Selarón a great example of participatory art.
Parque das Nações, Portugal
Between the vibrant azulejos tiles that decorate many of its houses and street art-covered buildings, Lisbon feels like an open-air museum, but one neighborhood stands out with its monumental (and we mean this both figuratively and literally) display of modern architecture and public art. The Parque das Nações was built for the World Expo in 1998 and features buildings by Pritzker-winning architects and dozens of works of art by local and international artists. Among the highlights are a 66-foot high human-like sculpture, Homem Sol, by Portuguese artist Jorge Vieira, British artist Antony Gormley’s Rizoma, depicting nine life-size human figures fitting into each other as a symbol of unity among humans, artist Pedro Proença’s cobblestone mosaic Sea Monsters, and, of course, the six colorful water “volcanoes” by WET Design/Risco that erupt water 1,500 times per day.
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.
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.
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.
Parc Güell, Barcelona
Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell 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. Gaudí 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.