Don't be afraid to take a stroll down "Freak Alley" or one of these other splashy, colorful mural walks.
Spend time in any major U.S. city that celebrates the arts and you’ll likely see a few splashy murals as you drive or walk the streets—nods to the local culture and history, no doubt. The newest incarnations of street art are alleys—costing nothing to enter and entirely outdoors—exploding with bright paint, a montage of several different artists contributing to the effort. Because these are in urban areas, this represents a total transformation of tight, cramped spaces formerly clouded in grit and darkness.
From Buffalo, New York, to sunny Los Angeles, here are 10 art alleys you must check out on your next urban trip. Pro tip: charge up your phone or camera because you’ll definitely be snap and click-happy once you arrive. And if this isn’t your first trip to one of these alleys, don’t expect to see the art you saw before. Murals rotate as frequently as the local art museum’s shows, bringing in new perspectives.
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Black Cat Alley
WHERE: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
This pedestrian-only alley on the city’s East Side received its makeover in 2016 and now hosts 21 murals by 24 artists. Not all are in the Badger State: the muralists’ talent extends to Berlin, Germany; Philadelphia; and Los Angeles. Black Cat Alley has become so popular—especially for couples on their wedding day—that it’s spawned fun businesses a few steps away, like Sip & Purr Cat Café and a food hall (Crossroads Collective) with traditional food menus as colorful as these mural walls.
WHERE: Boise, Idaho
Nestled in Idaho’s largest city’s North End downtown, this is one of the country’s earliest alley murals—it dates back to 2002. It’s often dubbed the Pacific Northwest’s largest outdoor art gallery, too. Like many street-art projects, the process begins with one work and expands from there. In this case, it was a commission outside the Moon’s Kitchen Café.
WHERE: Buffalo, New York
In 2017 a member of Buffalo’s city council worked with Albright-Knox Art Gallery to kickstart this project, launching with Bunnie Reiss’ “Magic Buffalo” on the side of Joe’s Deli. While definitely on a wider stretch than other alleys on this list (this is technically a street), experiencing Hertel Walls means keeping your eyes open while you stroll as some are more tucked away than others. Works are by a healthy mix of Buffalo artists as well as ones from São Paulo, Brazil; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Art Alley at Sawyer Yards
WHERE: Houston, Texas
Born out of abandoned warehouses, Sawyer Yards is one of the country’s most established creative communities, spanning Houston’s First Ward and Arts District Houston. Fourteen artists collaborated on an 800-foot-long mural and Daniel Anguilu’s newest mural is on the side of Winter Street Studios. Seventy creative businesses and 350 artists make their home here. On the second Saturday of each month, artists open their studios to the public.
WHERE: Little Rock, Arkansas
At East 6th and Main Streets, behind the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the state’s largest city hosts a plein-air arts exhibit that includes art-reproduction door murals. Icons like Jimi Hendrix and Mr. Rogers are some examples. Baker’s Alley is just one street-art locale in downtown Little Rock. Little Rock’s tourism site features them all in one place, in a self-guided mural tour.
WHERE: Knoxville, Tennessee
This initiative in downtown Knoxville matches up participating businesses (who have alley space) with muralists. You’ll find Strong Alley between Union and Wall Avenues, off Market Square. Want to go deeper? There’s even a walking map of all of Knoxville’s murals—in alleys, stairwells, and on walls—here.
Clarion Alley Mural Project
WHERE: San Francisco, California
Going by the acronym CAMP and around since 1992, this alley spans one block in the Mission District and is so extensive there are two tours offered (currently only for school groups, and either 45 minutes or two hours), led by the artists themselves. Works are mostly in support of social, economic, racial, and environmental justice initiatives.
WHERE: San Francisco, California
As a reaction to human-rights abuse in Central America, this collection of murals—also in the Mission District, off of 24th Street and parallel to Treat Avenue and Harrison Street—rolled out during the mid-1980s. That social-justice theme continues today with newer works. It’s easy to experience the art on a self-guided tour. Every November 2, to celebrate the Day of the Dead, a parade of people in costume and carrying altars in ode to their loved ones ends at Balmy Alley.
Gabba Alley Project
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
A passion project of Gabba Gallery co-owner Jason Ostro, with a mission to beautify trash-strewn alleys, four alleys are tied together under the Gabba Alley Project, three of which are in Historic Filipinotown. The other is in Echo Park. A handy map with directions to the alleys, as well as a suggested walking tour, is here. After you’ve seen the murals, and want to know more, bios and images of the 28 muralists’ work are published on the website.
Madison Mural Alley
WHERE: Madison, Wisconsin
What’s different about this art-alley project is that it paired Madison teens (including ones at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center and the Dane County Juvenile Court Shelter Home) with more established artists (from Detroit; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and throughout Wisconsin). Funded by the Madison Arts Commission, the five murals were organized by Madison Public Library.
I'm not sure why Philadelphia isn't included in this list. The city of Philadelphia may not have one street with murals, but there are over 3600 murals throughout the city. Muralart.org offers numerous tours to see some of the murals in the city.