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February 12, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 2:29pm

How street artists reimagine city maps

By City Monitor Staff

What counts as a map? Cartographical purists certainly wouldn’t recognise much in the displays at Mapping the City, a new exhibition at London’s Somerset House.

The walls of the newly re-opened New Wing, still raw and unpainted, are covered by a mishmash of brightly coloured canvases. The exhibit’s floor is partly taken up by a large orange teepee and a cardboard cartoon figure.

The exhibition asked over 50 street and graffiti artists to create a work on the theme of “the city”. Some played with city maps; others highlighted features of urban architecture. While the artworks and maps featured wouldn’t be much use if you needed to find the central train station or a pharmacy, they do say a lot about the cities themselves and the artists’ perception of them. Here are a few of our favourites. 

1. Manhattan

Momo: “Tag Manhattan”, 2013. Click for a larger image. 

This work is by a street artist called MOMO (if you look closely, the line on the map spells it out), and is actually a recreation of a stunt he pulled in 2006. Using orange paint, he drew a thin, 8 mile line, using the streets of Manhattan to make up the letters of his tag.

Another piece in the exhibition, Brad Downey’s “Face”, uses a similar device: the streets of Chicago are used to form the face of an elderly man.

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2. Bangkok

Swoon: “Bangkok”, 2009-2012. Click for a larger image. 

This cutout of a woman apparently perched atop a tower of Bangkok stilt houses was created by Brooklyn street artist Swoon. She specialises in “street pasting” – sticking images of friends or family on abandoned buildings and street signs around the world – and has said she’s fascinated by the “relationship of people to their built environment”. 

3. Los Angeles

Augustine Kofie: “Overcast Angeles”, 2014. Click for a larger image. 

Augustine Kofie has been on the LA graffiti scene since the mid-90s. His work tends to use found or everyday materials – the work above is made from yardsticks, ballpoint pen, correction fluid and recycled maps and pieces of paper. 

4. Buenos Aires

Chu: “Buenos Aires”, 2012. Click for a larger image. 

Chu was part of a mid-2000s Buenos Aires street art movement which replaced propaganda and pictures of politicians with huge, colourful works of street art. He told BrooklynStreetArt, a graffiti and street art website, that for this piece, he wanted to create a personalised transport map:  

I tried to create a map of Buenos Aires marking my usual movements around the city. I am used to moving around it a lot, from one side to other, and sometimes it is really chaotic and stressful. However it is also really where I get a lot of inspiration

Probably not much use of you’re a tourist, mind.

5. Beijing

Eltono: “Promenades”, 2014. Click for a larger image. 

Like Chu’s and piece, this sculpture takes the visual symbolism of public transport maps and uses it to track the movements of the individual. El Tono took several walks through Beijing, tracked them on his phone GPS, then turned them into wooden cutouts. 

Mapping the City is on show at Somerset House until 15 February. 

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