Istanbul’s art scene is booming. Aside from the big museums, you can find entire districts full of private galleries and pop-up stores. But if you take a closer look in the winding streets, you will find one or the other piece of jewelry on the rough walls of Beyoglu, Çukurcuma and Kadiköy. Looking for the best street art Istanbul.
Our Istanbul city tour of a special kind begins at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, that old boulevard that runs straight through Beyoglu, from the nostalgic Tünel funicular to Taksim Square.
We meet Kerem, our tour guide for today. His broad grin cannot be overlooked from afar. Soon we will find out the reason for this: he is simply happy that someone has decided against the classic city tour and for the alternative way of getting to know Istanbul. Strolling through the hottest districts with someone of the same age, instead of being driven through the Grand Bazaar in an anonymous tour group, are advantages that we quickly learn to appreciate.
Here we go – and along Istiklal Street to the north. It doesn’t take long before you notice Kerem’s street art expertise. Every few meters he points with his finger at another work of art, sometimes down a dark side street, sometimes up to the gable. At the same time it just gushes out of him. Who the artist is, what makes his style unmistakable, when the work was created or how rival artists react to each other – like a walking street art lexicon, Kerem enlightens us about the alternative art scene in Istanbul.
Then we turn off the busy shopping street and quickly lose ourselves in the narrow streets. Only Kerem does not seem to be lost, on the contrary, one has the impression that he knows the whole area like the back of his hand. And this vest that he wears is anything but hip, it could rather have come from his grandfather’s closet. Being hip in the trendy districts of Istanbul is apparently by no means defined by brand names.
Speaking of brands: the artistic side of Galata between Taksim and Tünel is particularly diverse and contradicting at the same time. We pass pearly white Mercedes, parked in backyards, which with their brightly colored graffiti are more reminiscent of Brooklyn, draped there as if for a catalog shoot. We discover house walls, adorned by the grim-looking pandas from the spray can by visual artist Leo Lunatic, alongside classic street art quotes such as “Make Art, Not War”.
And of course we spot the Space Invaders by French street artist Invader here in Istanbul, who is known for immortalizing characters from the shoot-’em-up game of the same name as mosaic pictures on walls all over the world. Highlights of Turkish and Ottoman culture also find their influence in street art in Istanbul, such as the dance of the whirling dervishes.
While we stroll through the area, we listen to Kerem’s stories, which give us a deep insight into the scene. He reports on rival street art gangs who respond to each other with works of art. Or about the new way of dealing with social media in the art scene. Namely when graffiti artists start to tag their works not only with a tag, but also with their username on Instagram. Or when artists go one step further and sell their art to big brands like Converse or Tommy Hilfiger. Anonymous artists become social media stars, art becomes commerce. We also chat about the finiteness of the works and about a scene that, probably for precisely this reason, is constantly reinventing itself.
Street Art Istanbul: When does art turn into commerce?
So many impressions make you tired. So we sit down in a street café, one of Kerem’s favorite cafés, of course. We enjoy a freshly brewed Turkish mocha on wooden stools so small that an ass cheek can fit on them. Coffee makes you talkative, we will soon notice. Because our conversation suddenly takes an unexpected turn, away from art, towards more everyday topics such as work, hobbies and life in Istanbul in 2016. Who would have thought that one could exchange ideas so well in the ten minutes of a coffee break.
At least now, when the initial teething problems are a thing of the past, we set out on the cobblestone path down to the Galata district and the Galata Tower. Even here, on the touristic, old part of the city fortifications, we discover street art that we would probably never have noticed before. Suddenly there are completely new perspectives on one of the city’s most photographed sights.
A few meters further in the direction of the harbor it suddenly crouches in front of us: a prime example of the Cats of Istanbul, the cat species that has had thousands of fans and admirers on the Internet for years, even on its own Instagram channels. The specimen we come across has an elegant, red fur, sits high on a wall and ponders Kafkaesque down to the Golden Horn, gazing across to Eminönü. We almost think that we can recognize a melancholy expression on the cat’s face, so perfectly is its face embedded in this postcard motif.
Back to art. And so on to Kadikoy, on the other side of the city. At the Galata Bridge, where the air seems torn by the acrid smell of the fish and the intrusive shouts of the sellers, we take the ferry to Asia. We won’t get bored on the half-hour drive. The game of seagulls with the flying pieces of bread of an overzealous passenger is too entertaining. And the warming Çay tastes too good in the hand.
Kadiköy surprises us with a completely different kind of art: huge wall murals, i.e. wall paintings that sometimes stretch across entire house facades. To our amazement, the idea behind it was originally a community initiative. As part of the Mural Istanbul Street Art Festival, well-known artists were invited to immortalize themselves with a work in the streets of Kadikoy. The result is gigantic works of art, which were not only lovingly implemented and sometimes took days of detailed work, but often even contain subtle social criticism. For example the work by the French illustrator Amose, which shows a refugee mother with her daughter.
It is here in Kadiköy that you really become aware of the wide variety of street art. Because street art can be anything, from a small, quickly sprayed day to the use of mosaic technology to elaborately designed wall paintings.
As the approaching evening leans over the Bosphorus in the warmest red tones, we make our way back to the ferry and over to the European part of Istanbul. What remains after almost six hours of walking around the stand in Istanbul are thousands of impressions of non-commercial art in public space, of long conversations about its transience and the realization that the alternative variant of a tour of the stand can sometimes be the more instructive one.
Anekdotique was a guest of Istanbul Tour Studio on their One Day Street Art Tour. A complete travel guide for Turkey with all the sights and interesting facts can be found in the Travelers Archive – as well as a travel report about the Sumela Monastery on the Black Sea coast and a very special cooking course in Turkish cooking in Istanbul.
Want to go looking for Street Art Istanbul yourself? It is worth taking a look at the Street Art in Istanbul app (iPhone and Android) – it not only guides users to the best works of art in the city with an Istanbul Street Art Map, but also clearly explains everything there is to know about the creation and the respective street artist .