2021 has us all turning off the news and watching murder documentaries to relax, but now that springtime is around the corner, Ted Bundy can wait. Exploring the area’s art scene is a great way to get out of the house, breathe in some fresh air, and low-key brag about your adventurous spirit by posting some heavily edited pictures on Instagram. Here are seven lesser-known artsy-fartsy places that will put the fake pine tree cell phone tower in Cary to shame! (Did I mention they’re all free to visit?)
The Free Expression Tunnel
If you’re a student or an alumni of NC State, this probably isn’t news to you, so keep scrolling. For everyone else, listen up. According to Wikipedia, where I get all of my hard-hitting information, the Free Expression Tunnel is the “longest, widest and most heavily used pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks at North Carolina State University.” The tunnel, which goes under Yarbrough Drive, is also a free-for-all for graffiti artists. Literally ANYONE can bust out a can of neon spray paint and set their inner tagger free on the ceiling, walls, floor or anything you can reach. If you’re looking for a colorful and edgy backdrop for a photo op, this is it. Tip: Flag down a student to find out exactly where to go (it can be tricky to find if you’re unfamiliar with the campus). UNC and Duke fans: Tread with caution. You may or may not burst into flames.
Downtown Raleigh Murals
Grab some artisanal coffee, throw on a fashion scarf and hit the streets of downtown Raleigh on foot. Raleigh is currently exploding with Insta-worthy murals that are just begging to be explored, whether you’re into abstract, local, or social justice themed art. Some are large-scale commissions, but many beautiful pieces have organically and unexpectedly popped up on boarded-up windows and doors. Don’t worry about where to find them, because they are scattered around every corner. Tip: Kick your journey off by parking near Moore Square.
Old Carbonton Dam
If you’re up for a little drive, Sanford is sitting on one of the coolest graffiti treasures you’ve probably never seen. I found this not-so-little jewel while I was on an urban exploration kick during 2020 (judge not, lest you be judged), and it was SO worth the trip. Sitting just off of Carbonton Road on the banks of the Deep River, the old, tall powerhouse of the torn-down Carbonton Dam still stands. The surrounding area has been turned into a public park. Visitors are free to climb the iron steps into the heart of the powerhouse, decorated with colorful graffiti and boasting sweeping riverside views. Tip: Watch your step when climbing up the tower, and bring a can of spray paint if you’re feeling expressive.
St. Agnes Hospital
The ruins of St. Agnes Hospital on the Saint Augustine College campus in downtown Raleigh are architecturally beautiful. You can see the structure from the road, but I managed to get up-close-and-personal by asking the campus guard for permission to drive in (she said that was fine, provided I wore a mask). Brush up on your history before venturing out. This site, founded in 1896, was the only hospital and training school for African Americans in the southeast for nearly half a century and was declared a Raleigh Historic Landmark in 1979. TIP: Bring bug spray, and watch out for poison ivy — this place is no joke.
The Pope House Museum
It’s not a place for graffiti, but The Pope House puts the “art” in artifacts! In addition to being one of the oldest standing buildings on Wilmington Street, the Pope House is the only African American house museum in the state of North Carolina. Admission to the house is free and includes the original furnishings and artwork that belonged to Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, the “only African-American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the midst of the Jim Crow Era,” as per the museum’s website.
Duke’s Free Expression Bridge
Similar to NC State, Duke also has an outlet for artistic spontaneity, but in the form of a bridge. The paintings on the bridge are mostly done by students. If you are interested in painting in and around the bridge, check out the rules listed on Duke University’s Student Affairs page. TIP: Opposing team fans beware,
and bring a rosary and holy water.
Self-Guided Chapel Hill Mural Tour
Chapel Hill has over 150 works of indoor and outdoor art for the public to enjoy via a self-guided walking tour. Check out the town of Chapel Hill’s website for a handy-dandy map and specific information about each and every public mural, complete with important walking and biking tips — I know, it’s so bougie. Chapel Hill never disappoints!
For MORE tips about the local art scene, don’t come to me. Seriously, this is all I’ve got.