Multisensory Artist Captures New York City’s Distinctive Scents

Smellmap Amsterdam courtesy of Kate McLean.
Kate McLean, Smellmap Amsterdam. Photo Kat McLean.

Kate McLean, Smellmap Amsterdam.
Courtesy Kate McLean.

You’ve heard about multimedia artists, now get ready for the multisensory artist: Kate McLean, a British “sensory designer,” is traversing New York City with a nose and an eye toward creating a visual illustration of colorful swirls to capture the distinctive and pungent scents of its distinctive streetscapes, reports Gothamist.

McLean’s “Sensory Maps” series has already tackled such cities as Paris, Milan, Glasgow, and Newport, Rhode Island, discovering that each has its own unique olfactory character. The artist has found that Amsterdam, for instance, smells largely of canal water, coffee, and sweet waffles, but not marijuana, and that malt from Edinburgh’s breweries dominates the city’s smellscape. So far, she told the New York Times, New York is largely characterized by “a warm, musty smell that comes from the cellar.”

The Times accompanied McLean on a recent Williamsburg Smellwalk, where intrepid tour participants did their best to identify individual odors on a steamy summer day, purposely sniffing out the urine, body odor, and rotting garbage scents that usually cause seasoned New Yorkers to wrinkle their nose and quicken their pace. Instead, the Smellwalkers took detailed notes about the strong garlic aroma emanating from one sewer grate, the ever-present car exhaust, and scent of blended wheatgrass wafting out from the local juicebars.

McLean has definitely sniffed worse, such as the infamous stretch of Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge, singled out by New York magazine in 2011 as the worst-smelling block in the city. McLean’s smellmap identifies timber and sawdust, cheap perfume, and trash among the street’s strongest odors.

“It’s a completely different way of knowing the world,” McLean told the Times about her unusual mission, which will take her next to Pamplona, Spain.


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