Street Art is about expression, creativity, freedom, asking and raising questions. Its imagery instills thought, even if it’s about protesting or analysing our society of today. To many, it’s beautifying an area, a space, an empty space, and it’s a way to step beyond normal conventions and a freedom in displaying art in the street.
It has become the backdrop for fashion shots, selfies, but more importantly, it is now accepted that the creative and talented people involved are seen as artists and not as vandals. Their work, although created with spray cans and paint, is more than worthy of being considered art. People are becoming more open-minded to the imagery of street art and appreciating where this art form has come from. Brightening up a dreary commute, art on the street reminds us to feel alive.
Graffiti versus Street Art
Graffiti predates street art and street art draws its inspiration from graffiti. Graffiti is word-based and its ‘writers’ are mostly self-taught. It began as a type of self-expression for urban youth, some say ‘Graffiti Art’ is elaborate and figurative graffiti combined with images. ‘Street art’ or ‘art on the street’ is relatable, more acceptable. Its use of more elaborate imagery has been attributed to this acceptability and public approval.
This art has received artistic recognition with the high-profile status of Banksy and other artists. Which has led street art locations to become one of the ‘places to visit’ in many European cities.
The Berlin Wall was one of the largest canvasses in the world
The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to separate West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War. In the 1980s, the wall was reconstructed and made 14 feet tall. Graffiting on the wall became popular for artists from all over the world and a place where tourists would go and admire the artwork. The West Berlin side of the wall had artwork completely covering the wall, while the East Berlin side was kept blank because people were not permitted to get close enough to the eastside of the wall to paint anything. All the differences between the countries made it a perfect place for people to express their opinions, especially on their preferences and dislikes.
Street Art in Ireland
Murals were a symbol of the North of Ireland, using the city’s walls to create murals in both Derry and Belfast, it is believed that almost 2,000 murals have been documented since the 1970s. Although there still are depictions of political expressions, views and the marking of territory, Belfast’s display of political statements have now started to change into other forms of expression, a place where street art has flourished, attracting artists from around the world to come and paint.
With Social Media, it’s now easier to find artists’ work
With Social Media, it’s now easier to find artists’ work and why they do what they do. But a lot of street artists prefer to remain anonymous or use aliases for both privacy and legal reasons.
I spoke to ‘Decoy’, one of Ireland’s mural artists about his involvement in the ‘Grey Area Project’ and how ‘Street Art’ has progressed.
“Artists such as James Earley, Maser, Conor Harrington are bridging from the mural world into the fine art world. They’re still leading the way for the second generation of street artists.”
“Street Art in Ireland has been a twenty, twenty five year story, in Paris or New York or London it has been a forty or fifty year story.”
His favourite of his recent series is ‘Jungle Explorer’. It was about childhood imagination, exploring and the creativeness of a child.
Originally trained as a Sculptor in Dublin City, he has also worked with other great artists such as Maser and Solus. Emphasising the importance of community and inclusion within the street art scene, we spoke about one of his other favourite pieces, ‘Under The Surf’.
“The piece was inspired by the surf in the area. Although I predesign all my pieces, there were so many people in the area that got involved, creating a community vibe, so as much as I was proud of the piece, I was proud of the story of how it happened.”
How has Street Art developed in Ireland?
“In these modern times, there have been a lot of artists that have come out from the graffiti background. There is a lot of learning that goes on that people don’t see happening. All of a sudden, people who were doing graffiti when they were a kid, learn that they can actually do a painting, a mural of a person or even a text piece, which allows them to express how they feel about something.”
In 2016 he changed his moniker to ‘Decoy’. He used to paint murals in college, finding some work creating art for restaurants, but didn’t think there was a career in it. Becoming a carpenter, working on furniture and boats, he then went to America, but couldn’t work as a carpenter because of his visa.
Going back to painting, he realised when working with other bigger artists that they were selling their work for better money. During the lock-down periods, he explored new and interesting shapes to include in his art-work.
Words of advice in starting to paint murals
“If you’re really just starting out, practice on the garden wall. Do a lot of drawing, get ready for something bigger by painting on something like larger sheets. Find those places that seem to be painted over regularly and just practice. No one can tell where they are, but if you want to get out and you want to get into it, you’ll find them. Walk around the streets, get a feel for an area and just go with it.”
‘Decoy’ will be adding to his YouTube channel, which will include timelapse footage of his work documenting how he paints his murals. He has also just finished a collaboration with Holly Pereira titled ‘River Cat’.
Planning laws are too restrictive
Many people involved in Ireland’s street art scene complain that planning laws are too restrictive and make it extremely difficult for artists to publicly display their creations.
‘Decoy’ told me that through research and city planners, they found information that allowed an easier way for them to find space to paint. He had been invited to be involved in the Grey Area Project by Subset. The Grey Area Project is a collaboration of artists creating works across the city who hope to change the laws surrounding large-scale public artwork in Ireland. This brought them onto the Grey Area exhibitions, raising funds for homelessness.
In 2015, Joe Caslin used the streets to provoke debate with his marriage equality piece on Georges Street. His depiction of two men holding each other was to simplify the conversation on Marriage Equality.
Before the Charities Regulator deemed the Maser mural on the Project Arts Centre a ‘political activity’, The Charities Regulator had informed the Project Arts Centre that the display of Maser’s ‘Repeal the 8th’ artwork is ‘political activity’ and that the Centre is therefore in breach of the Charities Act 2009 and not in line with Project Arts Centre ‘charitable purpose’. Should the artwork not be removed, the Project Arts Centre risks losing its charitable status,” the statement said.
Medical staff at University Hospital Galway had denied her request for an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage on the grounds that granting her request would be illegal under Irish law, ultimately resulting in her death from septic miscarriage. The mural had empty space on either side, it became a message board for the public, with flowers left at the base of the mural. This was created for the public, and then they took ownership of it.
Aches worked with Maser on the ‘U ARE ALIVE *’ mural which is a well-known piece of art just a few minutes away from his Savita piece on South Richmond Street, on the wall of the Simon Community charity shop.
A Sense of Community
In 2015 Edel Tobin started work on her idea to transform Waterford City. Waterford city had become run down, and she wanted to bring some colour back into the city. Although many didn’t like seeing the spray cans and painting on walls, locals eventually came to love how it brightened up Waterford.
Waterford Walls Festival is now in its third year. And although this has involved murals and art mainly on buildings, they are looking at structures besides walls in the future like seating.
Edel said “Art brings a smile to people’s faces, it encourages conversation in the community. Waterford is a beautiful historic city but there is more to a city than just the architecture. It is about people and how to engage people.”
Street art is important to keep urban areas and their residents energised and inspired
Street art is important to keep urban areas and their residents energised and inspired. In some areas artists and building owners come together to foster the creation of artwork that can be viewed as beautifying and reviving a city, rather than destroying it.
In some cities independent graffiti murals are designed and implemented by artists with a personal connection to the neighbourhood in which they are installed. In many of the cases these pieces are created with the permission of the building owner. This relationship can then help develop positive interactions between businesses and members of their community. It is a very cost-effective way both to keep surfaces free from vandalism and to create visual cues to residents that the place they call home is desirable.
Graffiti and street art has always had a history of being influenced by the present political and social issues. A lot of people have painted on the walls and buildings in their cities as a form of anonymous political protest. But you need to have planning permission for any murals that are erected or painted, unless the owner of the property gives permission.
Subset are an anonymous independent thinking art collective
They have a name which is invaluable for exposure and engagement with organisations and entities. Working very hard as a team, with all having a similar vision, which is not the same, but aligned. With clients such Brown Thomas, Teeling Whiskey, Rascals Brewing Company and several independent businesses across Dublin, they try to monetise certain aspects of what they do to keep the types of work they do, work that is important to them, alive.
Subset, a name that came from within the team, with the thought that it would be fitting for a group of people, who do a group of things. It began in 2013, a couple of people with some ideas on what they want to achieve in the field of art and culture.
Grey Area Project
“We started the project based on the fact that Dublin City Council (DCC) were requesting the removal of multiple artworks that we and others had painted. We decided after substantial amounts of research into public art, both here in Dublin and further afield, to create this project. In Ireland it’s the planning and development act, in other countries, it’s licensing agreements, in other countries there is no need for any type of permission structure. It all depends on the city and the specific place, there are nuances and subtleties with each community, and you have to take heed of that and what people want. There were 180 artworks created for this project, the power of the community and the culture, showcasing to the wider community in the city, in the country, the impact that artwork can have, that was our proudest moment.”
What was Subset’s aim?
“The main aim was initially was to shine a light on the situation with Dublin City Council, then as we started to progress, painting more and more artworks, it actually changed direction in that it became more of trying to raise money for Inner City Helping Homeless, that became a more important cause than the initial one.”
Tagging of work, people painting over existing art works
“It depends on what it is they’ve painted, is it considered good amongst your peers, did it earn the respect of other people so it doesn’t get replaced quickly, that sort of determines the length of time. But these pieces are mostly transient stuff, there are no rules so to speak, so it’s more a piece by piece basis.”
Their beginnings, their art
“Our first piece was ‘Stormzy’, that was the first time we announced ourselves. What keeps us going is the fact we have multiple people that have different drives, different motivations, and they all prop one another up. And that’s the great thing about being a team, about being a collective. During the Covid-19 lockdown period, it gave us time to rest, have conversations about what we are going to do and how to do it.”
Subset now sit on a panel with Dublin City Council
“They’re decent people, they want to see improvements in Dublin city. But it’s a much bigger mechanism and system, this is what we take exception with, not with the individuals, but with the bureaucracy. We put together a whole framework for Dublin City Council, a 40 page document, proposed licensing agreement which we did in collaboration with architecture firm GoKu. They did all the work pro bono, because they felt that the more artwork that is brought to the city, the better. Other cities mentioned in the document such as Lisbon, who are a stand out example. Their policy is more relaxed, once you have permission from the land or building owner, as long as you’re not producing anything that is derogatory or defamatory.”
Get out and see these pieces with your own eyes
“It’s completely different seeing something on a phone, than seeing it in person. You can’t really appreciate the craft, the skill, the brush strokes, depth and the ability of an artist from your phone. Social media is not real, it’s ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, you can’t buy groceries with ‘likes’ and ‘followers’. It’s a world where people are considering your value based on your online clout, so we wiped the decks on all our social media and website.”
“We’ve done nothing compared to what we know we can do. It takes time, we’ve ran before, we’re not going to make that same mistake again. It’s very easy to get hyped up on what you’re doing and allow that in itself to distract you, there should always be that anchor. Everything that was in the past is in the past, when the time is right, we’ll start to communicate that.”
Another public art project, Dublin Canvas, involves various artists from all walks of life, painting Dublin’s traffic light control boxes in their own designs.
Commencing in 2013, Dublin City Council did a trial run using 11 traffic signal boxes on the Northside of Dublin. This project was so successful that they decided to run the project on a larger scale. Initially there was a call out to participants to submit artwork for the boxes. There’s a huge variety of styles throughout the city by illustrators, stencil artists, graphic designers, fine artists and street artists.
There is a story to everything
With a huge attraction to the visual world, JayFik was a hobbyist photographer and attended Film School before he took on the art world. Stating the overlap within the different aspects of photography, film and visual art, he was always fascinated by the narrative, he said “there is a story to everything. “
He was one of those artists that brought some colour to our streets in conjunction with the Dublin Canvas project . He had just left Ballyfermot College, studying design and illustration, with Phil Lynott becoming his first piece to be painted as part of Dublin Canvas.
“Someone mentioned Dublin Canvas to me, I submitted it and it got picked and I got a great spot in Rathmines, on Rathmines Road.”
“You can apply for different boxes, but you’re not guaranteed where you’ll get. You get about 2 or 3 years before the space is given to another artist. ‘Philo’ is going to be painted over this Summer, he’s been there for 3 years now. But I’ve been lucky, as normally you get 2 years before another artist gets an opportunity, art on these boxes is never permanent.”
“I also painted ‘The Diceman’. he’s a character I’m fascinated by, I remember him as a kid on Grafton Street. I also remember being a bit scared of him, a man way ahead of his time, it was fascinating to see him. He helped make Grafton street what it was, so I was hoping to have this painting of him closer to that street. Eustace Street was an intense place to paint, because of the volume of people and the traffic.”
How are the public responding to Street Art?
“From the Street Art point of view, we’re surging forward and people are really engaging with it, they seem to really like it. When the council wanted to paint over one of Subset’s big murals a few years ago, the people of Smithfield said ‘no leave it, we love it’. The same with the ‘Stormzy’ piece, people wanted to keep that too.”
Do you think this public art brightens up the dull, gloomy urban environment?
“I get people engaging with me on Social Media, if they see the Phil Lynott one or The Diceman one, they’ll tag me and tell me that they see these everyday going to work, and tell me that it puts a song in their head, it puts them in a good mood. I think anyway you engage with art like that, especially street art, is fun, and it’s for everyone.”
Praising the work of Waterford Walls
“Apparently, Waterford city was one of the worst hit towns in the downturn. What they have done is rejuvenate the city, I walked around for hours admiring all the pieces. I don’t understand why more places don’t do it. I did a smaller version of it in my hometown in Cork. I did 6 ‘Street Art’ pieces of local people of significance, who had connections to the town. They were of some really interesting people historically, from science, culture, art and sporting fields. There is a plaque under each piece, collated by a local historian detailing who they were and what they did.
When I was painting during the week of the local Arts festival, people were so engaging with me all the time.”
What about people tagging, spray painting over existing pieces?
“What bugs me is tagging, Dublin Canvas have said, the more boxes they paint, the less tagging there is of the boxes. First time someone blacked out the face of my Phil Lynott piece, so I just went back to fix it, I presume it was the same person that did the same a second time. The third time, they blacked out all of it and the quotes on the side with black spray paint, it became a battle of wills at that stage. I kept going back to touch it up as the people of Rathmines were so nice when I was painting it, stopping to chat, constantly taking pictures. After the third occasion, I did a Facebook live video, I was pretty annoyed that this was happening. I got people to like and share the video, to highlight what was happening. So eventually after the fourth or fifth time, this person stopped coming back. But this piece ended up becoming my good luck charm, as so many people saw the video and my battle of wills.”
What are you doing next?
“I wrote a fantasy novel over the winter. I’ve been trying to get into publishing for a while. I had realised I’ve drawn all these characters, they were from the same story world. Having written short stories and scripts from Film School, I went to the Irish Writers Centre, did one of their courses, then I just sat down and wrote it. It’s called ‘Bellatrix Moon’, it’s a middle grade fantasy novel. They had such an organic beginning, they all came from these ink blots, all from the forest fairytale world.
Certain cities have free walls
“Certain cities have free walls for artists, you can go on websites and look at any different city and find out where the free wall is. They’re allowed this space and can go and use it, people are allowed to paint.”
There are so many new cultures from different parts of the world that are now living in Ireland, do you think that there is an energy surrounding these street art pieces?
“A lot of tourists when they come now, photograph street art, tag the artist on social media. It definitely has a cultural draw to it, Ireland is a cultural power house for such a small island. There’s a lot of grey, there’s a lot of concrete out there.”
Words of advice to other artists trying to get into this street art world?
“Keep going, keep applying. I’ve had tonnes of rejections, tonnes of no’s, but when you get that one yes, even if it’s a small one, like Dublin Canvas, a small commission, but it led to a lot more, it makes a difference. Keep an open mind, whether it’s a large mural or something small scale, such as Buzzy Be, which my daughter loves.”
Free and accessible to the public
Street Art is to create a message and people do it for their own reasons.
Although practice can take place at home, the garden wall, to really see the effect it has, that is then taken to the streets. This is where expression, colour and style becomes synonymous with each artist. It is free and accessible to the public who might not have the opportunity to see art at a museum or gallery. Gallery art is for private consumption, street art is for public consumption and street art is a visual we are embracing more and more each day.