Street art is an integral part of Dublin’s cultural heritage, yet it is an unfortunately overlooked artistic medium which is frequently obscured by the lofty, museum-dwelling presence of the city’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographic works. While local art fans spend their time waxing lyrical about the latest painting by Irish-born painter Sean Scully, they frequently walk past the vibrant artistry displayed across Dublin’s buildings, walls, and shutters without even granting it a second glance. Despite being largely ignored the media and critics alike, Dublin currently boasts a cohesive and dynamic street art scene which deserves recognition for many reasons.
Street art embodies a distinct set of values which differ from most other artistic media. Unlike varieties of artwork which reside in enclosed spaces such as museums, galleries and houses, street art is a communal entity which exists in open spaces for everybody to enjoy. Speaking to Trinity News, Decoy, one of Ireland’s best-known mural artists, emphasises the importance of community and inclusion within the street art scene. “Murals for me became a healthy obsession that was also a vehicle to show my artwork to a larger audience.” He continues: “For me, this is what is quintessentially different to other art forms. Street art really does engage with everyone and there is no closed doors at all.”
There is evidently a strong sense of community among Irish street artists. Amateur artists wishing to break into the world of street art will often find themselves supported and encouraged by established artists, and there are many projects and initiatives in place which make this process easier. Last year, the esteemed collective Subset set up the Grey Area Project. The Grey Area Project is a collaboration between multiple artists, both old and young, with the aim of creating works which challenge laws surrounding large-scale public artworks in the country. Praising the project, Decoy describes it as “a brilliant example of inclusion and progress within this circle.” He also emphasises the importance of forging a strong, creative street art community, asserting that he often shares around the jobs that he is asked to do and consistently sees his fellow artists following suit.
Unfortunately, Irish street artists face many issues while carrying out their work. Street artworks are frequently removed or decimated for various reasons, including building work and legal problems. The Portuguese environmental artist Artur Bordalo’s mural of a red squirrel, which was situated on Tara Street and created from the city’s scrap metal, has recently been demolished in order for a hotel to be built, compounding concerns that Dublin is diluting its appeal for locals on its rise as a tourist destination. When asked by Trinity News about the destruction of his artwork, Bordalo said that although he is “not mad about that as [he is] the first one to say that [his] work is ephemeral, just like everything in life.” He adds that he feels “sad” because the company involved did not stick to the agreement that they had made with him. He claims that they had informed him that they were willing to wait a certain amount of time to remove the artwork, as Bordalo was “making a special plan to try to move the piece to a new location and document all the process”. However, they took it down before the agreed time, irreparably destroying his work in the process.
Furthermore, the legal issues that Subset highlighted through their Grey Area Project also cause major problems for street artists. 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. Artists like Subset often resort to creating illegal artworks because of the amount of time and money it costs to go about the process legally. Subset said that for them, the licensing of public places for public artworks is important for “cultural development”, and that the presence of a “bureaucracy” is the biggest challenge that street artists face in Ireland.
Another project which is a valuable resource for amateur artists is Dublin Canvas, a public art project. It involves various artists from all walks of life painting Dublin’s traffic light control boxes in designs of their own choosing. Dublin Canvas’ project coordinator, David Murtagh, says that the project “means a lot” to artists just starting out, because it provides them with an opportunity to showcase their work, perhaps even for the first time. Dublin Canvas highlights the concept of beautification, which is often a major function of street art. Essentially, these necessary but grey and unattractive objects are camouflaged with colourful, aesthetically appealing pieces of art, transforming them into pieces which actually enhance the appearance of the city. Murtagh notes that the project chose to facilitate the painting of traffic control boxes specifically because “these units attract tagging, postering, vandalism and drag the look of areas down”, and that because of the way in which they have improved the appearance of provincial areas, the project has received “nothing but positive feedback from the local community.”
Street art is highly significant in a political sense, particularly in a country such as Ireland. Anybody who has been even semi-conscious over the past few years will be aware that the Ireland once associated with staunch conservatism and religious dogma is rapidly changing. The country’s shift to the political left has been consistently supported and promoted by Dublin street artists in visible ways. Decoy, who played a major role within the Repeal movement, is no exception. Leading up to the referendum, Decoy’s iconic image of a crimson, scantily clad woman alongside the words “Love Your Lady / Love Her Choice” adorned one of Dublin’s previously bare shutters, elegantly expressing the desires of every pro-choice person in the country. The creation of political street artworks associated with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment was, in Decoy’s opinion, “probably the most successful use of political street art [he has] seen to date”. As a strong believer in the power of political art, he says that street art, alongside other elements of the movement, “sparked real change and led to the vote going through.”
While much of Dublin’s street art is political in nature, the objective of many other works is to celebrate Irish arts and culture. The city’s walls and buildings are regularly used as canvasses to honour important figures who have contributed to Ireland’s cultural heritage. For example, a mural by Dublin street artist Fink entitled Thoughts depicts the beloved playwright George Bernard Shaw, deep in thought, in striking shades of blue and grey, covering a wall of Synge Street. It functions not only as an homage to Shaw himself, who was born on Synge Street, but also to Ireland’s entire creative and intellectual community both past and present. Street art of this kind serves as a reminder of the importance of our country’s creative works, from amateur murals painted on grotty walls to world-renowned works of literature, and demonstrates why it is so vital it is to preserve this art so that generations to come can learn from it and revel in its beauty. While the city’s street art scene is thriving, it also faces many threats, and we still have a long way to go if we truly want to grant Dublin’s public art the respect it deserves.