Street Art and Society

Siobhán Power takes a look at street art at home and internationally

Many people may roll their eyes at considering urban art an art-form at all, questioning its capacity to give any new meaning, or to make the viewer think differently about the world around them and their interaction with it. Surely an art that carries a message to a much vaster audience in our own environment is more relevant to us than more stagnant mediums that are confined to art galleries, separated from our daily lives? Perhaps of all art forms, street art is one of the most vibrant, fluid and constantly evolving media out there that changes with contemporary culture and pop-culture, both assimilating with and creating it.

Though appearing at first to be a crude, or even base, underground kind of style, street art could be seen as a society’s written subconscious, a constant discourse endlessly reflecting on itself and the issues that are foremost in the collective consciousness, spilling over and appearing in our surroundings. In the same way people forget and move onto another thought, graffiti is painted over and a new work takes its place. Nothing captures the urban spirit better than art that was created directly on the streets with no pretense.

Graffiti encompasses many different materials and techniques. Some artists use wall paint while others use spray paint. Another popular medium is the use of sticker art – whereby an image is created elsewhere and can be stuck up by the artist where they please. Stencils are also widely used to create contrasting colours and images on a blank space.

There has always been a strong element of activism in Street Art, a sense of a struggle to spread a message often subversive or political in nature. Due to its strongly graphic, eye-catching qualities, this informal medium can often deliver a more instantaneous and powerful message to its audience. The anonymous and unaffiliated nature of the art form also allows for more potent and controversial content to go un-stifled by authority. A genuine passion exists in street art that makes it that much more appealing. Many artists risk serious danger and penalties for the sake of spreading a message and for the love of the art form, more often than not earning nothing. The buzz of carrying out an illegal activity perhaps helps the process along.

The term “Street Art” usually refers to more visual art than more traditionally text-based graffiti, though the two often overlap. This is sometimes called post-graffiti. In an effort to divorce it from its more illicit counterpart it has begun to appear legitimately in large exhibitions and public spaces worldwide.Following a striking outdoor exhibition at the Tate Modern last summer entitled “Street Art’’ the art form is finally being acknowledged in Europe by prestigious art institutions. This exhibition, the first of its scale ever held in London; invited six internationally renowned artists to create a piece that would be displayed on the massive front wall of the gallery. These artists included the collective Faile of New York, JR of Paris and Os Gêmeos, brothers from São Paulo.

The notorious Banksy, dubbed the “Art Terrorist,” was perhaps conspicuous because of his absence at the Tate, despite being perhaps the most widely known street artist in Britain and Ireland. He is recognised for his challenging yet often playful images (for instance, two policemen locked in a passionate embrace), and references to pop culture, often using stencil with minimal colour.

Irish street art has a lot to live up to considering what is on offer internationally. In comparison to Os Gêmeos’ work which draws on Brazilian folklore and culture to create unique socio-political commentaries, or the explosions of colour and movement on the streets of Toulouse by the likes of Le Club 70 and Miss Van, whose distinctive ‘poupeés’ like to “seduce and disturb the passer by…”; the scourge of tags on Dublin is less than impressive.

It seems that Ireland has not evolved much past the idea that the tedious and self- serving tag is the height of creativity in street art. As one poster put it on“Graffiti is about getting your name up as much as possible, period… The art of  knowing how to make your name famous without getting caught…”

Fortunately, there is some more worthwhile street art to be found if on the lookout. Pearse Street has some interesting stencils and sticker work like the Harajuku girls by the artist Pi who has work all over the city, as well as the haunting face of Madeleine McCann in sticker art. The area around the corner of City Quay and Moss Street has some impressive stickers and stencils – a Mickey Mouse soldier among other enigmatic images. One of the more famous pieces in Dublin centre might be the striking crouching angel on South William Street. In the Tivoli car park on Francis Street, a wall was painted during a street art exhibition to leave a huge and colourful image.

Anybody from Cork City may know for example, the eye-catching multi-coloured silhouettes near the Beamish Brewery in Dean’s Hall, as well as the many little cats found stencilled across the city. In Northern Ireland, meticulously detailed murals define some communities’ political identity, some depicting Bobby Sands in South Belfast, others in Derry displaying a utopian society when Derry is “freed.”

Festivals are a very good place to see some impressive street art and the process of painting it. “Kings of Concrete” is a skaters’ event held every summer that has a street art section where graffiti artists are invited to create temporary pieces. Other events include “Eurocultured” which takes place in August in Temple Bar and “Bridgejam.”

It is easy to be in a grey area with street art, when appreciating it can be construed as condoning illegal and sometimes malicious vandalism. The Irish government harbours no kindly feelings towards this particular brand of expression. Most offenders, if caught, will face a fine and a warning. In Ireland, community art projects are promoted in an effort to reduce invasive graffiti in a positive way. Other countries such as Australia have adopted this approach designating walls in cities exclusively for the use of graffiti artists. In the United States, it is another story. Graffiti vandalism is punishable in some states with imprisonment for up to eight years, more in some cases than for assault.

It could be argued that street art is perhaps paradoxically purer than other more commercial art forms, unspoilt by the need to make money; the artist taking genuine risks to impart his or her message. Whether people feel that street art is just a nuisance or something worthwhile; there is no denying that it is a significant feature of city life. However trivial some of it may be; street art is an instance where artists bring art to the people, tying it in with an active community, not divorcing it from everyday society. Every expression has some kind of value. After a long time street art has begun to be acknowledged as something more than just an ugly indication of decay but instead, perhaps, is a sign of vibrant energy and life that will be more appreciated in the years to come.

Further Information:

Look up ‘Irish Street Art’ on for thousands of great images

www.é for info on Irish graffiti