More than just a signal of vandalism or urban degeneration, Natalie Voorheis explores the emergence of Irish street art culture

When most people think of the word graffiti, images of urban degeneration, vandalism and scrawling and unreadable lettering are conjured up. The prolific nature of tagging, the act of writing your name in a public place, has created a lot of bad press for the world of street art in Ireland and a relationship marked by animosity between the graffiti artists and public authorities.

Unbeknownst to much of Ireland’s public, the street art scene of Dublin city consists of a full blown artistic movement, championed by a close-knit artistic community far removed and developed from the mindless graffiti tagging of opportunists. This movement strives to reclaim the public space for the people of Dublin.

21st century culture has led to Dublin’s cityscape becoming the playground for multimillion-dollar advertising companies and corporations, whose billboards, huge and dominant, force an unwilling public to become active participants in their campaigns. In other parts of the city, urban degeneration and poor council planning has had a negative effect on our cityscape.

The rise of Irish street art since the late 80s has provided an important alternative to these views of the city, with works emerging in the last couple of decades being consistently culturally and politically motivated.

The Irish street art scene, compared to those in cities such as New York and Barcelona, is in its infancy. Despite this, a number of artists of note have emerged in the last decade that are of an international standard and have been recognised as such. These artists include: ADW, Will Saint Ledger, Canvaz, Maser, Karma, Conor Harrington, Asbestos and Xπr.

Much of the recent Irish street art is recognisable for its distinctively Irish nature. Political and social comments specific to Ireland are a predominant theme in many of the artists work. The development of the Irish economy, for example, from the highs of the Celtic tiger days to the economic lows of recent months have been followed closely by these artists.

Perhaps most famous among these images is one by artist ADW, situated in Ranelagh, of Bertie Ahern’s face, painted with the stripes of a tiger. ADW commented on his artwork, saying: “Bertie was gone, but there was still something that I wanted to say. The recession had hit, Bertie was the face of that, he was the top dog.”

Cultural comments about the development of Irish society are also a popular theme. Street artists have echoed the concern evident in modern Irish literature and film over the last couple of decades about questions over Irish authenticity, identification and categorisation.

Such events as Ireland entering into the European Union, which resulted in a more ethnically diverse populace than ever before in this country and the globalisation of Irish culture, raise questions about a modern definition of Irishness. ADW’s famous mural on the side of an alley of Rathmines Church depicting mother Ireland, being blown by the winds of change, pensively surveying a shamrock and the face of a Celtic tiger side by side is a reflection of this.

Another example of the socially conscious nature of Ireland’s street art scene is the “They Are Us” project that began in 2010. This series of outdoor public art works were inspired by Dublin City itself and were a tribute to its Northside and Southside, the visible and the secret and the good and the bad of the city.

The project was a collaboration, graffiti artist Maser painted the images that featured the words of musician Damien Dempsey. One example appeared at the Bernard Shaw Pub in Portabello, proclaiming, in larger than life-size lettering: “In a world full of shame and regret, do something to be proud of.” Another, filling the whole height of a block of flats in Ballymun, declares: “Concrete jungle mother farewell to your stairwell forever.”

Another, whose relevance is painfully acute in recent months with regard to our financial collapse and government’s failures, states that “greed is the knife and the scars run deep”. The project raises €29,229 which was donated to The Dublin Simon Community. Maser’s work in the “They Are Us” project highlights the positive aspects of graffiti. His clever use of a typeface style popular on the signage of the 30s provides a stark contrast to the unpolished works of some careless taggers.

His art is an example of how graffiti can enrich the cityscape, while being socially conscious. The Irish street art scene has been dominated in recent times by Maser, whose prolific output has meant that his work has become instantly recognisable within the Dublin cityscape.

Not all street art, however, is politically or socially charged, some aims to simply make the passer smile such as Maser’s “Maser loves you” campaign. Another example of this is Vango’s cleverly executed piece in Kilarney, County Kerry. This work is situated on the wall of an orchard and depicts Sir Isaac Newton typing away on an Apple Mac Book.

The Irish street art scene is very much still in its infancy and has not been subject to such fantastical Guerrilla stunts as those executed by world famous British artist, Banksy. One stunt, however, did make national headlines for its politically charged agenda.

In March 2009, artist Conor Casby placed two paintings of the-then Taoiseach Brian Cowen on the walls of the National Gallery of Ireland and The Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery. He had no permission to do so and this, combined with the paintings’ tongue-in-cheek depiction of an overly plump Cowen naked from the waste up and holding a toilet roll in one painting and a pair of underwear in the other, garnered a severely negative reaction.

A media frenzy followed, as newspapers and radio stations attempted to pinpoint the artist. When Today FM eventually succeeded, the Gardaí stormed their building threatening a search warrant if the radio crew did not hand over the artists’ details. Today FM refused to do so and Casby turned himself in shortly afterwards. The Gardaí investigated Casby for offending decency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage, but the charges were never brought against him.

Casby’s aim was to make a comment about the control exerted by powerful people over the images, which appear in the media and the importance of these images in their effect on the general public’s unconsciousness.

Street art in other countries has long since bridged the gap from an underground culture to one embraced by the mainstream media. It is more regular than not, for instance in America, for an artist to take the focus of their art off the street, place it on a canvas, hold an exhibition and glean profit from their work. In Ireland, this trend is only beginning and thus, the Irish scene is still in its most crucial and authentic mode, free, on the street and for the people.

The joy of street art is that it is in an ever-evolutionary state. Unconfined by gallery hours, admission fees, or critical agenda, it is free and for the people. Ironically, the joy of the art lies in its transient nature, which is also its unfortunate aspect.

One day you might pass your favourite wall mural, while the next it may be covered by another artists work. Once you become aware of the presence of street art in Dublin, suddenly you begin to see it everywhere, and find yourself walking through Dublin’s streets with a fresh sense of excitement for what is to be found.

Street art has become an important form of democratic self-expression, uncensored social commentary, political opposition, observation and satire. It engages the public, not just in their environment but also in the concerns of the society in which they live, in a way that has never been done before.

Irish street artist Canvaz puts it perfectly when he says: “Street art is like an underground newspaper, commenting on the news of the day.” Who knows where the next commentary will come from?