With legal wranglings, political uproar and a recent Public Art Mural Bill wending its way through parliament, we meet those out there on the street art beat as they stand tall and spray with pride and defiance.
“There’s a style in it all, even if you don’t understand that.”
Across Cork Street from Weaver Park on a Friday evening, a stretch of dark blue hoardings was being doused in spray paint by a crew of five graffiti artists. Known as LSD, each had claimed a space of approximately four metres to sketch out their respective pseudonyms: Zerc, Efsie, Gear, Asik and Abdoe.
As the sun beat down on them, they smoked rollies, drank bottles of beer, and rattled canisters, before unloading them on the temporary wooden walls. The entire footpath was engulfed in the smell of aerosol paint. “It does have an effect on you,” Gear says. “You’ll be up all night from the fumes.”
“What you’re doing is breaking the law,” said a guy on crutches, which he pointed at one of the LSD members. Half joking, the man produced an old Nokia from his pocket, saying he’d call the guards if someone didn’t give him a cigarette.
It isn’t graffiti if it’s legal, Gear said later. “People who do legal walls, they’re not graffiti writers. They’re doing murals. That’s its own category of street art. But we’re out on the street and it’s illegal at the end of the day.”
A week later, beneath the railway bridge that runs over Townsend Street, the hiss of a spray paint can was mingling with the rumble of trains overhead and the clatter of construction on a nearby site.
The artist Efsie quickly went about spraying the outline of his name in black paint, while two members of his other crew DFA stood to the side, observing him at work. He had managed to climb up onto the bridge a while back to get their tag on the side of the iron frame.
“It’s addictive”, Efsie says, noting that he had just recently changed his name to dodge the authorities.
“I’m after being arrested,” his friend pointed out while laughing. “I’m after paying seven hundred quid, and I’m still wanting to go out and keep doing this. Like, it makes no sense, and even when I say it, I know it makes no sense.”
“People who do legal walls, they’re not graffiti writers. They’re doing murals. That’s its own category of street art. But we’re out on the street and it’s illegal at the end of the day.”
For about two years now, Oriel has been hitting the same power box outside “Gay” Spar on Dame Street.
The Smithfield-based artist first postered them, before stencilling in a parody of the Durex logo, with the tagline “For the Dubliner in you.”
More recently, he began to up the ante, reimagining the chain store’s green tree logo as a buttplug, with its three points rounded off to better resemble the sex toy. But as quickly as he could put it up, it got “buffed.”
“The corporation paint them over within hours,” he says. “Like literally within 12 hours they are gone.”
In response, he took to doing what he calls “fast cuts.” These were stencils done in pink, bearing messages that at best were only vaguely explicit.
As pedestrians crossed the busy street, they were met by slogans emblazoned across the grey boxes, including “Pure Filth,” “Have You Been A Bold Boy”, “Wanting Chunky Hairy Men” and “Ove Ock”.
“Dublin is my playground,” he says. “It’s my living room, and I hate those grey boxes. They are so depressing. For me, I want to create giggles, and have people say ‘he’s really pushing limits’, and sometimes the work is bold and sometimes it’s technically good.”
The work is totally and utterly illegal, he says. If there is a code that he abides by, it is the calibre of buildings or structures that he targets. “Hoardings, walls that nobody has cared for, places completely trashed by graffiti, and boxes are game. Some of those have not been painted, sometimes in ten years.”
There is a great sense of freedom in creating something provocative, he says. “It’s about going out and wrecking the streets and having a bit of fun.”
While not an aspect of the city’s culture that has been fully co-opted yet, street art in the past five years has undergone a certain level of domestication.
Around Portobello Harbour, the hoardings for an upmarket hotel are decorated by colourful scenes of wildlife, as if to appease locals who were deprived of a public plaza. In Rathmines, a mural was commissioned to promote a Sex Pistols drama miniseries, with the word “Anarchy” emblazoning the corner of Castlewood Place, beneath which the Disney logo was included.
Whiskey brands, streaming sites and events organisers slyly adopted the visual language of a rebellious artform to better disguise their promotions. The line between street art collective and advertising agency to a certain extent became indistinct.
Yet, while a tamer means of expression today, nonetheless it remains in a legal grey area, with public art still requiring planning permission under state law. In part, Dublin City Council has noted, this is since, in certain cases, murals are presented as public art, when in fact, they contain subtle advertising materials.
“It’s still mixed-up with vandalism to a certain degree,” says the artist Solus. “It’s becoming more mainstream, even if it’s not fully mainstream yet. But I think it is still being seen as edgy.”
“It’s so hard to put up a piece of art at the moment,” says Solus. “There is a lot of work that I have had to turn down as a result of the planning permission.”
The painter says that he tends to avoid being vocal on the question of planning. But, in February 2022, he was dragged into the debate after a homeowner in Dun Laoghaire commissioned him to paint a pair of ballerinas, donning boxing gloves on the front of her house.
Once the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Council refused permission for the mural to be kept up, within a matter of weeks, the owner was forced to paint over it.
“At the same time though, there is something I like about the illegality of it, and the fact that this is fleeting,” he says. “It’s not permanent, and that has always been attractive to me.”
Nonetheless, Sinn Fein’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin says it is essential that Dublin make space for artists who work in public spaces. “It is important that we are saying to artists that they are important and valued.”
Last February, Ó Broin began the process of attempting to realise this ideal, introducing a new bill to amend present planning and development regulations.
Developed in conjunction with the collective Subset, murals, under the new bill, wouldn’t need council approval to go up. Instead, they would only require the permission from the owner of a building or structure.
Presently at the second stage of the Dail, where its general principles are to be debated, Ó Broin says, it is unclear if or when the bill may progress. “The best case scenario of the Subset bill is that the government actually decides to go and do its own version of it.”
“I’d like to get in through the second stage before the summer recess, which is at the end of July, but we’ve no date, and therefore that can’t be guaranteed.”
During the tense, and likely lengthy waiting period however, the usage of public walls to provide social commentary became subject to a heated debate on social media.
After Eoin Ó Broin shared to his Twitter page an image of the artist Spicebag’s reworking of Daniel MacDonald’s 1850 Eviction Scene painting, which was updated to feature members of the Gardai, the deputy came under fire.
While the satirical work used actual imagery from an eviction on Prussia Street in Stoneybatter, Ó Broin was lambasted for what was perceived as apparent contempt for An Garda Siochana. Similarly, Spicebag, real name Adam Doyle, was criticised by the journalist Fionnan Sheahan for creating “politically motivated art.”
“More recently, he began to up the ante, reimagining the chain store’s green tree logo as a buttplug, with its three points rounded off to better resemble the sex toy.”
So, when Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave took to Twitter, stating his plan to pay an artist to recreate the Spicebag piece as a mural, his plan to bankroll the continued protest against the housing shortage was met with an unlikely critic.
“It’s very likely that this will be extremely polarising and create political issues for the Public Art Bill, which is currently before the Dail,” replied Subset’s spokesperson. “That would be unfortunate and extremely damaging to the future of the medium in Ireland.”
The response confused Caoilfhionn Hanton, the muralist who eventually completed the piece on the side of a house in Arbour Hill. “Art does not have to be political, but my interest is in political affairs, and this is something that is reflective of the times, it’s activism,” she says.
“The image provokes a very visceral response,” says Ó Broin. “It was making a connection between government policy leading to mass evictions in the Famine era, and government policy potentially leading to mass evictions today. And a lot of people understand what the image was trying to do.”
“I don’t know what will happen with that mural in Arbour Hill,” he says. “But what I would say is that it does speak to the power of art.”
The fundamental concern, he speculates on Subset’s behalf was that they are keen to get a positive political response in the Dail. “But ultimately, if we are going to say that good political art is good political art, well…where does one decide what is permissible or not? There has to be a space for people to do this.”
“It’s about going out and wrecking the streets and having a bit of fun.”
As Neto Vettorello sits in a steamy café in Harold’s Cross, he says labels such as graffiti or street art are mere categories. “I just want to call all of this democratic art.”
His body of work is primarily comprised of what would be classified as illegal work, and which frequently features a minimalist, almost surreal character composed of wavy lines. Around the corner on the canal, this character crops up in doorways, on items of furniture in derelict buildings, broken greenhouses and basketball hoops in abandoned parks.
To date, his first major work in the city was a collaboration with the artist Asbestos, titled ‘Do Not Remove,’ and which is spread across a two-storey hoarding on Ormond Quay. Conceived as a celebration of 200 years of Brazilian independence, and a simultaneous warning to Ireland against erasing its cultural heart, the work, he says functioned as a lesson in history, accessible to all.
“My work is not for the inside of galleries or museums,” Vettorello says. “Anybody can see it, from the homeless to the super rich guys, and you are seeing the same stuff.”
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan