Saturday, December 31, 2011

Street art stroll

Street artists and graffiti writers in Dublin and around Ireland have been substantially increasing in number, skill and inventiveness in recent years, and have begun to gain more attention from the mainstream contemporary art world. Having photographed these art forms for at least a decade, it's great to see more beautiful, entertaining and thought-provoking pieces enlivening our streets, with the expansive expertise and finely-honed styles of experienced artists on display close by the enthusiastic developing efforts of those newer to the scene. It's also been encouraging to see the recent growth in interest in graffiti and street art from people of different ages and backgrounds, and to witness the appreciative surprise of friends returning to Dublin after a few years who are impressed by the scope and skill of artworks currently to be seen around the city.

As part of Culture Night on 23rd September, about 100 people took part in a "now legendary" guided tour of street art and graffiti around Dublin, with artists and interested aficionados of all ages in attendance. Props due as ever to The Unfortunately Loyal Boyfriend for finding out about it. The tour featured some street art and graffiti that had been in situ for a few months but mainly focussed on new pieces commissioned for Road Works, part of Dublin Contemporary 2011, a major international contemporary art exhibition that ran in multiple locations in Dublin from 6th September to 31st October. Road Works was a collaboration by Dublin Contemporary in association with Anewspace, an outfit that is hard to adequately describe but which aims to make street art more accessible and available in Ireland. It's an art dealer, exhibition organiser and all-round supporter of graff and street artists here and internationally.

The tour was led by Jonathan Lynn, the main force behind Anewspace, accompanied by Jota Castro, one of the two lead curators of Dublin Contemporary. They were expecting about 30 people to show up so it was entertaining being in a hundred-strong crowd wandering the city, stopping traffic, dodging death on busy streets (pedestrian crossings? Pah!) and attracting bewildered attention as we gathered on footpaths and down narrow lanes, gazing at art works that thousands of daily passersby hadn't noticed. Attendees included possible children who might have been 10 years old and definite adults who approximated 60 years of age, as well as everything in between, with an unexpectedly low ratio of hipsters:everyone else.

The group gathered outside the main Dublin Contemporary location on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin 2 and as we'd jokingly predicted, the tour immediately headed to Camden Street and its environs, essentially an outdoor gallery that's within a few metres of our flat.


We looked at ADW's dove perched on a dynamite bomb, an excellent work that's not part of the exhibition (and hence illegal), it was painted this spring as a reflection on Middle East tensions.


The tour moved on to the first Road Works piece, part of the Potato Series by JOR (John O'Reilly) which adorns the shuttered door of Green Nineteen restaurant. When there isn't a restauranteur happy to lock in his customers to show it to a passing tour group, it's best viewed before the restaurant opens at 11a.m. This is by the same artist as a potato plant collaborative piece with another artist's text on emigration, which I'd photographed among a lot of great graffiti in the Tivoli carpark earlier in the year.


Onwards we strolled behind Whelan's on Wexford Street to gather in Liberty Lane, a street that hosts a constantly evolving multitude of pieces, some by established artists, others by young up-and-comers trying their hands. Despite being an illegal spot, walls on both sides of the road are completely covered by colourful and humourous (if occasionally rather scatological) works:


Here we entered into a self-referential loop, as I looked at someone looking at us looking at the art through their iPad. Curator Jota (in orange shirt) was just visible while Lynn (in black cap) educated us all.


The relative permanence of work on this street has led people to believe that the ESB has officially sanctioned street art on these walls, but that isn't the case, it's just that the local residents and businesses tolerate and to an extent encourage the exuberant spraying.

Moving on down Cuffe Street, wheelie bins were pulled back to reveal this small Solus:


Part of a series elaborated at the recent Solus solo exhibition in the No Grants Gallery.

A shortcut through Stephen's Green resulted in a rather longer detour due to a locked gate at the northeast corner, making me forget to check whether this over-enthusiastic little piece of tagging on a tree a few years ago was still growing there:


The extra walking proved well worth it when we reached Conor Harrington's fantastic mural on Merrion Court, a gigantic piece right opposite the opulent Department of Finance:


A street artist originally from Cork, Harrington later went to art school and is now based in the U.K. He paints phenomenally good gallery and outdoor pieces, this one commissioned for Road Works, entitled 'Dead Meat' and painted entirely using spraying. Harrington was described by tour guide Lynn as one of the top ten street artists working at the moment, a view certainly supported by the beauty, power and layered meaning of this complex mural.

On the way back past the top of Grafton Street we passed another Dublin Contemporary piece by Katie Holten, not part of Road Works, where the artist has attached hand-painted ceramic tiles in multiple locations around Dublin city centre, at ground level on curbs and steps. This one spelled out 'Why Clouds Make Sounds', a letter on each tile. As we walked by, Lynn commented happily that even though one of the tiles had broken off, the piece hadn't been stolen or damaged, instead the tile had been carefully laid back in place, leaning against the curb. An appreciative glow suffused the crowd. See, in Dublin we respect art, we don't vandalise it. Moments later one of the kids on the tour noticed the loose tile, grabbed it and stuffed it in his bag. Oh well.

Next stop was South William Street, looking up four storeys to see Mark Jenkins' slightly disturbing hooded man sculpture teetering on the edge of the roof. Lynn claimed it was not referencing either suicide or the 9/11 attacks, but I felt it gained power because it evoked a person contemplating the final step into oblivion.


Jenkins creates his sculptures using full body casts and this one was modelled on Lynn himself, so perhaps our tour guide was just nervous to see even a sculpted version of himself apparently about to plunge to his death. That's got to be a little unsettling. Evidently others had the same suicidal interpretation to a somewhat preposterous degree, as the fire brigade were called a few days later and used an extending ladder to "rescue" the "jumper", removing the artwork in the process. Hopefully it was returned. Another Jenkins piece was removed within a few hours of installation, following a report of the "death of an unknown homeless man" – in fact a sculpture of a seated man covered by a hoodie and sleeping bag, placed in the entrance to an abandoned building. Fairly compelling example of the value of street art as social commentary, I'd say.

Next stop was Fade Street, and a series of installations by the collective Prefab, faces and bodies made up on closer inspection of advertising slogans, logos and text. These pieces have a hidden feature that only appears at night when they're photographed. At the count of three everyone's phones and cameras flashed together, causing the portraits to ignite in bright white and seem to leap out of their brick frames.


There are more of Prefab's pictures for Road Works outside the Bernard Shaw pub in Portobello.

Nearby was a large and relatively old piece by James Early, that channelled his love of cycling. It was originally commissioned as a beer advertisement, prompting a brief diatribe from our guide about the influence of commercial, especially alcohol, advertisers on the street art scene. A contentious topic, worthy of more thorough exploration some other time.


Outside the Andrews Lane Theatre, the deliberately retro Maser Rask Sums tags had been joined around the corner by DMC's piece 'Missed Call Girls: her redundant heart'. Quite beautiful.


I noticed a photo of it later featured in The Irish Times culture review of the year, a sign of the increasing popularity of street art.

Another Road Works contribution a few metres away was Will St. Leger's 'One Day I Will Grow Wings', a nicely done piece stuck high up on the wall, depicting a body enclosed cocoon-like by a sleeping bag with angel's wings stretching out, again referencing homelessness and the desire for escape. Usually known as a paste-up, this was an example of a piece pre-prepared essentially as a cutout poster, better suited to its siting on brick which is notoriously unfriendly to spraypaint.


Nearby on Dame Lane was a beautiful tree by JOR. Apparently he'd started with a full tree and gradually painted out the branches to create this skeletal effect.


Further on the tour drew our attention to another difficult-to-spot Jenkins piece 'Blond', a sculpture of a tousled-haired woman taking an impossible step from nothingness onto the roof of a building. Best viewed from in front of the wonderful Why Go Bald? Sign on South Great George's Street near the junction with Dame Street.


In the gathering dark we paused to admire the first piece Conor Harrington had done in Ireland in a long time, a large mural of a cow and a thrown cowboy which he'd painted on Sycamore Street in June. The Lost Heifer? Perhaps. Certainly hinted at Ireland's current economic, political and social troubles. I'd seen it earlier in the year and later revisited it in daylight:


It was getting a bit too dark to properly appreciate the wonderful stag's head by James Early (Input/Out), painted for Road Works on Essex Street East but I went back to to see it a few days later in the sunshine. Really popped off the wall.


We'd lost a few people but gained others by the time the tour hit the two hour mark. Most people barely noticed the Maser/Damien Dempsey piece 'I's Rather Be A Dealer' on Crampton Court as we streamed down the narrow alley into a courtyard alleyway you wouldn't know existed. The tour attracted the attention of residents who opened their windows to see Lynn point out the final piece, another old Maser/Damo work.


As well as pieces I was already familiar with, the tour introduced a lot of work I'd never seen before, including most of the brand new Road Works commissions, and no doubt it likewise opened the eyes of many other attendees. I've found over the years that a large part of appreciating street art is training yourself to notice it in the urban landscape, whether down dark alleys or hiding in plain view. I love the way it makes me see the city differently.

The Road Works installations were documented in a live feed from Anewspace, which posted every 20 minutes when painting was happening, and you can still watch their evolution on the website. There is also a rather stylized map of all the locations, many of which are still in situ now, though you'll have to look hard to find them.

I originally drafted this blog post on 7th October 2011, when new art in Road Works was still appearing every few days. I intended to finish the post the following day, but on 8th October I went down to check out a little event called Occupy Dame Street, which I certainly wasn't going to get involved in and which anyway could surely only last a day, maybe two at most. Nearly 3 months later, Occupy Dame Street is still going strong, it absorbed much of my time (as you can tell from a few related posts) and this post is only getting finished now in a flurry of year-end activity. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Photos of Road Works street art tour
Liveblog of Anewspace projects
Dublin Contemporary



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