Commentary on Irish street art fluctuates between fragmented bursts of tabloid ‘vandalism tracking’ through to institutional veneration of artists like Conor Harrington. Paul Tarpey looks instead at the unregulated random scrawls, jams and hard-won semi-official spots where most local Irish artists still test their skills.
Irish originality is an issue. Generally the work that clogs our local walls tends to over-reference past styles and overseas artists. Irish-directed stand-out work, outside of contained spaces such as the Drogheda Bridge Jam, is rarely acknowledged. This is unusual for a small country, or it would be if we had an Irish-managed version of the form to offer. The recent book on Irish Street Art by Rua Meegan and Laura Teeling gamely makes a case for what they call the ‘universal nature’ of Irish street art. But sadly, by choosing to illustrate their argument with too many sub-Banksy stencil graffs, they undermine any commitment they made to starting the process which could define an Irish context. Instead the ‘Irish scene’ becomes two dimensional, subsumed into a desire to simply be active at anything ‘graff’ related. The result is that it appears to be an onlooker in a global context. A truer appraisal of Irish street art can be told through Limerick’s experiences: a mix of intentions, desire, authority and community.
Circa 2009, Limerick City supported a healthy, varied underground street art culture. Spray-paint was finally available over the counter. Graff artists’ links with streetdance crews and DJs was reclaiming the urban edge for a city dogged by gun-driven anti-social behaviour. The creative profile was so high that a graffiti crew was able to successfully negotiate with the council for a disused shop space in the city centre to use as a commercial gallery.
Commercial commissions were common and these were balanced with freestyle work in ‘The Spot’ on the Dock Road. Street painters also unofficially chose to render portraits of the Munster Rugby team, which garnered popular attention and legitimacy for their own outlaw status. A long-awaited skatepark was finished and quickly filled with well-executed pieces of graff art. Significantly, the city council held back when the ramps got regular makeovers as the park unofficially passed into self-managed, graffiti-covered ownership.
So far, so progressively European, with Bristol in the UK being the most famous comparable example. But it was Limerick’s compact environment that made the wider tale such an interesting case study. A series of contentious events were to damage much of what had been achieved throughout 2009 – 2011.
Firstly the group of master painters based around the Limerick College of Art moved on. They were the glue holding most of the scene together and the civic ecosystem suffered in their leaving. The gap was filled by low-effort tagging, fuelled by the adrenaline of social media. A rolling assault of crude tags and derivative stencilling tattooed the city’s waning commercial centre and redefined city centre boundaries. Conflict lines appeared and drama cancelled out fading goodwill projects like the rugby idols.
Once the city council began to notify the owners of the tagged buildings that they were in breach of the city’s litter laws, the fragility of the creative environment became glaring. A fine of €300 per tagged building hung over the owners’ heads and heated comments began to warm up the local papers. The relationship and unofficial codes of respect between artists and traders evaporated. Then an event unique to Limerick occurred. Overnight a new group entered the contested cityscape. Anti-graffiti vigilantes on a mission to take back the streets began to do so with determination and generous amounts of cheap emulsion. They crudely painted over both multicoloured pieces in the skatepark and the larger street tags. Initially this intervention was thought to be the work of the council until a ‘concerned business man’ admitted he organised the anti-tagging through the local press.
After a provocative Facebook page championed his endeavours, the city began to hum to the adolescent rhythms of now nightly counter-tagging. In the middle of this, the local authority was managing its own stash of physical graffiti in the form of a failed shopping centre and other stalled projects, which became a canvas for commentary by groups of conceptual wheat-paste artists. The Skint group positioned their transient post-Celtic Tiger imagery on Nama-fied boards and used the recorded work as the basis of an exhibition-cum-auction-cum-workshop in a council-supported art space By now the taggers were viciously active. The volume of their mark-making relentlessly outperforming vigilante and conceptual street peers in a ‘we don’t care’ blitz. The drama was stoked by a regrettable editorial decision in a local paper which presented a gallery of tagged images on its front page. Short of awarding the taggers the keys to the city, this blast of fame spurred them to levels beyond even their own nebulous ambitions. By the time large motorway signs began to sport tags, threatening the possibility of the story becoming national, a weary team of Garda started to round the taggers up. Again, Limerick’s response was unique, with civil liberties being tweaked to facilitate the official solution. Community service was invoked and two of the neutered culprits were photographed cleaning the signs before being ordered to present themselves to the press for chastisement. In the resulting interview one of the team confessed his addiction to tagging and lamented the lack of a legal space where he could curb his so called anti-social tendencies. A name and shame draft of repentance was printed which included images of things returning to normal.
What makes this more than a Limerick tale of loose street art practice, harassed shopkeepers, panic journalism and disgruntled police is that it occurred in parallel with the achievements of the Make a Move festival which was organised in the midst of the drama. In the summer of 2012 this ambitious city centre festival hosted a successful series of events which included dance and hip hop gigs, talks and workshops which culminated with the centrepiece event of a graffiti jam. There were also a number of longer-term outcomes. Limerick City Gallery of Art, offered to facilitate an engagement process using the institutional space of the gallery. Later Limerick City Council offered a series of sites to street artists pending the announcement of an artist-led managed structure.
The culmination of this story was Irish B-Boy Cool C’s talk on Culture Night 2012 in the Limerick School of Art. Now an educator who sets up graffiti projects all over Ireland, Cool C is one of the handful of original players who has been around since the mid 80s. His detailed account concluded that to promote a collective attitude, both state bodies and taggers must lead to create a proper working environment irrespective of style or content. Only then can it be led by the artists.
As illustrated by the tale of Limerick, an erratic approach to the city featuring a range of urban art exposed every creative and defensive cliche associated with the practice since the 1980s. In the resulting melee a disparate but integrated cast came together to represent an Irish take on graffiti culture that is embedded within community. This is the beginning of a street-led process where everybody recognises and respects each others limits and the nature of their involvement. If successful, this process could even be classed as style. Further, this story demonstrates that the dynamics involved in a social history of of Irish graffiti need to be represented more. The exploration of how these dynamics are embedded in spaces both urban and rural are seriously underrepresented and undocumented. It needs to take away the comfort narratives based on style and fame, and begin to recognise that no matter what the era or soundtrack, every young generation wants to mark their own time, usually with paint. How those marks get there, who facilitates and supports them must feature in the resulting historical sketches and narratives.