Street art comes in from the cold
With a new exhibit bringing famous works to Dublin, our reporter speaks to artists about this much-maligned form of creative expression
Twenty years ago, a young teenager named James Earley started painting graffiti on the gritty streets of inner city Dublin.
"I remember going to London and finding graffiti magazines, and my mind was blown," he recalls. "It was all very secret, cloak-and-dagger stuff. The allure of that subculture for a teenager was great, especially if you were interested in art and wanted to do something different. It was a movement you could be part of while being out at night and up to no good."
It's safe to say that street art is officially having a moment, nowhere more so than in Ireland. Last year, Joe Caslin's Dame Street mural, created in support of marriage equality, went viral on social media and became the singular image of the 'Yes' campaign.
Around the same time, Conor Harrington's Dance With The Devil work sold for over €100,000 at auction, weeks before his first major exhibit in Moscow. More recently, Maser's colourful and unforgettable Repeal mural proved divisive and was removed from a Temple Bar wall in July (petitions are afoot to reinstate it). Either way, the mural succeeded admirably in its objective of keeping the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the public eye.
"It's more of a family group, really," says Caslin of the current Irish crop. "We'd know 80-90pc of street artists working in Ireland and there's great work coming through. In a way, street art is batting way ahead of other art forms here."
This weekend, the eye-catching works of a number of well-known street artists - among them Keith Haring and Banksy - descend on the SO Fine Art Editions gallery in Dublin's city centre for a collaboration between the gallery and curator/collector Shaun Davin.
"Although street art in the 80s was usually seen as graffiti and not approved by local authorities, it has now evolved on a global scale and we decided to put together a group show of both street artists and challenging contemporary art," explains Catherine O'Riordan, director/owner of SO Fine.
"(Shaun's) aim was to present his collection of art as a unique blend of both street artists, such as Conor Harrington, Maser and Canvaz, with big names in contemporary art like Damien Hirst, Charming Baker, Dan Baldwin and Dave White."
While this exhibit is the first collection of its kind in the country, street artists and galleries have made for increasingly cosy bed-fellows in recent years. It's certainly easy to see the appeal of street art as a movement. Collectors and buyers love its cheeky, cutting-edge cachet, while citizens get to enjoy it as a welcome interruption to their daily commute.
Street art may have freshly-minted credibility with the creative elite, but in years past, graffiti had often been associated with a negative aesthetic.
"It's still illegal if you haven't gotten permission from the wall owner," explains street artist Solus. "Getting that permission is only something that has happened more recently. It's more relaxed here, but if someone was caught tagging, they'd be charged the cost to at least clean it up."
Caslin adds: "Street art started off as that anti-establishment and was much more subversive when it was simply about tagging. Initially, I trained as an illustrator and was interested in art therapy. I wanted to provoke and create a conversation with my target audience of young men. I'd done work for newspapers and magazines, but once that article was read, that was that, the work had a limited life. But when I put up the drawings (in public), I have no ownership. I relinquish my right on them and in some cases, it's put up as a piece of activism."
Much street art provides razor-sharp social commentary. By its nature, street art is temporary, at risk of succumbing to the elements, and therefore designed to catch the eye of passers-by and get them thinking. Like the hip-hop scene that's so closely aligned with graffiti, many artists have 'sampled' other iconic images and likenesses to create something subversive. Most people are familiar with Banksy's smart skewering of British iconography, but others are also enjoying modest fame and fortune.
O'Riordan notes that street art is a great social leveller.
"Some people feel intimidated at the idea of walking into a gallery," she says. "Street artists often want to break down those barriers to create something that can be appreciated by everyone."
Most street art prises open a discussion, but some, says Caslin, exists simply to be "just there and beautiful". "By putting something up in the street though, you're saying something," he adds. "Art is cathartic and you're influenced by stuff going on in your life and around you."
Of course, it all begs the question: does street art belong in a gallery in the first place?
"Why not?" says Susan Keating, Deputy Editor of Irish Arts Review. "Artists can launch their practice from a variety of starting points. Jean Michel Basquiat started by tagging - that doesn't mean he wanted to spend a lifetime doing the same thing. All artists want to progress and develop their range of work. Why is it that street artists attract judgements constraining their mode of development if they move away from their early environment?"
Caslin explains: "At their time, Cubism and Impressionism were seen as not fit for the gallery. Within the last five years, there has been a huge movement to encapsulate street art into the gallery scene and that mentality of an elite has been eroded."
Keating adds: "When they're starting out, musicians might begin by busking on the street. The fortunate and the talented progress to indoor venues. No one sermonises that U2 should have stayed in the Dandelion Market. Ultimately, the goal is to make a living."
And many of these artists do make a living: big-budget brands, hoping for a slice of the action, are attempting to align themselves with the movement. But the real coffers lie in commissions in bigger cities like Berlin, New York and London.
"If I'm working with a brand like Jameson, I'll have a lot more creative freedom now than when I started out. It can be a tricky tightrope, staying true to your work but working with others," says Earley.
It does mean street art's once anti-establishment reputation has been largely refashioned.
"The thing is that we've brought art into the community a bit more and people are looking to artists to lead social issues and start conversations," says Caslin.
"There will always be someone who thinks street art has lost sight of its roots, but that's entirely the choice of the artist," adds Earley. "Street artists are very determined individuals - they've had to be. They put their hearts on their sleeves to bring large-scale work out there. We deal with the public and they can be very vocal about what their thoughts are. Some people love the banter and even offer you a cup of tea if they see you working. That's the thing I truly get a buzz from."
The COLLECTOR exhibition of street and contemporary art is on at the SO Fine Art Editions gallery in South Anne Street, Dublin 2 from today to December 4. For more information, see sofinearteditions.com.