Painting the town red (and green and blue and yellow...)
As street artists have their spray cans at the ready to bring colour to run-down spaces for the Waterford Walls festival, our reporter explores how graffiti went from vandalism to fine art. Photos by Patrick Browne
Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30
'What should my graffiti tag be?" I ask my sister. "It needs to be cool. Elusive with urban street vibes. But also personable. Don't forget cool, though - the level of coolness is very, very important."
"Hmmmmmm," she says narrowing her eyes and looking right at me. "What about - 'Kevin'?"
"Kevin?" "You said elusive - no one will suspect 'Kevin'." I roll my eyes. "I said street and cool - Kevin is not street, and it's definitely not cool." She pauses. "Kevin 3000?"
I stress that we need something more abstract and oblique. No more Kevins. "OK," she nods. "How about 'Clawhand'?" "Why Clawhand?" I ask. She glances towards my hands. "No reason." I decide my sister knows nothing whatsoever about graffiti tagging and cast her suggestions aside.
I'll decide my tag when I get down to Waterford. I'm heading down to the historic city for Ireland's largest Graffiti and Street Art Festival - Waterford Walls.
Now in its second year, the festival was founded by part-time primary school teacher Edel Tobin. She was inspired to start spray painting the city after reading about the Djerbahood project which transformed the neglected Tunisian town of Er-Riadh into an open-sky museum.
"I saw quite a few parallels between Waterford and this village, depleting populations, disenfranchisement, crime," she says. Like Er-Riadh, Waterford needs some TLC and colour injected back into it. "We need something to brighten our spirits and our walls - art gives people a voice," Tobin says, as we wander down the city's lanes.
Convincing city councillors to let artists run riot with spray cans takes some work, but Tobin had built up a strong relationship with the City Council. In 2014, she and a group of volunteers had converted a privately-owned wasteland in the city into a thriving community park, New Street Gardens. "I don't know if the Council could picture what I pictured when I told them about Waterford Walls, but there was trust there," she says.
During the year, Edel and co-organiser Louise Flynn earmarked walls "in need of a good lift". They then contacted the Council who let them know who owned the buildings, and the team contacted them directly to ask permission.
Obviously there are some rules - the piece can't be politically charged or explicit. "If the owners of the property are happy, and the artist and Council are happy, then we're happy," Edel says.
Edel and Louise run a tight ship and I wonder where they get the money to create such a dynamic festival? "The Council helps us out, and people can sponsor walls and artists, which is a great way to get local businesses involved. And Colourtrend supply us with a good deal of paint," she adds.
Tobin hopes the festival - which this year will see 25 large murals and 15 smaller pieces created on walls around the city over four days - will help paint Waterford out of a corner with bright and boisterous murals. As she talks, murals from the 2015 festival pop up around us; unremarkable alleyways and what were once scruffy walls are covered with patchwork hammer head sharks, giant turquoise birds, children's faces, and silvery swirling clouds. Fits and starts of creativity and colour are splattered across disused buildings.
Eager to learn the tricks of the trade, I bundle into Edel's car and head out to Tramore to meet urban artist James Earley. Earley - who painted the impressive Blooms Hotel in Temple Bar - has been given the gable of Tramore public library as his canvas.
He shows me what will decorate the building - a fragmented and multi-coloured image of The Metal Man suspended in water - a nod to the famous Tramore monument and the sinking of the ship The Seahorse over 200 years ago.
We jump into a cherry picker armed with cans and pots. As the machine shudders and hoists us into the air, Earley explains the evolution of graffiti and what exactly the differences are between muralists, urban artists and graffitists. "Grafitti is a sub culture and secretive, with night raids and anarchy," he says. "It started in the 1970s in New York and Philadelphia and is very anti establishment. But as it evolved, graphic and fine artists started moving into the medium, people began using stencils and rollers. It wasn't just words or initials any more."
While chalking lines across the length and breadth of the building, James shows me how to hold and manipulate a spray can. It's surprisingly tricky; hold it too close and the paint starts to puddle and drip. Spray too far away and the colour disperses like a fine mist with no direction. It's like trying to paint a picture using a can of Elnett hairspray or Sally Hansen tan. "Yeah, it takes a while to get used to," Earley says.
He comes from a family of stained glass artists and his art reflects that heritage. "I want my pieces to look like stained glass that's exploded open with the elements floating in mid air.
"Street art is very conceptual - a lot of thought has gone into the pieces. Just because it's accessible and easy to see doesn't negate the process behind it. It can be as high art as anything you see in a gallery."
He's right; I used to associate graffiti with toilet cubicles and the backs of bike sheds. Words scrawled across the sorts of places you did things you weren't supposed to with people your mother didn't want you hanging about with. (Relax, relax - I'm talking about skipping PE and eating three Dip-Dabs in quick succession…)
But the line between graffiti as fine art and graffiti as vandalism has become increasingly blurred. In 2015, billionaire Tamara Ecclestone asked graffiti artist Alec Monopoly to spray paint one of her many, many Hermès Birkin bags, Ikea sells graffiti-sprayed canvasses and Banksy originals fetch six-figure sums at auction. As if that wasn't proof enough of its gentrification, last year spray paint enthusiast Mr Graff joined the Mr Men canon - nestling alongside the greats - Mr Tickle and Mr Bump.
At the same time, Irish teens are being brought to court for tagging and Iarnród Éireann spent €350,000 removing graffiti from train carriages last year. Clearly the art form's ability to agitate and illuminate hasn't waned.
Street artists are aware of this power and like to play around with it. Last month Maser's Repeal the Eighth mural and Dublin City Council's subsequent decision to paint over it caused huge traction.
"That showed the impact a painting on a wall can have. If that piece had been in a gallery it wouldn't have made the same impact," Earley says. "But because it was in a public space, everyone who passes by it takes ownership of it and thinks 'That's ours as well.' In a way that piece isn't Maser's anymore. It has taken legs - people are getting it printed on T-shirts and icing cakes with the graphic. That's pretty incredible."
It's visibility and accessibility of street art that makes it so engaging. Wandering though stark white exhibition spaces can be an intimidating business - how long do you have to stare at the pieces? Do you have to read all those boring blurbs? And is it a bad thing if your favourite part is looking at magnets and coasters in the gift shop?
There is none of that pressure if something is painted across a bus shelter or on the side of a pub, it's there - take it or leave it. Leaving James with a BLT and the remainder of a 30-foot gable to paint, I head back into Waterford. Before journeying to the city, my knowledge of Irish urban and street artists was fairly limited, I could just about name two. But as I study images, I realise I'm more familiar with their work than I gave myself or the artists credit for. I recognise Joe Caslin's work as his evocative sketch of two men embracing was plastered at the end of the street where I live in the run-up to the marriage referendum last year;
I've spotted Dan Leo's angular kingfishers and herons on my Instagram feed and Anna Doran's brightly coloured stencils and swirls were at Bloom Festival in the Phoenix Park. Given the talent here, you'd think The Arts Council would be more supportive of the medium, but the State seems to treat street art with a degree of trepidation.
"It's strange," says Mexican-born artist Kathrina Rupit, one of the Waterford Walls artists. "The Council will ask you to paint a wall to revitalise an area but at the same time there are no walls where we can practise. In Dublin, it's all illegal," she says. "Artists have to practise to improve, but you can't train if there is no space. Walls talk. They say something about a place, so why not use them?"
Kathrina has been living in Ireland for six years. Last year she painted a ramshackle garage in Waterford as part of the festival, this year her work will decorate Thomas Street.
With 40 new works going up this year in Waterford and all the paintings still in situ for last year, I wonder if the city might soon run out of wall space. And would the artists mind if their works were painted over for something shinier and new? "Not at all," Rupit says. "The paints and markers may be permanent but the art is ephemeral, it has its own lifetime that we cannot control. It is out there. It's not ours, it's everyone's."
Waterford Walls runs from August 25-28, see waterfordwalls.ie
Ireland's top street artists
Maser: Known for his bold and bright prints and retro type face. Maser's Repeal the Eighth mural on Project Arts Centre became a nationwide talking point.
James Earley: James draws on his family history for inspiration. The Earleys ran a stained glass studio on Dublin's Camden Street for over 100 years and fragmented blocks of colour can be seen in James's work. James painted the Joycean murals on Temple Bar's Bloom Hotel as well as walls and rooftops around the city.
Joe Caslin: His delicate and distinctive and biodegradable prints carry heavy and important messages. He painted two murals of same sex couples in the run-up to the marriage referendum (one on George's Street and one on the side of a 15th Century castle in Galway) and his Our Nation's Son's project aimed at empowering disillusioned young men.
Dan Leo: Influenced by cartoons from the 1980s and 1990s, Dan Leo's paintings of ginormous birds, foxes and wolfhounds have decorated Grand Canal Dock in Dublin and shop shutters on Usher's Quay. He also designed an anamorphic Tiger for Dublin's Fringe Festival.
Anna Doran: Decorated Lover's Lane in Temple Bar in pink tiles and has worked with Urban Outfitters to kit out their Irish stores. Known for her swirling and twirling stencilled pieces.
Caoilfhionn Hanton: At 17, Caoilfhionn is the youngest artist taking part in the festival. Her piece last year of her brother Alfie was one of the most photographed walls in the city.
Kathrina Rupit: Kathrina's pieces reference her Mexican roots. She likes painting women as "I feel like I am putting part of myself on to the wall". Her pieces are layered with stencils, recycled materials and words scattered the background.