Since the pandemic, homeowners have been seeking a source of colour and inspiration for their gardens with murals instead of flowers and plants, and the transformative power has paid dividends
When you’re perched in your backyard, or find yourself whiling away the hours in your front garden, what do your eyes reach for? Is it flower beds or unwelcome weeds, neatly trimmed lawns or large slabs of concrete?
Up until recently, many of us took our outdoor spaces for granted, dedicating TLC to our interiors while allowing those ever-present Irish clouds to cast their shadow over our gardens. Our intentions may be good, but the space surrounding our homes tend to become something of an afterthought.
As with most things, this certainly changed over the course of the pandemic. Left with nowhere to escape to but our own back gardens, many sought to find a way to bring their personalities to the surface of their space. In direct contrast to the dreariness and misery that seemed to permeate the world around us, homeowners around Ireland found solace in splashes of colour, commissioning artists to lend their creative talent to a bare back wall or the side of a garden shed.
“Through Covid, there was a huge amount of people that wanted to do up their gardens, because it was the space they were living in the most,” says Dublin muralist DECOY. “It was the only place where people could go, and so there was this weird influx amongst a bunch of us. For the last three years, I’ve been doing a lot of garden murals.”
Known at a glance for his vibrant colour stories and signature abstract style, DECOY strives to inject a spirit of wonder into unsuspecting places while providing a pause from the chaos of everyday life. “Part of what my murals encapsulate is a sense of joyous fun — it’s just all wild,” he says.
Speaking on the draw of domesticated street art for homeowners, DECOY says: “There’s something in it that you just can’t quite get with normal plant life, it helps the tone and mood of a garden. Even in the winter months, it can really brighten up a grey garden that doesn’t have flowers, to something that’s super bright and fun.”
In contrast to his collaborative work within the street art community, the intimacy of spending an afternoon in the seclusion of someone’s backyard appeals to DECOY. “It’s a nice experience because you can be on your own, and get to know the life of your patron as you catch a little insight into their world,” he says.
Those same feelings of intimacy within someone else’s space also resonate with Sophia Vigne Welsh, a visual artist whose multi-layered abstract murals can be seen adorning the walls of city streets, beer gardens and back walls across Dublin and Wicklow.
“When you’re working on a garden mural, you get an insight into their private lives, and the atmosphere that they want to create,” says Sophia. “Some clients want a super busy wall that’s fun for their kids to look at and interact with. Others want a more peaceful palate, so that it creates a more relaxing setting — it very much varies from place to place.”
Regularly being commissioned to add her own personal flair to the exterior of family homes, Sophia has found herself enjoying this departure from working alone in the studio. “There’s a social aspect to it that I really enjoy,” she says. “I’ve had some really lovely experiences with commissions. On one commission, the homeowner’s mum was in hospital at the time, and she had told me that the wall was for her.”
The process of domesticated street art varies depending on the artist and the needs of the homeowner, but for Sophia, she’s enjoyed an unrestricted run at things. Entrusted to create something spectacular within any given space, her process can begin with drawing up a sketch or two for the client to choose between — working within the confines of a colour scheme if so required — or completely freestyling on the day.
“It’s usually the ones that I haven’t come up with a concept of design for are the ones that I end up being the most satisfied with. For me, I’ve been given quite a lot of free rein. I tend to be contacted by people that are familiar with my style, so they let me lead with the design.”
For an artist, there is no greater feeling than being given the unencumbered freedom to do what they do best and simply create. When it comes to transforming a bare wall into a work of art, Dublin-based muralist and painter James Kirwan is a freestyle fanatic.
“Generally, I tend to improvise based on a colour scheme, because that’s how I work best. For bigger spaces, I would start out with a design and use that as the bones, but for a smaller wall, there’s no pre-design.”
An NCAD fine art graduate, James first dipped his toe into the world of street art about eight years ago, and in those intervening years, he has made quite the name for himself.
“I was always a studio painter, and had only ever flirted with painting walls and murals the odd time,” James says. “I started doing the back garden murals a couple of years ago; just one-off ones here and there, but during the first lockdown, it really took off. Everyone was stuck at home and people were looking at their back gardens and sheds and all kinds of things, so I just went with it. It kept me sane and it kept me busy for months.”
For James, the main difference between his lone studio work and painting walls is pace. “In my studio, working on canvases, it can take weeks, or months even. There have been a few occasions where I’ll pull out a canvas that’s years old, and change it up a bit. That process can drag on for so long within the comfy confines of my studio, but when I’m working outdoors, you have to work quicker. There’s a real freedom in working on a larger surface, you can cover a lot and get a lot done with spray paints and rollers in comparison to getting up-close and fiddly on a canvas. Impact for the audience, it’s instant.”
Síne Kelly and her partner Connie Leahy recently commissioned James to paint a mural in their back garden in Dublin. “Ever since we bought the house and renovated it, we always had a dream of having a mural done on that ugly, grey, ivy-ridden wall, especially as we love street art. James’s style was exactly what we wanted on the wall but we left it up to him as to what it would look like, save for a special request for a fox for our daughters who love hearing about the one that visits the garden sometimes.”
Síne says the finished piece is everything they could hope for and more. “I was genuinely blown away. It sounds like a total cliche but it put an instant smile on my face. It has totally transformed the garden. We are now in the garden every chance we get. I catch myself staring at it sometimes, it’s a total mood-lifter.”
A truly unique way of bringing the heart of your home into the outside world while supporting the arts, the growing trend of garden murals springing up around the country is only on the up. Colour lifts your heart, and these murals make sure that even on the most grey of days, you can look out your window and see this carefully crafted piece of art living just outside your door.