Friday 23 August 2019

Pól Ó Conghaile: Street Art can transform cities for locals and tourists

Murals can provide a surprising angle for tours in often neglected areas, says our Travel Editor

Camden Street, Dublin
Camden Street, Dublin
Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight, by Conor Harrington, in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
The Volunteers mural at Trinity by Joe Caslin
Street art in Limerick. The spectral child pictured is the work of Dermot McConaghy (DMC).
James Earley at work
The Hendrick's lobby with a piece by Maser over the reception area.
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

There was a time when street art was seen as vandalism. Painting a mural on a wall was like dumping a pile of rubbish on the street.

Today, it's another story.

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Street art is turning heads all over the world. Think of Banksy's pieces, of street art tours in London, of crowds at Miami's Wynwood Walls, Valparaiso in Chile, or Berlin's iconic East Side Gallery.

The acceptance of street art has been speeding up for decades; now Instagram has added rocket fuel.

But street art is about more than selfies.

Murals (as distinct from scrawled tags or indiscriminate stickers) can take the edge off empty lots or jarring builds. They can help transform neighbourhoods from no-go areas, breathe life into dead spaces, play a role in reflecting local culture and community heroes.

Street art can be political. Or social commentary. Or it can just be. By their nature, pieces fade and are replaced - a fleeting spirit that adds impact.

In tourism terms, Ireland has been slow to the party. This year saw the loss of seminal walls with the demolition of Dublin's Tivoli Theatre. However, it also saw the opening of The Hendrick - a self-styled 'street art hotel' curated by James Earley.

August 22-25 brings the fifth Waterford Walls festival (waterfordwalls.ie), and Belfast and Limerick have vibrant scenes.

belfast, black box, belfast.jpg
Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight, by Conor Harrington, in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter

Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight, Conor Harrington's allegorical duel in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, is one of my favourite pieces. It strikes a brilliant counterpoint to the city's political murals.

Street art can be large-scale, like Joe Caslin's portraits of young men in hoodies. Or small, like Mad About Cork's painting of electrical boxes in the Rebel City. The latter are pops of colour that catch your eye, before surprising with witty takes on local icons like Cillian Murphy or the O'Donovan Brothers ("Cork: 2; Not Cork: 1").

Why discuss street and tourism?

Because it can lift the urban landscape for all. It's free to see. It provides a surprising angle for tours in often neglected areas; a talking point that teases out the stories and culture behind the paint. I'd love to see more murals, and tours, in Irish cities.

Of course, one man's masterpiece is another's mess.

Not everyone enjoys street art, or its themes. More street art than ever is created in collaboration with councils and business, but much continues to be thrown up illegally. There are questions of permission, of 'legal' walls - not to mention artist integrity and what may be lost when murals go mainstream.

But think of the horrendous amount of outdoor advertising we already live with. I know what I'd prefer.

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