The writing’s on the wall – graffiti in Ireland

The Drogheda Graffiti Jam of 2012

The Drogheda Graffiti Jam of 2012

Hopping a fence and scrambling down the overgrown banks of the river Boyne by the side of a bridge in Drogheda is an unusual activity for a hazy Sunday afternoon. A cloying smell of spray paint hits about half-way down, as three young be-hoodied pups, taking it in turns to cover a side wall with colour, look up and then carry on with the task at hand.

Under the Bridge of Peace, groups of older lads are having a smoke as they contemplate their work. On both sides of the river, the gigantic internal supports of the bridge are covered in half-completed large-scale graffiti work. At the foot of the walls are dozens of cans of spraypaint; ladders and pulleys rest against the stone-work.

It’s the annual Bridge Jam in Drogheda, the biggest event in the Irish graffiti calendar. It is a highlight of the year for the Co Louth town and one of the longest-running and most reputable events in the world of international graffiti. The Jam is organised by RASK, the ‘godfather of Irish graffiti’. He had chuckled at the description a few days earlier, saying that, having recently turned 40, he was more like the grandfather of Irish graffiti.

Indeed, his birthday surprise took the form of a remarkably lifelike joke portrait on the bridge wall. He doesn’t seem too worried about the fact that it helped me recognise him in the crowd, despite the general tendency among graffiti ‘writers’ to avoid images and photos which show any recognisable body art. “Look at my artwork, don’t bother about who I am,” he says. “They hunted until they got Banksy’s photo. Why does it matter?”

RASK has been an active ‘writer’ since 1987. He says most of the crew present at the bridge this year have been painting for nearly 20 years. Some have flown in from Denmark, others the UK. TDA Klann is Ireland’s first and longest-standing graffiti crew, founded in Drogheda in 1991. The walls under the peace bridge were “given” to them in 1993. The idea, according to RASK, was to follow what was happening in New York and seek permission to do walls. That way writers could come out in daylight and really excel. “They liked our first mural and we’ve run the event since 1994. It’s become engrained in the fabric of the town.”

RASK (shortened from Rascal) completed his first-ever piece in this very location in Drogheda. “It was August ‘87. That was me hooked to be honest. This was the ‘80s. A totally different mindset. I stood on the other side of the river and looked across and that was it. I had to do another one and another one, bigger, more colours, riskier places…”

His personal story is like those of most of his contemporaries throughout Europe, the first generation of graffiti artists in this part of the world. “In the mid-eighties, hip-hop came as a package to Europe,” he recalls. “It was this new cool culture out of New York. Exciting music, dance and art all came together.” Some writers were also break dancers or DJs.

Repainting the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda, 2012

Repainting the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda, 2012

“I always say graffiti is the bastard son of hip-hop,” he explains, “because the dancers and rappers make money now and have gone mainstream. We’re the people still on the street doing stuff. Even some of the famous graffiti artists are out there for the love of it, as opposed to the paycheque.”

Many events, including the Bridge Jam are now supported by paint companies, in this instance Montana. Local governments, arts councils and companies who have a vested interest in the urban market have also invested in the scene, paying for travel and expenses and sometimes offering a small fee.

“Many artists fund their paint simply out of their wages,” RASK says. “Of course there is paint sponsorship and paid work which also helps you build up a stock of paint. Some of the high-profile artists will have some kind of paint sponsorship. It depends on your productivity. Not everyone is out there painting all the time. Sometimes I use six colours, other times I could be at a wall with 50 cans.” At around a fiver a can, that can add up pretty quickly.

Another Irish writer, A.K.A.CRAP from Galway, painted at the bridge this year. He has a distinctively Celtic “Book of Kells”-ish style, a mix of knotwork and zoomorphic symbols with ‘80s New York graffiti. He started painting in 2001, influenced by an Australian school friend who showed him the ropes. “I used to see old freights with TDA and JOR pieces on them and always wondered what it was about.” Now he knows, and depending on how active he is, he says his art usually costs him a few grand a year.

The world of graffiti is made up of hierarchies. It’s also very macho, though there are a handful of girls on the scene. RASK is not especially keen on sharing traditions outside the circle, but he does offer a few pointers.

“Learn your culture, learn your roots,” he says. “It’s a very traditional art form. That’s weird for people to understand! You need to know your league position and who you’re connected to. I would never damage places of worship, I tend to steer away from private property. Historic monuments are kind of a no-no. Anything I’ve done, I feel I’ve added to the place not taken away from it. I’m enhancing, not damaging. The point is to make your own name as stylish and tricked-out and fancy as you can.”

He says this is one of the fundamental differences between graffiti and other forms of street expression. “Writers write for themselves and for each other,” he emphasises. “You’re not trying to impress street artists. You’re not in a war or a competition. We share the same canvas and yet we do it for ourselves. People don’t realise that we have culture and tradition. And ‘graffiti art’ – I don’t mean it disrespectfully – but it’s the name the media choose to give our work. We call ourselves ‘writers’. I know it’s splitting hairs. We say writers ‘cause we’re writing our names. I think ‘graffiti’ is a bad name actually.”

Having campaigned against ‘tagging’ earlier in his career, he has now reverted to seeing it as a positive. “Tagging is part of what we do,” he observes. “It’s a crucial part of the overall package of being a graffiti writer. Tagging is entry-level writing. We all would have been taggers originally, until we graduate to do the bigger, fancier pieces.”

He’s very critical of those who classify urban art into the ‘acceptable’ and the ‘unacceptable’. “My personal response is, ‘who made you the art critics’? You get people saying ‘I like the paste-ups, but the tagging that makes no sense’… well that’s fine because you’re not meant to understand it. What we do is our own sub-culture: it’s for us, by us. We’re not doing it for the public. And I didn’t ask to see a beer sponsorship down a building or a big McDonald’s sign in the urban space either.”

Graffiti under the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda

Graffiti under the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda

So why do writers take to the street in the first place? “The basis of it is to get your name everywhere. I know it sounds weird, but that’s the difference between us and the street artists. Our name is what we’re pushing. ‘Brandalism’, somebody once called it. My brand is RASK, it’s a nom-de-plume, it’s a persona. I’m not always RASK, I’m a married man with two kids and I don’t live my life as RASK every day. I’m a son, father and husband, I mow lawns and empty bins and I take on this persona when I paint.”

He warns against the attempts of the media to generalise: every artist has a different background. That much, you can see immediately from the group of people balancing on ladders or crouched around the wall. RASK himself has a warm, open face.

“I work in a completely different field by day,” he notes. “The guys I work with range from graphic designers and tattoo artists through a magazine editor, to the sons and daughters of judges and Gardaí. People forget that for the vast majority of us, the only crime we commit is putting paint on a surface. We’re not running wild doing all sorts. We just want to paint. There is that element amongst us of course, but the majority are just people who want to express themselves, and the street’s the canvas, unfortunately or fortunately.”

He was a strong supporter of the introduction of ‘permission walls’ like Windmill Lane. “As I matured as an artist and as an adult, I had to weigh up if it was worth it,” he reflects. “I have responsibilities now and having the police showing up at the front door because I spray-painted somewhere is kinda, you know… at my age it’s not really cool.”

While A.K.A.CRAP echoes the sentiment, he respects those who still go ‘bombing’. “The older I get the less of an interest it is to me,” he says. “For me, it’s always been more about painting quality pieces. But I’ve seen many crazy things done by people just to get their names in a great spot. It takes a certain type of mindset to push yourself to do that. I’ve a lot of respect for people who do that. It’s crazy to watch… ”

Wider conversations about street art have hinted at cherry pickers, rappelling and whispered rumours of the unorthodox use of a fire hydrant, so clearly, creativity is the key.Criminal charges can ensue if you’re caught applying paint to private or public surfaces without authorisation. RASK says things have moved on in Ireland.

“In the UK they’ve insisted on custodial sentences in the last year or so,” he acknowledges. “Here it depends on age, location, amount. Usually it’s dealt with in terms of fines or good behaviour bonds, but we don’t have the same level of street tagging or ‘vandalism’ that Europe or the UK has.”

He is aware that doing something illegal is part of the fascination for some. “The nature of the art form is

Artwork by Irish graffiti writer and artist under the bridge in Drogheda

Artwork by Irish graffiti writer and artist under the bridge in Drogheda

uncontrollable,” he says. “It’s meant to be free. We have rules but not that many. It becomes just another established art form otherwise, which is not what we want.”

The network has changed too from the pre-internet days when a handful of ‘writers’ were based in Drogheda, Belfast, Dublin and Cork. “Not having internet made it a bit more magical,” RASK smiles. “In the early days it was an old boy’s club, you had to know someone who would pass you on the address or phone number or arrange a rendez-vous. It was very hard to get into that circle: it was a secret society. It’s changed a lot since then of course, with the establishment of events such as this – young kids can come and meet the guys first hand and chat to them and take something away from the event. It’s become more accessible, as people grow up with it.”

Discussing the rise of street art, A.K.A.CRAP feels that someone could create one piece of art on a wall and call themselves a street artist. “But you can’t just put a tag up and say you’re a graffiti writer, you’ve got to prove yourself within the scene. I love good original street art, stuff that blows me away, stuff I can’t do. I do have a problem with artists, illustrators ripping off street styles and creating generic Blek le Rat, Banksy and Obey stuff.”

One of the most culturally significant projects on this island in recent years is the Peace Wall in Belfast which started in 2009, with the wall separating two communities being turned into an art gallery – encompassing street art and graffiti – and slowing down traffic on the road, much to the delight of the locals.

“I have strong links to Belfast and they’re very open to murals,” RASK says, “but youth workers realised that the imagery being put on these walls is not good for kids to see. A couple of people took some brave moves to get us guys in to do some cross-community murals and repaint some of the partisan murals. We ended up negotiating to do the mile-long road that separates the Springfield Road from the Shankill Road.”

Who’d have predicted it: graffiti artists helping to heal historic divides? “For us, aside from the history and location, as a wall surface it’s unbelievable,” RASK states. “It was something that we had to do. For me it was an education to talk to the people. It is historic.”

This article ran in the first September issue of Hot Press, it was the second in a series of articles I was researching for the magazine about street art in Ireland. Read the original article here.

 

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

2 Responses to The writing’s on the wall – graffiti in Ireland

  1. Pingback: The Writing’s on the wall – graffiti in Ireland « Monica Heck

  2. Pingback: Walls, Walls, Walls | Dublin City Council Beta Projects

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