Opinion: Artist Emma Blake on the future of Dublin’s creative scene

by Rachel Darcy

In a follow up to our feature on street art last week, artist Emma Blake discusses the culture of street art in Dublin, and what she believes the city needs to do to help creatives.

“At the moment in Dublin, for creatives, the future looks bleak. With each creative space that closes down, more and more artists are finding it hard to see a future in Dublin and deciding to leave for places like Berlin that encourages and appreciates creativity. 

“Most recently, and probably the one that hit the hardest, was the announcement that The Bernard Shaw was set to close, after months of fighting behind the scenes to stay put. The Bernard Shaw is where I painted at my first ever graffiti jam. It’s where so many graff writers and street artists, as well as DJs and bands, got their first opportunities.

“They actively promote sustainability and environmental issues – offering a free pint to people who collect rubbish from the canal and bring it in, or if they bring in an eco brick they’ve made, they were one of the first to ban plastic straws, have compost bins in Eatyard and provide reusable plastic glasses for people bringing drinks to the outside areas.

“There has been regular graffiti and street art jams in The Bernard Shaw since it opened in 2006, and they also lent their front walls to street artists looking to paint, both just-for-fun pieces and pieces about certain issues they wanted to make a statement about. This is where I painted the Not Asking For It piece this time last year, after a 17 year old’s underwear was brought into question in a rape trial in Cork.

“It is also where Aches painted the portrait of Savita Halappanavar in the run up to the Repeal Referendum and Jess Tobin (Novice) painted a piece in the run up to the marriage equality referendum. The Shaw has also hosted First Fortnight Mental Health Festival jams, International Women’s Day jams and most recently The Minaw Collective painted a huge piece raising awareness of environmental issues.

“It’s nearly a year now since The Tivoli Theatre closed down. This was a huge hit for nightlife in Dublin; it was a great venue for gigs and club nights. However, it was also a big hit for street art culture in the city. The annual All City Jam was held there every year for 11 years, with the last one happening in 2018. There was no All City Jam this year, as there is nowhere in the city centre big enough to host that amount of artists.

“The jam saw 40 Irish and international street artists and graff writers transform the car park and outside walls of the Tivoli Theatre with new artwork every summer. The Tivoli Theatre was then sold and knocked down to make way for holiday apartments. However, the walls surrounding the premises are still standing. I can still see the piece I painted at the 2018 jam when I walk by the site.

“If developers were smart, they would keep the walls that surround their premises, which were once the walls of the Tivoli Theatre car park. The Tivoli Theatre has been knocked down, but all of the surrounding car park walls, with a lot of the street art from the last All City Jam in 2018, are still standing.

“They should recognise this opportunity, keep all of these walls, and once the building has finished, continue hosting the annual All City Jam there. They would be foolish not to see the draw for tourists this would have to their apartments, over other accommodation options.

“If you look at photos people post of their trips abroad, street art is one of the main features. People love getting photos in front of the different street art around a city. Street art has become a major part of cities around the world.

“It is a huge draw for tourists, revealing a city’s personality and culture to them. Dublin City Council should really recognise this and encourage it, instead of ordering murals to be painted over and turning Dublin into a culture-less city full of nothing but hotels.

“Building owners commission or give permission for street art to be painted on their walls or building, the council then order the street art to be removed as it hasn’t been given planning permission, but they never give planning permission for pieces when people do apply.

Jess Tobin’s Marriage Equality piece

“A lot of the time the reason for this is that it is in a ‘protected’ area – the whole of the city centre seems to be when it comes to street art, however, these areas all have billboards and other advertisements plastered all over them, so why are they given permission, but art isn’t?

“If you look at Belfast, where they don’t need to get permission from the council to paint, the city centre has loads of really amazing street art pieces. It brings the city to life, and attracts a lot of tourists, with arts organisations like Seedhead Arts running regular packed out street art tours of the city centre.

“As well as artists regularly painting in Belfast throughout the year, they also have an annual street art festival, Hit The North.

“Dublin is one of the few main cities in the world that doesn’t have it’s own annual street art festival. If you look at cities all over the world, so many of them now have annual street art festivals, in the UK alone there is Upfest (Bristol), Meeting of Styles (London), Bring The Paint (Leicester), Yardworks (Glasgow), Nuart (Aberdeen), Rochdale Uprising (Manchester), Cheltenham Paint Festival, Blackburn Open Walls and loads more. I won’t go listing the street art festivals in the rest of Europe or the world, because there are too many, but you get the point.

“Every major city, and so many not-so-major cities, have an annual street art festival. But here in Dublin we’re Bally-go-backwards, still fighting with the council for street art to be appreciated and recognised as a worthy art-form that deserves space and permission to exist in the city.

El Viz’s image of Dublin

“Dublin is being left behind. But there are so many amazingly talented artists in the city, there is scope for street art to become a major focal point in the city, but only if the council ease up on the stringent planning permission laws, start protecting cultural hubs (the very few we have left), and also look into Dublin getting an annual street art festival, similar to the festivals in so many cities around the world.

“This will need to happen soon if we don’t want to lose our creatives to cities that do appreciate and encourage creativity.

“I know of too many now who have left or are now planning on leaving as a result of creative spaces closing down, no walls to paint and ridiculously high rents – another issue we should take a leaf out of Berlin’s book to deal with. They have just frozen rents for 5 years to prevent what is happening here at the moment.

One artist we’ve already lost to Berlin is El Viz, who recently stuck posters around the city of his portrayal of Dublin at the moment.

Will St Leger

“Another we are soon to lose to Berlin is Will St. Leger, one of Dublin’s veteran street artists, who in his own words “fought hard to stay in Ireland during the recession”. Will and Maser painted this piece outside The Bernard Shaw in 2009.

“Many more are going to leave if you continue down the track we’re going, I know I’m starting to consider it. There is overwhelming support for street art in the city, so why should we have a grey city because a small percentage of people don’t like street art?”

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