Words to the wise: The graffiti artist cheering up Dublin
After a decade-long credit bender, Ireland needs all the help it can get with its financial hangover. But can a graffiti artist and a songwriter put a smile back on Dublin's face?
Sunday 28 November 2010
Farewell to Your Stairwell Forever". So reads the side of a tower block in Ballymun, a historically deprived area of north Dublin. It might sound pessimistic, but the chirpiness of the blue and yellow stripes with which the words are emblazoned on the dirty grey wall gives more of a clue to the tone of the message: these flats are due for demolition before the end of the year to make way for a much-needed regeneration programme.
For just over a year, graffiti artist Maser has been applying his retro typefaces and bold colours to politically minded Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey's words on edifices such as this. Their project, entitled "They Are Us", is both inspired by and an attempt to enliven Dublin's streets. It is also a fundraising exercise for The Simon Community, a charity set up to help the homeless.
Both Maser and Dempsey are Dublin-born and bred, and if any doubt existed about their love for their town, it is surely dispelled by their work "I'm a Homebird" in its yellow block capitals. But both also recognise that times are difficult, and agree that reminders of what a great city they live in might ' cheer their fellow Dubliners. "It's really tough over here right now; we're in a bit of a state with the loss of jobs," says Dempsey. "Everything in the news is doom and gloom and we thought some positivity would help. We just thought some colourful street art might lift people."
From "Your Back Streets are My Pride & Joy" – swirled in yellow letters on a pink background – to the more high-minded "Ancient Poetry Echoes in Soft Rain Down the Lanes", Dempsey's lyrics (as he terms them) combined with Maser's appealing visual style make for accessible and popular pieces. "I just thought, what would be good on a wall? What would hit people? What would lift a 16-year-old, who's maybe in a dark place, walking through Dublin? And I wanted to say, this city is yours, be good with it," explains the 35-year-old Dempsey. "It's pretty simple, but poetry can be simple. I think a lot of working-class people who haven't had a lot of education think poetry has to be complicated or has to rhyme – but I'm saying poetry can be just one line, and that it's for anyone."
For Maser, who prefers to keep his real name and age secret, the style of the work chimes with Dublin's history: he took his inspiration for the typefaces and colours from the hand-painted signs and adverts seen around the city between the 1930s and 1960s. "I was partly inspired by Kevin Freeney, a signwriter in Dublin who died in 1983," explains Maser, who after studying at a Dublin design college, became a member of the Society of Typographic Designers. He also garnered inspiration from – what else? – Guinness: his artworks recall those old "Guinness is Good for You" adverts. When the pair did a series of "They Are Us" prints, they even sourced the same old-fashioned, high-quality paper used in the Guinness posters. "I didn't want to go down the graffiti road; I wanted the content to be appropriate to the context," adds Maser. "We both love Dublin, so anything we did had to be appropriate to the city – it was like a homage to Freeney and the history of the place."
The pair met less than a year-and-a-half ago. Maser had grown sick of spiky graffiti and anti-capitalist messages, and had been working on a series of upbeat stencils, stickers and graffiti called "Maser Loves You", with curvy type, cheery messages and splashes of hot pink. A long-term fan of Dempsey's music, he had a plan to combine their talents, and persuaded the singer-songwriter to meet him in the pub. Over a pint or two, they discussed the project. "I'd listened to his music for years, and I was doing a lot of positive messages on the street – and I just had an idea I could join the two together," says Maser. "I said, 'You just give me the words and I'll put them on the wall.'"
While Dempsey's songs have a thread of damning social commentary running through them, there is always an element of hope, too. "Getting through the last recession, in the 1980s, was a bit of a test of your mettle," he says. "A lot of people didn't make it through those years of drugs and social welfare. I write about tough times, but I always had a chink of hope in my songs, and Maser liked that." So much so that he immortalised Dempsey in spray-paint: two weeks after their meeting, Maser put "Damien Dempsey Gives Me Hope" on the side of a Dublin gig venue. "That was my deposit – letting him know I was serious," chuckles Maser.
Over the past year, Dempsey has been texting, emailing or meeting up in person with Maser to hand over his lyrics, ' and up they'd go around the city. Though the works are inevitably transient, being open to the elements (and other tag-happy graffiti artists), Maser aimed for a little more longevity than usual. Most of the locations were privately owned and permission was granted before work began, meaning it wouldn't get whitewashed the next day. While getting permission could prove time-consuming, it also resulted in them getting access to some rather resonant sites. And as more work went up, and began to attain cult status, getting permission became an easier task.
The last remaining Ballymun tower was a particularly important location. "We had to go through the city council; it took two months of preparation – and two days of painting," says Maser. "There was a lot of red tape, health and safety, all that. But [painting] it was such an enjoyable experience. It was a great laugh, and the people there were really nice. Plus, you make this big visual impact on the area – I stepped back to look at it and I was chuffed." The farewell slogan hints at its own imminent destruction – the rest of the blocks of flats have already been pulled down – but the current financial climate might mean the work sticks around longer than expected: it's rumoured that government spending cuts may put a halt to the regeneration programme.
They also had the opportunity to work in St Patrick's Institution for Young Offenders and Mountjoy jail, meeting inmates as well as leaving a lasting message on the walls. "I thought, 'What could I put that could mean something for these people?'" says Dempsey. He opted for "There's Friends I've Yet to Meet". As part of the project, Dempsey played a gig at Mountjoy, while Maser ran spray-painting classes for offenders. He felt that he learnt as much as they did: "Going to the prison was an education; it took away any stigma you might have attached to the place."
While they insist there is an emphasis on positive messages in their work, there is also plenty of anger coming through that polite, neat type. Dempsey speaks with a fear that Ireland is heading back to the bad old days of the 1980s. For him, the country's financial woes are bound up with national history and character.
"People are really feeling ripped off. There's this Irish feeling that we have to own land – it's a deeply ingrained feeling, from having not been able to own land historically. We had that mentality, that we had to buy while we could, and the estate agents and developers took advantage of it. Now people have lost their jobs, they can't make their mortgage payments. We got a lot of money and we didn't know how to handle it, how to be cool with it – we went crazy on credit and spending." In such a pronouncement you can see the genesis of one of the longest, and most hard-hitting, pieces from "They Are Us": the 80-meter long "Greed is the Knife & the Scars Run Deep" running along a wall by the docks.
But Dempsey is also a mouthpiece for the current mood of frustration, the feeling that those who caused the financial crisis are barely feeling the fall-out while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet. When asked which his favourite work is, Dempsey cites the angry "I'd Rather Trust a Dealer on a Badly Lit Street Corner, than a Criminal in a Three Piece Suit". "A lot of the fat cats here, the bankers, have really done a job on us. They're getting away free – it's like there's one law for the rich and another for the rest."
Maser, however, is keen on pointing out that the messages are often funny, too. While there's a gentle humour to the rather cute "Give the Mirror a Kiss the Odd Time", Maser offers quite a different example: "It's All Good", in huge capital letters, on the "peace line" fence which separates Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast.
However, Maser is keen to distance himself from the Northern Irish tradition of sectarian murals. The divisive political murals, many showing violent historical moments from the Troubles, were often painted on the gable ends of rows of terraced houses – although many have been painted over in more recent years. Maser insists that the political murals and street art are two different disciplines: "It's something that I'm aware of, but it's not applicable [to what I'm doing]. My work is more of a homage to the signwriter tradition, and a social commentary on current affairs."
Plus, as Maser points out, "People can take their own spin on it; that's what most art does, invites interpretation rather than thrusting something down people's throats."
Perhaps as a result of its open-ended nature, "They Are Us" has gathered quite a following – and not just among graffiti enthusiasts or twentysomething hipsters. When they held an exhibition of prints and photographs, Maser was pleased to see all ages coming along – even "grannies bringing kids with them". The success can partly be chalked ' up to Maser's typographical choices, which have a simple appeal and a vintage look that's currently rather in vogue. But it also, of course, speaks to older generations, who fondly remember Freeney's hand-painted signs.
In the spirit of the venture, the duo made sure that the prints were priced at an affordable rate. And by doing so, they have managed to raise more than £40,000 so far – all of which will be going to fund a medical van to help Dublin's homeless population.
"We have a big problem here with homeless people, and the Simon Community is very good to them," Dempsey insists. "Their bodies are in a bad shape, but this can help, providing bandages for wounds or clean needles for heroin users. The Simon Community already has soup kitchens and they give people sleeping bags in the winter – they just help people survive. And they said that what they really needed was a medical van."
Maser and Dempsey were lucky enough to receive some donations when they first embarked on "They Are Us", enabling them to buy all the materials they needed up front,
and allowing all the money from print sales to go directly towards buying the medical van.
It is a fitting cause. Maser was partly inspired to put out his upbeat messages after encounters with the city's homeless people and drug addicts. Spending days on the street – mostly in Dublin's less homogenised, tidied-up spaces – he naturally got chatting to people whose voices are not often heard. It was partly these encounters that turned him off the cynical or negative messages more traditionally associated with street art, and on to his celebration of the city and its people. Addressing dispossessed individuals with words of hope, he turned "Underachievers" into "Urban Achievers".
Today, one wall in Dublin reads: "In a World Full of Shame & Regret Do Something to be Proud of". Maser and Dempsey should probably allow themselves a moment to step back and admire that one – job done.
A limited number of screen prints inspired by the project will be available for purchase soon from damiendempsey.com
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