Street art is million miles away from ‘tagging’

KEVIN O’BRIEN of the Mad About Cork artistic group says there is a marked difference between their artwork in the city and the ‘tagging’ that leaves scars and is just an act of vandalism
Street art is million miles away from ‘tagging’
Kevin O'Brien of Mad About Cork

FOR the past couple of years, as a co-founder, street artist, and volunteer with Mad About Cork, I’ve seen first hand how street art can bring positivity and add vibrancy to any urban area.

Equally, graffiti tagging can have the complete opposite effect.

A series of tagging incidents on homes, businesses and historic buildings in recent months have shown the demoralising effect, not to mention the financial cost, of such acts of vandalism.

While people in areas like Douglas Street, Barrack Street, North Main Street, and Shandon are doing their utmost to promote their neighbourhoods and the city, unsightly tagging remains a seemingly never-ending issue that communities have to deal with.

It’s encouraging to see the recent announcement that Cork City Council is putting up a €70,000 fund to seek innovative ideas to tackle the graffiti problem.

Talk is cheap, putting your money where your mouth is and acting on it is what matters. Currently, the ultimate responsibility to remove graffiti is left with the property owner, but any plan to reduce the amount of tagging in the city needs active support and input from the council as well as community groups, business organisations, and the gardaí.

In the past couple of years, we at Mad About Cork have worked on many street art and urban gardening projects with the aim of improving the appearance of neglected and badly tagged sites in the city, often with other community groups, schools, charities, and businesses.

We’ve had hundreds of people from all over the world, not just Cork, attend our weekly volunteer meet-ups held on Saturdays. Their hard work has led to the transformation of numerous rundown city centre spaces into urban gardens, which we maintain regularly, perhaps most notably at our Coal Quay vegetable garden on Portney’s Lane.

We’ve also organised large art projects at Coleman’s Lane and Kyrl’s Quay, painted several murals and dozens of electrical boxes honouring icons of Cork culture as diverse as Tanora, Cillian Murphy, and Agnes Mary Clerke, the only Corkonian with a moon crater named after her. Although we haven’t been immune to the odd act of vandalism to our work, one example being a fairly odious hate speech slogan painted on one of our murals. But overall, the reaction from the public and the powers-that-be in the city has been nothing but positive.

Through our work, we’ve witnessed the benefits of street art and how it can re-energise areas that people want to avoid, turning them into places where locals and tourists want to go to take selfies.

The distinction between graffiti and street art all depends on your point of view and often both terms are interchangeable, but if I had to define them, I would say graffiti is a sort of sub-culture where a graffiti artist’s main concern is to gain recognition of their work from other graffiti artists rather than the general public. Street art can be loosely explained as operating more openly, being more acceptable to the public, and is probably closer to the structures and conventions of public art than graffiti art.

To be fair, graffiti is many different things and is not always without its merits. When given the time to create large detailed pieces of graffiti art, such as on the legal graffiti wall at White Street car park in the city, the amount of artistic skill and creativity involved is clear to see. Where graffiti has no merit and can’t be accepted, is when taggers wantonly scar homes and businesses with a crude tag that identifies them to other taggers for no other apparent reason than to boost their ego. This can potentially cause thousands of euros worth of damage, affect people’s livelihoods, and lead to further anti-social behaviour in areas.

This is the sort of mindless tagging that needs to be eradicated, but given that no city in the world has found a solution to stop graffiti occurring, there is also a need to encourage graffiti artists to use their skills in positive ways rather than vandalising houses, businesses, and, in some cases, almost entire streets.

In Waterford, the annual Waterford Walls street art festival held in August has shown how embracing this street art can have a positive social and economic impact by bringing beauty and colour to rundown city centre locations, while also reducing incidents of tagging. The potential for something similar in Cork is massive, but the key to anything like this getting off the ground would be the support of the city council, community groups and businesses organisations, as well as the graffiti artists themselves.

To start with, however, simple measures can be taken to prevent tagging. The quicker a tag is removed after it appears, the better. In some cases, where walls are repeatedly targeted, adding plants and trees can be a way of limiting access and also has the added advantage of adding beauty to an area. Having more designated walls for graffiti artists could also reduce tagging happening illegally elsewhere.

With White Street car park to be developed soon, finding another suitable area for a legal graffiti wall should also be on the agenda. Who knows what ideas will come about on the back of the council’s €70,000 fund, but here’s hoping a workable solution can be found that sees the city get a handle on the mindless graffiti tagging that has blighted us in recent years.

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