“Art is Anything You Can Get Away With”

What some call vandalism others call art. Mary Kate Hickey spoke to graffiti artists and art experts to get their perspective on graffiti culture.

An example of a simple tag. Image: Mary Kate Hickey

Graffiti has become a popular part of modern day culture, with some museums and galleries even featuring it in their exhibitions.  However in many countries including Ireland, graffiti is still illegal unless the property owner has given their permission.
Can graffiti be considered art, or is it simply a form of vandalism? Smer, a 20 year old Dubliner in his third year in a Dublin college, and Trevor Coulahan a graphic designer and street artist share their opinions on graffiti with FILTR.

“Smer is my tag name, it’s what I write on the walls and trains I paint” he said adding how he wishes to remain anonymous as what he does is illegal.  “My friends got me interested in it there’s a group of us who go out to paint or write together, we’re called BPK” said Smer.

Artwork by Smer which can be seen from the platforms of Connolly Station in Dublin. Image: Mary Kate Hickey

“Personally I don’t consider myself an artist, I’m a writer.  To me a writer is someone who paints the streets, tracks and trains, we do tags, throws and dubs*.  While I think of an artist as someone who is spreading a message with what they paint, someone using stencils, or creating original and elaborate imagery. But it’s all objective these labels we’ve been given, some people might see it differently” he added.

One of the people Smer said he considers an artist is Trevor Coulahan.  “I paint on the streets, on canvas, and do design work for companies.  Technically I’m a graphic designer, street artist and fine artist, so I guess artist is fine, it covers all bases!” said Trevor.  “But if I was to say I considered some graffiti writer an ‘artist’ I could in actual fact be insulting the individual.  Graffiti has its own rich history outside of the art world” he added.

But just because graffiti can be considered apart from the art world does not mean it has no connection to art at all.   “I really think graffiti has the capacity to be both vandalism and art, I don’t necessarily think it has to be one or the other. But I think people need to educate themselves to what graffiti actually is” Trevor stated.

Graffiti is a sub culture, it stems from, and is one of the four main elements of the hip-hop culture that emerged in the late 60s in America.  Young writers often begin with ‘black books’, where they draw letters and figure out what letters look nice next to each other and how they flow together.  It takes time and a lot of practice to develop a style, and to learn how to be confident with a spray can.

That’s where tagging comes in, it allows writers to practice their hand style while at the same time getting their tag seen. “People always give out about how unsightly tags look, but without tags you don’t get the amazing pieces that devolve from that practice” Trevor explains.

This somewhat non-acceptance of graffiti from the general public however may well be okay with those who do graffiti. “Graffiti is insular, and it is for graffiti writers. I don’t think they really want acceptance from the general public” Trevor said.

el viz
Artwork: Trevor Coulahan @el_vis_art. Image: Mary Kate Hickey

“I do graffiti because I always liked the bit of mystery that comes with it.  I like to improve my writing for myself and see how far I’ve come,” Smer revealed. “It’s also the sense of pride seeing your name emblazoned on a wall or a train as you’re passing by, and have other people ask how you even got away with painting where you did!” he added.

A big part of the graffiti culture is based around the fact that it isn’t legal.  “I think a lot of people who do graffiti do it for the thrill of doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.  If it was legal I don’t think there would be that same buzz, it wouldn’t be graffiti anymore really” Smer explains.

That’s why graffiti and street art are polar opposites explains Trevor, “I think the only thing graffiti and street art have in common are that they both mainly happen on the street  with spray paint.

“I think street art gets a lot more respect from the general public than graffiti. Which isn’t that fair, considering without graffiti, there would not be street art” he added.

Graffiti as a form of art is hard to explain, given that many of those who do it consider themselves writers, and the law states that it is a form of vandalism.  Personally, I think the cities of the world would look awfully bare without the brightly coloured tags and paintings covering their walls, bridges and trains.

Artwork outside the front of The Tivoli car park in Dublin. Image: Mary Kate Hickey

*Graffiti Fact File:
– The word graffiti comes from the Greek word ‘graphein’ which means ‘to write’.
– Many graffiti artists prefer to be called writers, each with their own unique tag name to identify their own work. Some work in groups and also have a group tag name.
– Tags – A quick written way of signing a name which can be embellished with stars, halos and crowns.
– Throws – Bigger, and more easily read.  Most likely bubble letters, with some colour but still quick to do.
– Dubs – Take the longest to do, again bubble letters but probably nicer.  They’re usually fully filled in and have shines, secondary highlight, and backgrounds.
– To keep up with competition, and to speed things up, some graffiti artists use rubber stamps, stickers and stencils when tagging.


The land of saints, scholars, and rappers

Over forty years have passed since the birth of hip hop in the United States, since then it’s become one of the most popular genres of music among young people. However, across the pond Ireland’s hip hop scene can escape you almost entirely, unless you put in the effort to seek some out.  In fact, unless you go searching for Irish rappers, it can be hard to ever hear their material, or know what Irish rap is all about.


“It’s a really self-contained culture, the same people have been at the gigs since I started going, and that’s 13 years ago” explained Gary ‘Nugget’ Nugent.

Gary “Nugget” Nugent

Rapping since he was 17, Nugget shares how he feels there has been a lull in the last few years and that the Irish hip hop scene has stopped moving forward as rapidly as it had been.  While the genre has never been more popular, he thinks the lack of rap battles and better organised gigs are holding Irish hip-hop back from being taken seriously by a wider audience.


“I think the accent puts some people off at first, people think of an American accent when they think of rap music, but the diversity of the Irish accent is a key defining feature of Irish hip hop,” he added.


The comedic storytelling with the unique Irish humour and the variety of tones, accents and backgrounds are other defining features of Irish hip hop, according to Alan Newman.  “I suppose it comes from the background of the Irish being good poets.  Irish rappers are the poets of this generation, Irish rap is just real, and it deals with real issues and real people” he said.

Alan Newman. Photo: Jason O’Callaghan


In 2014 Alan set up Boss Level Series, a group that brought Irish rappers together to collaborate on music projects.  The producer and rapper who moved to London when he was a ten year-old credits his time spent living in the UK for his musical interests.


“The music in the places I was living was eclectic.  I was hearing reggae and afro beats for the first time.  It was a culture of cliques of rap artists collaborating and I was trying to achieve something similar with Boss Level over here when I came back” he said.   


While the Irish rap scene is a lot smaller in size than that of the UK and US, the talent is not lacking. Ireland has a long history of famous poets and storytellers, and a generation of Irish hip hop artists are emerging hoping to rival the likes of Joyce and Wilde.


“Some of the most talented and lyrical emcees I have ever heard are from Ireland, there’s a very poetic value to it here.  Most of us rap about what we know or what we see, it’s not all about sex, drugs and money like in other countries, but you still get some of that” explained rapper James Costello.

James Costello

Costello says the inspiration for his raps come from things he sees walking around North Dublin.  “I like to tell a story with my raps but I’ve been fortunate to not have many struggles myself” he said. “I write about the things I see walking around places like Finglas and Ballymun, near my home, and what life’s like for my friends, family and other people living there,” he added.


Getting the support of the media and the general population has been an ongoing struggle for Irish hip hop artists.  “It’s hard to get over people’s misconceptions about what Irish rap is” explained Nugget. “Some people just think it’s a joke, it’s very hard to get something on TV or radio promoting Irish rap in a serious way.”


However it doesn’t help that Irish rap keeps getting compared to its US and UK counterparts, explains Alan Newman.  “I’d love to see Irish hip hop appreciated for what it is, and not constantly compared to things it’s not.  Like should be compared with like; you wouldn’t compare Dizzee Rascal to Kendrick Lamar so you shouldn’t compare Irish hip hop to US hip hop” he said.


One of the biggest struggles for rappers and producers making Irish hip hop is financial strain.  “Paying for studio time, a producer to make beats if you don’t do it yourself, and someone to do music videos costs a lot” said Costello.


But it’s not all struggles and negativity; some great things come from having such a small contained sub-culture.  “Everybody knows everybody really, and there’s a lot of respect among the artists, it’s kind of like a friendly competitiveness,” explains Costello.  


While all have differing opinions on what defines Irish hip hop, be it storytelling, the poetry or the Irish humour, one opinion they all shared was that the Irish accent and the purity of the craft is what makes Irish hip hop special.


(Originally published in FILTR magazine http://www.filtrmagazine.com)