In March of this year, the grime star Stormzy came off stage at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin following a rapturous gig. In his dressing room, as his crew congratulated him, the promoter introduced a sweat-soaked Stormzy to members of the Subset crew. Earlier that month this collection of Irish artists had gained international fame after completing a massive mural of the musician in Smithfield, Dublin 7. Subset painted the piece as fans, and Stormzy returned the favour by visiting it the following day.
The mural landed in Dublin like magic. Large format street art adorns various walls around the city – particularly in spots such as the Bernard Shaw on South Richmond Street and the Tivoli Theatre site on Francis Street. But this was different. Not only was the piece a stunning work of art, the marketing savvy of its timing was pointed.
The Subset headquarters in Ranelagh sits in the rafters of an old church. The entrance to the office is lined with a set of cinema seats from the now refurbished Stella Cinema in Rathmines. Inside people huddle at their computers, wrapped up for warmth, the perils of working in a room that’s impossible to heat as winter draws in. A spiral staircase leads to a room for meetings and music production. It’s a nice, if cold, set up.
Subset is ambitious, talking video production, marketing, music production, plans for a clothing label, the desire to turn the city and then the country into an open air street art gallery, creating a model where personal art projects are funded by pieces for brands, with revenue from the commercial work facilitating the art for art’s sake.
But its model of painting large-scale works is under threat from planning laws. Some pieces, such as the famous Stormzy mural, are being painted over.
Subset operates as a collective, asking not to be named as individuals, stating that its message and work functions as a unit.
Across the city, Subset has brought walls to life. The Stormzy piece kicked off a conversation, but other pieces are equally impressive, such as Horse Boy, also in Dublin 7, Gracie in Rathmines, and pieces that address everything from restaurant kitchen foraging, to access to cannabis for medical use, a portrait of local hiphop star Kojaque and a mural of Conor McGregor.
Subset emerged from Rabbit Hole Productions, a company that did street art-type outdoor work for brands and agencies. That idea was born out of Rabbit Hole’s founder, now Subset’s CEO, noticing a particularly compelling ad on a billboard while he was bartending in Vienna. Upon returning to Dublin, recession-era hoardings were everywhere as construction halted, the perfect medium for outdoor art work. When the company started to gain traction he was 19 years old.
“It was more a way to make pocket money,” he says. “Then as things started to ramp up, and as I became more educated in the fields of marketing and art – because I had no experience in either – I started to see there was a possibility to grow this. That’s when I met my first business partner. I say first business partner because now everybody is a business partner.”
He dismisses some of their earlier work as “really terrible”, and eventually took time away to conceive a new company – Subset. He restructured its operations, secured investment, got an office and brought more people on. Subset is now a crew of 10 with grand ambitions laid out with total conviction.
“I’m not a painter, I’m a sculptor,” says Subset’s head of installations, surveying a work in progress on a long stretch of hoarding at Basin View near St James’ Hospital. A few days later the piece is complete, a beautiful abstract rendition of a jungle scene for the community, with the hospital paying the cost of the materials.
“I’m informed by graffiti culture,” the sculptor says, “to place minimalist, linear, geometric structures in odd places you wouldn’t normally expect. This is going to be almost a sculptural walk. It’ll make you look at something in a different way.”
He’s a fan of Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and Carl Andre, and chats enthusiastically when Donald Judd’s name is mentioned. The painter of the piece lets an enthusiastic passing resident know when the artwork will be finished.
“Funding is the main thing,” the painter says, in terms of obstacles to Subset getting work done, as he sketches out shapes with spray paint, “and people understanding what we do. It’s public art. It’s for everybody, something that everyone in a community can enjoy.”
What difference does he think a mural makes to a site like this?
“It cheers people up. It brightens up the area. It makes a place feel, I don’t know, softer. It deters anti-social behaviour.” He pauses for thought, “You don’t see lads selling drugs in front of nice art.”
Subset is also working on a piece for a nearby school’s yard.
Ten minute’s drive away in Inchicore, the exterior of a new Rascals Brewing Company location is getting a Subset makeover. The paint job pops, exact and precise, the dominant colour being Miami mint. As the job progresses the wall doesn’t seem to hold any clues as to how they are sketching the piece out. One of the painters holds up his phone with the logo design, an almost impossibly rudimentary guide to a piece so large.
The painter got into tagging and graffiti around 2007, and also painted the Stormzy mural. “I do a lot of photo realism, but I’m moving away from that and going into more abstract work. Once I get to a level I try to start again and mix it up. The money we get, we pump back into our own projects. We’re all struggling financially. You could have a good week, then you mightn’t even have the money to make it into the office another week.”
Then there are the issues with Dublin City Council. “As of late we’ve got on better with the council. But the thing is, there are so many different people in there. One person is telling you you’re great, and another is saying you should be in jail.”
As November progresses, stress bears down on Subset. After receiving complaints about the Stormzy mural, Dublin City Council demanded Subset paint over the piece. Although the mural was painted with permission from the building’s owner, Subset did not seek planning permission, and the piece is, therefore, unlawful.
In 2016, a storm blew up about political art after the artist Maser created a “repeal” mural for Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin. Now Dublin City Council is facing further backlash from a chunk of the public who have taken the Stormzy piece into their hearts. Large format artwork may come from individual artists, but when it embeds itself in the city the art becomes public.
When Subset spoke to the planning officer in Dublin City Council who is handling the Stormzy piece it was told planning permission would cost €20 per square metre: the cost of a planning application would have been €4,563.36.
That planning application is for advertising, which is potentially the category Subset would have to fit into even though the piece isn’t a paid-for promotion of a person or product. It was asked by Dublin City Council whether it was an Adidas ad given that Stormzy is wearing an Adidas top in the mural (it isn’t.)
If it had applied for retention when it was served with a notice that would have cost €60 per square metre for advertising or an unknown cost if the piece was deemed “miscellaneous”, a category that is at the discretion of the council.
“It’s the law,” an official from the planning office tells me. “If you have an illegal development and somebody complains about it, they have to be notified that they have to remove the piece...We haven’t gone after them. The Planning and Development Act is a legal instrument – it has to be black and white.”
Not long after the Stormzy mural notice came another letter arrived, alerting Subset to the fact that a mural it painted in Rathmines of a spoken word artist was under investigation by the planning enforcement section of Dublin City Council.
On one hand it is black and white. A planning official equated the painting of a mural without planning permission with building an extension on your house without the proper permission. A mural is obviously not a material extension, but it is a change of the material exterior of a building. The council has to react to complaints made on the basis of planning law breaches even though a planning official told me that they were aware that “it’s not in the nature of street art that they come for permission in the first place”.
On the other hand, asking a financially-strained group of artists to pay thousands of euro to paint on a wall they have permission from an owner to use seems unrealistic.
“Even if it cost a couple of grand we wouldn’t be able to do it. We’d barely be able to afford to paint over it,” one of Subset’s members says as the situation escalates. Subset’s frustration is palpable and is about to break out on to the city’s walls .
At the heart of the frustration is a perceived lack of clarity from the council. If there was a clear path regarding how to do these things affordably, then Subset would be happy with the rigidity of those rules, it says. The council insists there is, although conversations about the impracticalities of the situation tend to be circular. Subset’s own approach hasn’t exactly been clear either, and now it’s in a tangle of red tape.
“It’s about consistency,” Subset says. “If [Dublin City Council] aren’t giving consistency, how can they expect consistency from the people they’re dealing with?”
There is an added irony given that Subset actually collaborated with Dublin City Council in the past, painting a mural on a site in Portobello Harbour to advertise the Canalaphonic festival. The project was so successful that a Dublin City Council official wrote a testimonial in praise of their artwork.
“The completed mural exceeded our expectations and was widely praised by patrons of the festival,” it reads. “Rabbit Hole Promotions delivered a quality large scale art work in a very short space of time, and I would have no hesitation in recommending them for similar projects in the future.”
Rebecca Moynihan is a Labour Party councillor for the southwest inner city and a spokesperson on community arts.
“You have different factions in the council,” she says, saying the planning officials “have a tougher framework than the Arts Office”.
“They are a lot more constrained. You also have those internal tensions within city departments. Some people might think that might have merit, others don’t.”
Moynihan, who was one of the people who spearheaded Weaver Park in Dublin 8, is thinking about how public art can fit into that new amenity, which also has a skate park.
“Tagging and graffiti are part of skate culture. We need a formalised process in place for spaces in the city where you can do that, where art may be provocative and has artistic merit...We do need to put in place some FAQs about what you have to do to get planning for a mural, and also how the city council can support that.”
Subset can’t help itself from commenting on the saga with Dublin City Council while it develops.
An image of Donald Trump springs up on the wall of Hangar on Andrew’s Lane, with his baseball cap reading, “Make Dublin grey again”.
In Rathmines, Subset paints over half a mural, sticking a letter it received from Dublin City Council on the wall, and beside it an extract of a council document titled The Cultural Vision of Dublin City Council, a deliberately provocative juxtaposition.
On the Stormzy piece, a stencil of a council worker appears, the figure “painting” over a section of the piece.
There is an inherent disconnect between these two parties that colours much of the tension between artists such as Subset and local authorities. Street art moves quickly, local government moves slowly. Creative endeavours are inherently dynamic, local government often seems inert.
Those might be perceptions, but the public sees them manifested when artwork they like is painted over. This tension doesn’t seem to suit anyone: the artist loses their work, and the public sees the council as fulfilling not a facilitatory role but one of enforcement.
In Walkinstown, Subset has a warehouse that covers around 3,000sq m. There's no heating in the large workshop and testing area for projects, away from plans on a computer screen. Next to it another part of the warehouse is burned out but still intact, with massive National Geographic-standard spider webs hanging from the smoke-stained skylights.
Cans of spray paint clutter some rooms, and in another defunct hospital ward furniture crowds the space. In a way the warehouse is a symbol of the gap between Subset’s situation and its ambitions. The infrastructure, ideas, drive, and ambition are there, but the finances and support required from the environment they are operating in are stress-laden.
For now Subset keeps painting. Artistically the city is trying to buzz, but as Subset’s CEO puts it, that level of creativity is “nowhere near where it could be with minor changes in various areas; Government policy, in the allocation of funding, in education, you could talk about this all day...That’s why we have so many of our creatives going to Berlin or Barcelona. They’re fleeing here so they can go somewhere to spread their creative wings, which is f***ing bananas. They should be able to do that here...For us it’s only about the art. And it will only ever be about the art.”
KEY RECENT DUBLIN STREET ART PIECES
“Yes Equality” piece, George’s Street
Caslin’s epic drawing struck at the heart of the marriage equality referendum
Repeal the 8th, Project Arts Centre
A lesson in how art generates debate
Grafitti jams, George Bernard Shaw
An always interesting all-female collective with diverse tastes
Me Aul Flower, Benburb Street
The sign painter bringing a beautiful splash of colour to the Luas line
Horse Boy, Smithfield
Stormzy put them on the map, but this piece pushed things forward