A legacy of letters
An ambitious collaboration between street artist Maser and singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey has been using the streets of Dublin as a canvas, covering it with bold statements and murals. It’s a project that drew inspiration from the forgotten art of traditional signwriting – and one signwriter in particular, the late Kevin Freeney, writes Davin O’Dwyer
DUBLIN’S METAMORPHOSIS over the past 30 years tends to be discussed in terms the big buildings and bridges that have risen on the skyline, and the sprawl that has developed on the periphery, but at street level, the city has lost one of its most distinguishing characteristics: the exquisite hand-painted signs and shopfronts that added so much character to our urban spaces.
Sadly, the art of the signwriter has been largely lost to machine-made fascias and typographic globalisation.
But the work of Dublin’s most renowned signwriters of the past, and in particular the late master Kevin Freeney, has provided inspiration for the ambitious art project They Are Us, a collaboration between prominent Dublin street artist Maser and singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey.
From murals on Temple Bar alleyways and Portobello billboards to a 100m-long hoarding at the East Wall and the side of the last remaining tower in Ballymun, as well as in Mountjoy prison and St Patrick’s Institution, They Are Usis a declamatory series of statements and phrases addressing the city, including phrases such as “Your back streets are my pride and joy” and “Greed is a knife and the scars run deep”.
The lines were written by Dempsey and painted by Maser, who incorporated aspects of Freeney’s style in his lettering, using both type and script fonts, a juxtaposition that adds a rhythm to the lines, a cadence in paint. The project harks back to the days when a handful of signwriters had Dublin as their canvas. In researching Dublin’s history of signwriters, Maser contacted Freeney’s youngest son Paul, who obliged with information and anecdotes about his father’s craft.
“I studied typography, and graffiti is abstract typography really,” says Maser, explaining the project’s genesis. “I was doing ‘Maser Loves You’ signs and simple messages, but I wanted to develop it and talk about the city. I was listening to Damien Dempsey’s music, which is a big influence on me, so I thought maybe I could merge the two. I approached Damo, explained the project to him, and he was maybe a bit confused at the start, but he liked it. Damo was talking about the old Dublin, so I started looking into the landscape of old Dublin, and I started coming across the ghost signs and old signwriting. I started researching it, and straight away Kevin Freeney’s name popped up. A Gentleman of Letters was his nickname, a tag name almost.”
Freeney was described as a gentleman of letters in a 1977 In Dublinarticle, explains Paul, who says it was a fitting characterisation of a modest man from Rialto who entered the business of his father and grandfather when he was just a teenager in the 1930s.
“My father served his time pushing a handcart with ladders, 20 miles to do a job and 20 miles back,” says Paul, with obvious pride. Kevin once estimated that he had written more than 700 signs across Dublin. “There would be less than 10 of his pieces still around in the city, that we know of, but he’s dead 24 years now. A lot of his stuff is redone and painted over, but some of it is just really bad, so I wouldn’t even say it’s dad’s work anymore.”
Freeney’s work ranged from the half-inch lettering on the list of bylaws in St Stephen’s Green to the giant billboards on the Ambassador Cinema, and included signs for city institutions such as Mulligan’s pub and Louis Copeland, as well as the livery on vans for RTÉ and Rowntree.
Those days are long gone, however. Paul, a photographer with a sharp white goatee and an easy smile, points at a coffee shop across the street from where we’re talking, its plastic sign of perfectly formed letters virtually indistinguishable from any other shopfront. “The machine that made that coffee shop lettering probably makes the lettering for coffee shops in Rome or Greece,” he says.
Few could have anticipated that the artistic legacy of the “Gentleman of Letters” would be inherited by a pseudonymous graffiti artist, and it speaks volumes that the art of the signwriter, which for so long defined our streetscape, lives on now in an almost outlaw fashion, as if commerce has pushed it into the shadows.
“I think the parallel that is most interesting is that what they’re both doing is very temporary,” says Paul. “It’s not inscribed on a headstone, to exist for eternity.”
Maser quickly agrees. “Some of the They Are Uspaintings are already gone, while others have been tagged by kids, and some of them are cracking up, aging really quickly. It’s like us, it’s not meant to be permanent.”
WHILE THE WORK ITSELFmight be ephemeral, it stays with us through photography: They Are Uswill conclude in October with an exhibition of photographs of the project by Aidan Kelly.
Kevin Freeney, too, was a keen photographer and documented many of his own signs – Paul has an online gallery of his work, not dissimilar to the current generation of street artists, who are far more likely to gain recognition through the digital images of their work than the original pieces themselves.
Despite all the unlikely parallels, however, Paul can’t imagine his father appreciating the comparison between his career and the work of street artists.
“If you put the clock back 24 years when my father was still alive, and I told him ‘This is Maser, he’s a graffiti artist,’ well, he’d be going mad,” says Paul, laughing. “That has to be acknowledged.”
- For more information and further images of They Are Us, see theyareus.ie The accompanying exhibition and sale of limited edition prints runs from October 15 to 17 at Block T, Smithfield Square, Dublin. All proceeds to the Simon Community.
- To see Kevin Freeney’s work, see flickr.com/people/gentlemanofletters