Definitely Mabos: art in the city

Skaters are doing it for themselves in a south Docklands art space where education and entertainment collide, writes Daniel Gray


You’ll know you’ve found Mabos, the multi-purpose art space reshaping the social fabric of Hanover Quay, by the 15 foot ladder jutting out of the sparkling waters of Grand Canal Dock. Anchoring a zipline outstretched for wakeboarders (the work of the nearby Wakedock), this ladder stands as a symbol for the DIY spirit taking over the more maligned areas of the Docklands. An initiative of Dave Smith, Mabos was borne out of his experience with the long-running Kings of Concrete festival. Originally a small-time skate festival open to all comers, the Kings of Concrete program grew to encompass not just the cornucopia of urban sports, but an array of art installations, graffiti and workshops, brightening up the doorstep of the City Council building each summer.

Smith, a man as well-versed in council jargon as you’re likely to meet outside of Wood Quay, takes me for a tour around the former Raleigh Bicycle warehouse that Mabos now calls home.

“Outdoors here, we’ve got a ping-pong table, chess table, dominoes table, all this upcycled palette seating, two herb gardens.

“The idea,” he continues, rearranging potted plants, “is to create a space for social interaction, where some auld wan from the flat with her dog and a French woman working in Google can come down and play each other in a game of chess.”

Hanover Quay’s decline before boom-time regeneration made Grand Canal Dock its centerpiece, can be blamed on geography. An inconvenient jut of land isolated between the old communities of Ringsend and Pearse Street, it is still only accessible on one side through a series of lock gates. Its warehouses fell into dereliction, and the old Raleigh building stands as a red-brick reminder of the area’s industrial past in the light of the new wave of Europeanized, technology sector-driven development.

“In a weird way, some of our stuff manages to integrate the community,” says Smith, ambling through Mabos’s manufacturing quarters where the crew are now spray-painting some plant-pots turquoise. “We open the space up once a month for a skills day. We got in touch with St. Andrews Resource Centre and Irishtown Community Centre and offered for the kids from the area to come and do some skateboarding, some workshops and so on. Now we have the kids around learning new skills while Europeans working in tech companies are dropping in for photography workshops, and it starts to work as a barrier-breaking initiative.”

Creative education is one of Mabos’s remits. From robot-building to pallet furniture-making, its workshops fit in with the designs of the global Maker Movement to re-emphasize the value of practical skills, mixed with some good old-fashioned DIY spirit. One of the space’s most popular programs is in teaching people how to use small spaces within urban living – a problem shared by Grand Canal Square’s apartment-dwelling newcomers as much as by the Ringsend flats natives. The workshops teach attendees not just how to build a hanging herb garden for their balconies (perhaps a little more wind-proofed), but the culinary and nutritional value of what they can grow in it.

The space also doubles as an “adult playroom”, which becomes obvious as we explore the back end of the building.

A perfect replica of a Game Boy three feet taller than me, built by hand, works as a bowling alley thanks to an inbuilt Nintendo Wii. A similarly-scaled vintage-framed TV is the Mabos dartboard via xBox Kinect, while a ping-pong table (this one very much existing in real life) stands ragged after much use from the Google and Facebook office visitors.

There’s a half-pipe for the skateboarders (which sees use from the Mabos all-girls skate team), and a Me-J music and cinema room. The overall effect of the space is like that moment Tom Hanks arrives at the toy shop in Giant. “The idea of a space outside of the norm is important to us,” Smith tells me, pressing on the Game Boy’s Select button. “We’re trying to escape clubs and pubs.” Mabos is BYOB, for instance when it hosts trad nights or the very-occasional late night party but if you’re caught littering or acting the maggot, you’re out for good I’m warned.

Tour finished, we get down to the far less fun aspect of keeping a DIY space open: permission. The high turnover of DIY spaces in the city centre, such as the Supafast building and Subground 43, is a stark reminder that Dublin is not Berlin.

There is no strict classification for what Mabos does, and as such, planning permits pose a difficult problem. The introduction of an SDZ (strategic development zone) on the Docklands to replace existing schemes at Grand Canal Dock will grant the City Council increased planning powers in the hope of upping the area’s economic and social importance.

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