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The #Horseboy' mural located on the wall of a house just off Church Street in Dublin Leah Farrell/

'It's about freedom of expression': Inside the battle between planners and Irish street artists

Many have expressed frustration at the use of planning laws to remove street murals in recent weeks.

“IT’S ABOUT FREEDOM of expression. People express themselves through this medium. Some people do it on football pitches; others do it in the office. Whatever it is, you choose your own poison.”

It’s Monday morning, and a spokesman for SUBSET is explaining to over coffee why the group is continually driven to produce enormous works of art on the sides of buildings in Dublin.

During the conversation, the spokesman – who preferred not to be named – shared the frustrations the group has with the local authority, particularly when it has received permission from private property owners to paint on the side of buildings.

It follows recent outcry over an order by Dublin City Council to remove ‘Horseboy’, an effervescent piece depicting a youth sitting bareback on a white horse, from the side of a two-storey house on Church Street on the northside of the city.

At the time of writing, almost 5,500 people had signed a petition to prevent the removal of the mural, with many signatories suggesting that the council should be grateful to have such an artwork in the area and calling for the local authority to reverse its decision.

SUBSET, of course, has been here before: in 2017, the group was told to remove a large mural of the grime artist Stormzy from nearby Smithfield. It responded by launching a visual protest in what was a clear jab at the council’s decision.

“We always say, we’re actually very grateful towards Dublin City Council in many respects,” the group’s spokesman says. “We’re grateful for the obstacles and hurdles they chose, because without them, there probably wouldn’t be a SUBSET.”

But a series of controversies over the removal of murals, including another enforcement order for the removal of a depiction of documentary-maker David Attenborough, has left some of the city’s residents feeling less appreciative.

Many are now wondering whether the council has an appetite for street art at all, and whether planning laws are being used to stifle independent attempts to introduce some colour to parts of the capital.

Frustrating planning laws

Much of the frustration for SUBSET over the removal of murals derives from what the group feels is the council’s use of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

Under current regulations, anybody who wants to paint a mural on a property has to apply for planning permission, as they would if they were to build an extension.

Another individual explained that, in order to do this, artists or those who commission murals must create a proposal, obtain permission from a property owner, and then show their idea to the council, who will accept or decline it on a number of conditions.

But SUBSET believes that the planning application process for murals is too far removed from the end product. Pointing to the example of ‘Horseboy’, the group’s spokesman also argues that the council could grant permission for a piece, only to revoke it later.

Instead, the group believes that a licensing agreement – similar to that which exists in other countries – should be introduced to the process instead. 

“Painting a building is an entirely different matter from constructing one. So to apply the same set of rules and regulations is nonsensical,” the group’s spokesman said.

“But under a licence agreement, a space would be agreed upon as suitable for an artwork, which can be produced once it’s accepted to fall within a certain set of standards, by which I mean social and political, as opposed to it having a subjective level of quality.

“As long as it passed a checklist, like making sure it’s not derogatory or defamatory, and permission was granted by a proprietor to use their property, it should be fine. The process should take no longer than five days.”

Specific exemptions

SUBSET have already expressed their frustrations with the current process to the council.

Last year, the group appeared at the council’s ‘street art forum’, which resulted in the creation of a working group to advise the local authority on street art and to address the ongoing challenges in relation to creating murals and other works.

During the forum, the group said it had received legal advice that planning permission was not required for street art and questioned the council’s motivation to deal with the issue.

Labour councillor Rebecca Moynihan, who sits on the council’s Arts committee, agreed that more needed to be done to facilitate those who wanted to create street art.

“We definitely need to make it easier for artists to be able to do it,” she said. “We have to be clear in how the rules are applied.”

Moynihan also pointed to exemptions within the Planning and Development Act which say that street art can be facilitated if it addresses anti-social behaviour, like preventing graffiti, or if artists work with the council to develop it.

Indeed, some of those who decried the council’s order to remove SUBSET’s David Attenborough mural in Portobello noted that the piece was situated in an area notorious for graffiti and tagging.

Successful collaborations

That said, other counties have shown how murals can revitalise urban centres in other counties when artists and local authorities collaborate successfully.

In the south-east of the country, street art festival Waterford Walls has proven that street art can reap economic reward on top of social benefits.

The festival, founded in 2014 to help reinvigorate a city hit hard by the economic downturn, has attracted its fair share of visitors from across the world who might not have otherwise had reason to go there.

Its co-founder Edel Tobin explains that much of its success derives from the positive relationship between the co-founders and the council.

“We brought around €8.5m worth of public relations to the city last year, which we’re expecting to go above €10m this year,” she tells

The festival has become a platform for international and Irish artists to paint within the city. But it’s also about trying to inspire people and make them connect with their city again.

“Everyone from the elderly to the youngest people in the city know about the artworks. It’s all really close to their hearts. It knits the fabric of Waterford society and acts as an inspiration.”

It’s a similar situation across the country in Sligo, another town where murals appear virtually everywhere you look.

Declan McPartland of Sligo Tidy Towns Committee, who has helped commission murals for the town since 2011, explains that similar good links exist between the council and those who seek to put art on public walls:

We’ve a great relationship. We work very closely with the council, and people are really on board with it because we’re giving back to Sligo.

For McPartland, it’s important that the work he commissions has a local connection, something evident in the art seen around the town, which includes depictions of WB Yeats, Countess Markievicz, Westlife, and local character Joe Carroll.

“Sometimes with other murals you see, you might wonder what the connection is at all,” he says.

“I saw the David Attenborough one. He’s a great guy and has done fantastic things, but you’re left wondering what the actual link to Dublin is.”

New climate project

But not all work created by SUBSET has as tenuous a connection to Dublin. The group has recently partnered with Inner City Helping Homeless to highlight the ongoing housing and homeless crises.

And despite the setbacks, the group says its artworks will continue to appear across the city.

“We like to move fast: we’re not big-headed, we’re not ignorant or arrogant,” the group’s spokesman says.

“Despite the fact that we just do what we want, we’re not doing that because we feel we can do whatever we want. We’re doing that because we feel that this is the best course of action.”

At council level, the new Arts committee hopes to set up a working group and consider the report from last year’s street art forum. But Rebecca Moynihan admits that it could be November before this happens.

In the meantime, SUBSET will continue painting walls: a project on climate change is currently in its final planning stages, and a new piece by the group expected to appear in Dublin city centre in coming weeks.

It’s not known how long this will remain in place. Blink and you just might miss it.

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