Sometime in 2015 I spotted a pair of these street signs at the entrance to Dame Lane in Dublin. I was with a friend. We laughed. I took photos. We moved on.
This incident may have been consigned to the dustbin of my memory and back pages of my social media archives were it not for the recent discovery of two new similarly altered do not enter signs at the entrance to Asgard Road just off Grand Canal Square. This time I was intrigued enough to go digging further.
It turns out the individual responsible for these is a French artist called Clet Abraham. You can find many more of his creations on his Facebook and his Instagram pages. Some of them are hilarious, others are quirky, many many are quite subversive and subtly speak to a pointed view on today’s social issues. The fact that so much of his art is featured on “do not enter” signs is in itself a message – a statement on authority. In 2016 The Guardian collected a series of images with some sparse commentary on the official reactions that his work has garnered from various towns in which he has plied his art – from outright hostility to invited collaboration.
A blogger named Bea, a self-labelled “serial expat” who first encountered Abraham’s work in his adopted city of Florence, wrote about encountering his artwork in Dublin in 2015. She delves deeper into the question of whether this represents vandalism or art, whether it is hurtful or humorous, whether it should be allowed or not.
Although I do find the work amusing and on some level insightful, I am not convinced that city authorities should blithely allow such work to sprout everywhere without restrictions. Some consider collaborative work between graffiti artists and municipalities to be “selling out” but it allows for greater quality control and maturity in the art which the public is forced to confront on the streets, willingly or unwillingly. To allow everyone with a spray can to express themselves freely on city walls, when taken to its logical conclusion, is an anarchist’s dream and as anyone who’s ever driven past train embankments in large urban cities knows, such displays become massive eyesores that cost governments and private owners significant sums of money to remove.
Similarly, there’s a big spectrum of positions municipal authorities can take on the issue between sending someone to jail and ignoring the problem in the hopes that it will go away. The more a governing body works to repress artistic expression the harder artists will push back. A good collaborative relationship between artists and local governments allows for a balance to be achieved. It will never please everyone, but then if you came around to your house and found graffiti sprayed on your door, or the sidewalk next to your property, claiming to be an artistic representation of how property ownership is undemocratic, I think you would very quickly change your mind about whether free rein for street artists is or is not a good thing.
Or, that’s my two cents anyway.