After the removal of Irish street artist Maser’s ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural from Temple bar this week, Lorna O’Hara – an IRC-funded PhD student in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University – reflects on the battle over public space that has characterised the debate over abortion access in Ireland in recent years. While the mural itself has been removed, the debate over its removal continues, already taking on new material forms.
On 8 July 2016, the ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural by well-known Dublin graffiti artist Maser was unveiled on the exterior wall of the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar (Figure 1). Its brightly coloured message surrounded by a heart called to repeal the 8th Amendment. This piece was commissioned by, a new feminist website The HunReal Issues, and with both the permission and support of the Project Arts Centre. Located on an arts centre known for supporting artistic expression, the mural, which called for the repeal of a law that equates a grown woman’s life to that of a foetus, was taken down after just two weeks. After receiving around fifty complaints about the piece, the removal was ordered by Dublin City Council Planning Committee on the grounds that the mural ‘violates planning law’ (O’Sullivan, 2016). The content of these complaints ranged from individuals taking issue with the Pro-Choice message of the mural, to those who stated it was ‘a waste of taxpayer’s money. However, as artistic director of Project Arts Cian O’Brien explained, no taxpayer’s money was used: ‘Maser paid for all the art supplies himself and we [Project Arts] are a private organisation limited by guarantee that’s in receipt of State funding as well as private funding” (quoted in Fegan, 2016).
Figure 1: ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural, artwork by Maser, on the exterior wall of the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin. (Source: Author, 2016, 24 July 2016.)
To me, the removal of this mural has been a further slap in the face to the women of Ireland who not only lack full bodily autonomy, but have had to endure hurtful and stigmatising anti-choice messages which have been plastered all over public spaces, from bus stops and billboards, to the ever present anti-choice stand that continually haunts the entrance to the GPO (Freeman, 2012; Lord 2012). In more recent years, for example, women have had their senses assaulted by the Youth Defence’s infamous 2012 ‘Abortion Tears Her Life Apart’ outdoor billboard campaign, as well as their insensitively placed anti-abortion ad truck in 2013, which at one point occupied a space just outside the Rape Crisis Centre (Hosford, 2013) (Figure 2). Yet ironically, groups who are known for posting anti-choice messages criticised Maser’s mural and the Project Arts Centre. Cora Sherlock, spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign in her critique of the mural lamented how there wasn’t ‘the slightest chance that it [The Project Arts Centre] would have allowed, for example, a mural being placed on its building giving voice to women’s feelings of abortion regret’ (quoted in Brophy, 2016). Such a statement is particularly incongruous when considering Youth Defence’s previous campaign, which has already occupied enough public space in an attempt to conquer hearts and minds, was exactly that; images of a young woman’s ‘abortion regret’ (Figure 3). No, I think that the anti-choice side of the debate has had enough time dominating public space in its attempt to control the debate on reproductive rights in this country.
Figure 2: Youth Defence’s anti-abortion billboard parked outside the National Rape Crisis Centre, Lower Leeson Street, Dublin. (Source: Broadsheet, 2013.)
Of course, despite protests, once it was painted over on Monday the mural was not silenced nor was the Repeal the 8th Campaign. In fact, when I was there Monday morning, one passer-by remarked, as he witnessed the removal of the mural from the wall of the Project Arts Centre: ‘There’ll be nothing else on Twitter all day’. Indeed, hours after the removal of the mural, the hashtag #repealthe8th trended on Twitter. Newsfeeds were filled with tweets expressing indignation at what has been deemed ‘anti-choice censorship’ and calling for retaliation. A number of other pro-choice creative groups, including Artists Repeal the 8th and Speaking of Imelda, have already been posting their plans on social media for an appropriate creative response to the mural’s removal. Ultimately the controversy created by the mural has not only succeeded in being what Sarah Pierce, Chair of the Board of the Project Arts Centre, described as ‘a reminder that art matters’ (quoted in O’Sullivan, 2016), but it also served as a reminder that, as geographer Doreen Massey argued a long time ago, that space matters too (2005).
Social power and social resistance are always spatial (Cresswell, 1996). The built environment is the materialisation of meaning, meanings which are created by dominant groups in society. Street art acts as a challenge to the authority of public urban space and serves as ‘an evocative form of place making, ranging from pure resistance and contestation to public place beautification’ (Visconti, 2010: 513). In my PhD research, I have focused on somewhat less ‘legal’ forms of graffiti and street art, and how, in the hands of female street artists, it can be a particularly powerful and transgressive tool for challenging the hegemonic masculinist meanings built into public urban space (O’Hara, 2016; see also McDowell and Sharp, 1997). Whilst Maser himself is a male street artist, I consider this piece as transgressing the sexism of a patriarchal state which began rolling back women’s rights once the Free State was established. Its location outside of the Project Arts Centre, rather than inside the gallery where it hosts exhibitions, in such a prominent public space in the heart of Dublin, is an important part of its power (Figure 4). Indeed, this was exactly the point of the mural according to Andrea Horan of The HunReal Issues, who commissioned Maser to create the mural: ‘I wanted to make feminism accessible, where you didn’t have to be academic to engage […] we wanted to open the issues up to people who aren’t necessarily engaged in politics and currents affairs and to make something they wanted to engage in’ (quoted in Fegan, 2016). In a country where women’s bodies have been systematically controlled and regulated by the state – from Magdalene Laundries and symphysiotomies to its current restrictive abortions laws – Maser’s mural is a powerful public challenge to the dominant power structures shaping our public urban landscapes at multiple scales.
Figure 4: Image of the mural the day before removal on 24 July 2016. (Source: Author, 2016.)
The mural and its removal have generated a significant amount of conversation and debate, and in this way it has completed its goal. It has also succeeded in drawing attention to the continually contested nature of public space. The painting over of this mural is a symbolic act that will only add more fuel to the rapidly growing pro-choice movement in Ireland. Whilst it is argued that piece was removed due to the aforementioned complaints and because it apparently violates planning law, it is also worth noting that it received over 200 messages of support. An online petition created by The HunReal Issues pledged support for the mural and succeeded in collecting about 5000 signatures. The fact that this is the first time that Project Arts has ever received a planning order to remove a piece of public art (O’Sullivan, 2016) speaks volumes about who owns and has control over public space and hence over discourse in this city: indeed it would appear that only those who can afford to run big public advertisement campaigns can presume to speak so openly about abortion in this country.
Figure 5: ‘Repeal 8th’ appears in the windows of the building facing the Project Arts Centre just hours after the mural’s removal. (Source: Panti Bliss, 2016.)
Figure 6: Protest 26 July outside Project Arts after removal of mural. (source: Natalia Marzec, Hot Press)
Street art has traditionally been an extremely transient urban art form. Yet through new social media and technology, street art is now embedded in the material and virtual spaces of the city. The merging of on and offline spaces has given a certain degree of ‘permanence’ to works such as Maser’s ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural. While city authorities may have painted over the original mural, images of it continue to live on online; in the wake of the mural’s removal, people have begun sharing the images and changing their Twitter and Facebook profile pictures to it out of solidarity. What’s more, the sharing and re-sharing of the image and the online conversations about its physical removal have already developed into offline action. As I typed this blog, I received a Facebook invite to a demonstration organised against the removal of the mural which is planned for tomorrow (26 of July) in Meeting House Square. At the same time that the work now exists in ways that result in protest actions, it has created other material effects: just hours after the mural was removed, a sign reading ‘Repeal 8th’ appeared in the windows of the building opposite Project Arts (Figure 5). These are just a few examples of the creative retaliation we can expect to see in the coming days. What is abundantly clear from the overwhelming reaction to both that the mural itself and its removal is that the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment is not going to go away any time soon — you can’t paint over a movement.
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