Traffic lights. Pretty much every busy road has them. Bustling streets can’t function without them, and the big metal electrical boxes which dot the streets and operate these traffic lights are as necessary as the lights themselves. I for one have never thought twice about either traffic lights or their big metal boxes—why would you if you’re not some type of street light technician or city planning expert? I’ll tell ya why! Because those big grey boxes are UNUSED PUBLIC SPACE! Dublin has taken note of this space and used it to create art and identity.
While visiting Dublin, in between exploring Trinity College and the Guinness Storehouse, I noticed a bunch of large decorated rectangular boxes sprinkled along the streets. Upon closer inspection I learned that these were artfully painted electrical boxes for traffic lights, which are usually just dirty metal eyesores along city streets. Each box had the same “Dublin Canvas” logo beneath an informational placard stating the title of the piece, the artist, and the artist’s relevant website, so it was easy enough to find more information about the story behind these boxes.
Turns out the Dublin Canvas project originated as one of Dublin City Council’s Beta Projects, which was an initiative to trial run innovative ideas that would benefit Dublin City in some way. This particular project was called Traffic Light Box Artworks (super inventive name there). Its purpose was fourfold: to save the council money in painting over graffiti-tagged and stickered-up boxes, to provide a space for artists to express themselves, to brighten up the appearance of their street, and to strengthen the identity of an area. The original 15 boxes accomplished exactly that and were so successful that now in 2017 there either will be or already are 200 of these beautiful boxes all over Dublin’s streets.
My favorite reason behind taking these blah boxes and turning them into art is to strengthen the identity of an area. Taking an entirely unremarkable piece of metal and transforming it into something attention-grabbing and potentially thought-provoking is a simple yet ingenious way to enhance the identity of an area. Thanks to these boxes, for example, I could identify a building by mentally connecting it to the cool Viking themed box outside, and was able to realize that I accidentally walked in a complete circle when I passed by a big beautiful cow face on a box twice within one half hour.
Some of these artists chose to highlight Irish identity in their pieces, and those happen to be the ones I found most interesting. Sarah Grogan’s piece “Two for Joy” draws from one of many Irish superstition, that seeing a pair of magpies brings joy and luck, so she chose to bring good luck to passersby by painting two magpies on her box.
Colin McGinley’s box features two of his “Dublin Street Characters”: Bang Bang and Matt Talbot. I was curious about these characters so I turned to the ole Googler and McGinley’s website www.howaya.ie . I should have guessed from the clear Irish-ness of his website’s name that these characters were actual Dubliners, both well known by other native Dubs! Bang Bang was an eccentric Dub in the 1950’s who carried around a large prison key which he used to play-shoot at trolley passengers, who would then join in his play acting. The Venerable Matt Talbot was a regular working man and a revered ascetic—the public only learned the extent of his piety and penance upon his death when they found chains tied all along his body. I love that I got to learn about Irish and Dublin identity just from a couple of otherwise rusty metal boxes on the street.
Banner image: A compilation of the Dublin Canvas art I saw in Dublin. Find information about each piece and its artist at http://www.dublincanvas.com/. Find more information on the history of the entire Dublin Canvas project at http://www.dublincanvas.com/paint-a-box and http://dccbeta.ie/index.php/project/article/traffic-light-box-artworks.