Creative Dundee

Blog: Public Art as a Reflection of Dundee

Artwork by Lauren Morsley / Image Courtesy of Open/Close Dundee

In this blog, we take a look at how public and street art reflects the history and culture of Dundee, connecting us to the spaces around us.

From murals to mosaics, sign-writing to sculpture, graffiti to gable end paintings: public and street art embraces the outside influences that we don’t always find within gallery spaces. The buildings that these pieces are framed against and the communities they sit alongside become part of the artwork. There are no ‘do not touch’ signs, no tickets needed, no protocol to adhere to; it’s an art form that can feel welcoming to those who might typically avoid exhibitions, often because they’re walking, working, and living alongside it.

Whether the designs are in spray paint, bronze or emulsion, the inspiration behind these pieces in Dundee often comes from the same source: the place they’re located in. Take the work of C. Gul. You’ll find his seagull motif everywhere: from the informal Seabraes Graffiti Gallery to Dudhope Skatepark. And what better way to capture a sense of the city than to illustrate something that everyone in Dundee loves to complain about? It’s a city-wide in-joke.

More subtly, take a walk up Albert Street in Stobswell and look closely at the designs of Louise Kirby that decorate the shutters, planters and roads. You’ll see some familiar shapes; the same ironwork designs from the top of Morgan Academy, the arched windows of Baxter Park’s pavilion and the square designs of the gable end of the tenements all feature in her patterns.

This kind of observation can also be used to capture not just a sense of a neighbourhood, but the work individual organisations do too. Cara Rooney and Mairi Isla’s recently completed collaboration for The MAXwell Centre’s front door playfully celebrates everything people love about their community space. Designed using feedback they gathered from those who use the centre most often, it’s filled with hidden references to the MAXwell’s culture: miniature frogs, a seagull tapping on the grass and happy worms now welcome you into their garden space. 

Artwork by Cara Rooney and Mairi Isla / Image Courtesy of Mairi Isla

Working collaboratively like this has huge benefits both for the artist and the community. As Mairi said, “I’m not sure we could have come up with all of the different ideas without their contributions! It’s a really lovely thing to be able to take folks’ ideas and comments, and be trusted to come up with a design that resonates with them.” And community groups—including Love Lochee and the Stobswell Community Forum—are invaluable in helping artists and organisers connect these works to their neighbourhoods, making them a reality.

Artwork by Lauren Morsley / Image Courtesy of Open/Close Dundee

Undoubtedly public art also brings beauty to a place, and some recent additions to our city do this at great scale. One of the newest murals (facilitated, as much of the new work in the city is, by Open/Close Dundee) is by Lauren Morsley. It’s a joyous gable end inspired by communities gathering together to care for the planet. It’ll soon be accompanied by the work of Lewi Quinn, with his 18m-high mural due to be finished any day now.

Just around the corner on Cardean Street, a collaboration between Fraser Gray and Martin McGuinness celebrates a tenement stairwell in glorious high res colour. The same duo is also behind the colourful mural that turned the underneath of the Tay Road Bridge into a destination. They’ve been hard at work recently adding waves that reach across the floor: a further nod to the river it sits beside. 

Public art can also bring attention to the history of a place that you might not know of otherwise. Most people, whether locals or visitors, will understand why a bronze Desperate Dan strides across the city centre. But how many people know that the 90’s gaming hit Lemmings was made in the city purely because of Alyson Conway’s three little statues, scrambling around the wall of a park along the Perth Road? Over 600 pieces of public art across the city capture its history and memories—catalogued brilliantly by Public Art Dundee in their online archive, sharing information and insights about who created pieces and why.

And because the work is so linked to place, they can get hyper-local in the stories they tell. Zoë Gibson’s mural in Lochee celebrates the memories that many Dundonians have of ‘going to the berries’; spending school holidays picking fruit for farms, a tradition that is lost on more recent generations. To make sure the practice is not forgotten, local kids from Ancrum and St. Mary’s primary schools were involved, asking their older relatives for the stories they remember from their fruit picking days. These stories are now the design that brightens the walls of the underpass.

Just down the road, Laura Darling’s mural Efter A Hard Day’s Graft along Methven Street memorialised the Camperdown mill workers. Off Aimer Square, you’ll find the vibrant tribute portrait of local legend Michael Marra by Michael Corr. The purpose of this artwork is not just to create something beautiful, but to fill a place with references that can connect residents to their past.

These artworks become backdrops for communities, bringing colour and interest to spaces that would otherwise be ignored. They celebrate the history of the city and its neighbourhoods, highlighting who we are and what we care about in bright, beautiful detail. They give us a reason to take the long way home. As the city’s streets become home to more and more public art, we have a chance to look at the spaces around Dundee we think we know with curiosity again, the possibility of something new to discover just around the corner. 

Artwork by Michael Corr / Image Courtesy of Open/Close Dundee

With the (hopefully) warmer weather of summer, why not discover something new around Dundee? There are a bunch of guides available to help you:

University of Dundee Museums Curator Matthew Jarron will be running a series of Public Art walking tours around different areas of the city to share a bit more about the history of the objects you pass every day: catch one of their City Centre, Stobswell, Hilltown, Lochee or Blackness tours for free on various dates throughout the summer. If you’d rather take it at your own pace, try one of Open/Close Dundee’s tour maps around the City Centre, Lochee or Stobswell. Get it for free digitally or grab a Riso printed copy of the Stobswell and City Centre maps from various shops around the city for £1. 

Fancy cycling instead? Public Art Dundee has just completed a brand new route map to discover a huge amount of the city’s sculptures on a bike-safe route—you can download a copy of the map online. And if you don’t fancy the travel, you can always go and watch Dundee Graffiti Jam, taking place over four levels at Dunsinane House on the weekend of 24 and 25 of July. There’s also an all-female paint jam in the works for Sat 6 August!

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