Brushing Up: The Story Behind the Mural Outside The Cobblestone on Smithfield Square

The two musicians, four storeys tall, loom over Smithfield Square.

If not for the construction hoardings outside Haymarket House, they would have a near perfect view of the whole plaza.

The taller of the pair is a fiddler. His eyes are circular and wide. He wears a slight smile. His complexion is red raw, as if he is skinless.

Perched on his hat is a smaller man who raises an arm. Growing out of the instrument is an anthropomorphic worm.

The other musician is a flautist, pale and gaunt. His nose is long, and he has no legs, and he sits on a stool, beneath which the ground appears to have given way for a swirling sea.

The landmark mural on the main façade of 80 King Street North, a brown brick and roofless derelict property by the Cobblestone pub, was created by a pair of Italian street artists, known as Vadis and Tilf.

According to Tilf, real name Giuseppe Tilf, the idea was to pay tribute to The Cobblestone pub next-door, and its part in the revival of Irish folk music.

Says Tom Mulligan, The Cobblestone’s manager: “It’s become one of the most iconic things around Smithfield.”

That status has been earned quickly.

It is just nine years since the two artists painted this homage to the pub. But with historic street art hotspots – like the wall behind the old Bernard Shaw and the former Tivoli Theatre’s car park – lost to shiny new development, it already ranks as one of the longest standing street murals in the city.

Birth of the Mural

The Georgian building at 80 King Street North has lived many lives. It was built circa 1750, according to the National Inventory of Architectural History.

In 1862, it was owned by Patrick Egan, a wholesale grocers and seedsman, lists Thom’s Irish Almanac & Official Directory for that year.

By 1976, more than a century later, it was a rainware and jeans-manufacturing company called Kestrel Products. By 2009, the property was derelict, show images from Google Street View.

The front door was blockaded by a sheet of corrugated iron. On the ground floor, sprayed in white was a graffiti tag, ‘unbuff me!’

The building’s main purpose was as host to a modest advertising board, announcing events like Rent: The Musical and The Cat Laughs comedy festival in Kilkenny.

But, in 2008, its revitalisation was set in motion when Anna Tosatto, who ran the street artist festival that birthed the work, arrived in Dublin from Como in northern Italy.

Tosatto studied English at a language school for two years, then enrolled in the creative and cultural industries course at what was at the time the Dublin Institute of Technology.

For her thesis in 2013, she had to create a project around art administration and organisation, Tosatto says. “So I decided to create a festival.”

She came up with the Muro Street Art Event, a festival held that May.

Muro saw the commission of murals by Tosatto around the Smithfield area, along with the staging of exhibitions, debates and workshops at Exchange Dublin.

Vadis and Tilf were on the line-up. As were Dublin-based artists such as Alan Doyle, Haw Kie and Kathrina Rupit who paints under the moniker Kinmx.

Danilo Bolognini, also known as Vadis, first moved to Dublin in 2011.

When he arrived, Tosatto recalls, he expressed to her his shock at the general scarcity of street murals across the city.

Says Vadis: “Compared to the Italian street-art scene, there was less experimentation.”

Still, he says he was impressed greatly by such artists as Kinmx, Kevin Bohan, and the late Gerard Dowley, nicknamed the Zorro of the Liffey.

He began to paint in spots like the wall behind the Bernard Shaw, at its old home in Portobello.

Says Tostatto: “I would ask for permission on his behalf and from there, I decided to do the Muro project.”

Why Here?

The idea to paint a mural outside 80 King Street North came because of the company Tosatto and Bolognini were keeping in Dublin.

Tosatto was friends with a bunch of trad musicians, including the duo Ye Vagabonds, she says.

She and Bolognini would hang out at pubs and trad haunts in Stoneybatter, like The Cobblestone and Walsh’s.

It is, she says, one side of the capital that she misses dearly. “Going to the pub, listening to music, it’s something special about Dublin that I haven’t experienced in other places.”

Mulligan, of The Cobblestone, didn’t know Tosatto or Bolognini personally before they approached him, he says. “They just asked one day, and I said ‘Go ahead’.”

Detail from the Smithfield mural. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

Giuseppe Tilf says he hadn’t been to The Cobblestone until he made the mural. Like Tosatto, he too was from Como, but came just for the Muro festival.

“During the day, I was doing the drawing,” he says, “and we went to The Cobblestone every night.”

It took three days to finish the piece, says Bolognini. “The guys from the Cobblestone were passing us great pints of Guinness.”

“We had a scissor lift bringing us up. We first put on a coat of white, the colour paints and lastly painted the details,” he says.

Those looking closely can see two distinctive styles. Vadis and Tilf each handled one character. Tilf created the fiddle player and Vadis the flautist.

Both figures are composed as if reflections of the sounds produced by their instruments.

The fiddler borders on the surreal. He is created from thick circles and black lines, which resemble facial muscles and corduroy clothing.

The legless flautist is like a Victorian caricature, made up of delicate flowing patterns that blend into the waters below his stool.

Long Lasting

The work was completed in May 2013. Almost a decade later, its colours remain vibrant and few of even the finer details have been lost.

“There’s still people stopping every day to photograph it,” says Mulligan.

The other murals created as part of the Muro Festival, though, are now all gone, Tosatto says.

When she visited Dublin briefly in 2018, all bar the mural on King Street North were removed or replaced, she says.

Three murals that had been on Chancery Street, painted onto the former Egan’s Cash and Carry, now Fegan’s 1924 Café, had been erased by 2017, show historic images from Google Street View.

As to why only Vadis and Tilf’s contribution has survived, neither Tosatto or Mulligan are certain.

Its existence, Mulligan says was momentarily in question when, on 1 October 2021, Marron Estate Limited, the owners of 77 to 80, applied to develop a nine-storey hotel on the site.

Included in the proposal was the demolition of the Cobblestone’s modern extensions and the restoration of the facade outside number 80.

Permission however, was refused by Dublin City Council, with the developer subsequently withdrawing their proposal at the appeals stage.

There is no comprehensive record of street art in Dublin. Attempts to track it therefore rely on enthusiasts and open-mapping.

A guide created by Dublin Walls, an online photo collection of street art by photographer Luciana Marin, counted 51 murals on display as of September 2019.

Another, by Vagabundler, a global urban arts archive, identified 67 murals, large and small, within the north and south inner-city as of December 2021.

Those two maps, and Google Street archives, would suggest that the 10 longest surviving murals in the city centre were created between 2009 and 2013.

Six of these works are by the artist Maser, while James Earley and Conor Harrington both have one apiece. Half are based around Temple Bar, and the only one on the northside is by Vadis and Tilf.

And as the sun shines through the hole in the roof of number 80 King Street North, there is no way of knowing how much longer the pair’s work has left on the square.

But, this artform is transient by its nature, says Tosatto. “They are deleted, painted over, used again.”

Bolognini says that he has not painted in six years. Today, he lives in northern Italy and manages a small trattoria, which also hosts shows for underground musicians and artists.

“But I draw small sketches with ink and Sharpies,” he says. Meanwhile, Tilf continues to paint in Italy and across Europe.

Spotted a piece of public art that you’d like to know more about? Seen a sculpture with an interesting back story? Send us an email at [email protected], and we could research and write about it for our Brushing Up series.

Author:

Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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