Graffiti art in the Dinorwig slate quarries by London artist Jack Murray has reignited the debate about what can and can't be done to rock faces in the name of art. Ed Douglas explores the issues.
When artist Jack Murray, founding member of in-vogue London-based graffiti collective ATG, painted an image on the Sidings in the Dinorwig quarries above Llanberis, the response from climbers was immediate. Some were enraged, some were anxious that Murray’s action might imperil a delicate access situation – and some wondered what the fuss was all about.
A forum thread about Murray’s graffiti on UKClimbing showed just how intensely climbers felt about the issue. And it echoed the controversy generated in late July by the Stanza Stones project, a collaboration that saw verses by Simon Armitage chiselled by artist Pip Hall into boulders at Ilkley, as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
The debate about Murray focussed on what constitutes a natural landscape and how free artists should be to create their work. One commentator wrote: “An incongruous and gigantic grey hole blasted out of the side of a mountain in the middle of a beautiful green valley makes this venue a magnet for people to express and create, whether that’s by creating climbs, graffiti or shit Hollywood films.”
And as the BMC’s Elfyn Jones points out, the Dinorwig quarries were a source of creative inspiration even before they closed in 1969. “Quarrymen would hold mini-eisteddfodau, a form of cultural talent show, in their caban, or canteens, producing both poetry and art.
In the 1980s, he says, they provided the perfect backdrop for the eighties climbing scene in Llanberis, a mountain cut to the bone waiting to be explored by unemployed ‘slateheads’ testing the limits of their minds and bodies.
Climbers dubbed one quarry ‘Dali’s Hole’ in homage to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The ghostly shapes of dead trees in its flooded base would surely have appealed to him.
The routes of artist John Redhead and writer Paul Pritchard epitomised an era of psychological exploration, performed in a post-industrial landscape at a time of industrial collapse. If they were allowed their statement, why isn’t Jack Murray?
“Let’s not forget that people throughout history have been applying artwork on to rock faces,” he wrote in reply to comments on UKClimbing. “Cavemen painted on them. Aztecs and Incas painted and carved into them and the list goes on. I’m not saying that people of my cultural generation will be as relevant as tribes of people in the past who have painted on to rock faces, but who is to say?”
Other artists have also used the quarries as a location for their work, often to great acclaim. In 2004 Andy Parkin created artworks in the Llanberis quarries for LLAMFF – the Llanberis adventure film festival. Ray Wood has spent decades photographing the quarries.
But, as Jones points out, “all of this is an example of climbers and artists working with the industrial remains and demonstrating a respect towards the whole culture and community that created these incredible landscapes – and the 362 quarrymen who lost their lives here.”
In recent years, hundreds of new routes, many at a more amenable and accessible grade, have prompted a resurgence of interest in the slate quarries. An excellent new guidebook by Simon Panton documents not just the climbing but the rich history and the background to the slate-climbing scene.
Yet the increase in interest has not been without its problems, says Elfyn Jones. “The owners, First Hydro, have become concerned about liability and their health and safety obligations towards climbers. The access issues at the now partially de-bolted Dali’s Hole have been well documented.”
He adds: “Intense and sensitive negotiations between the BMC, local climbers and the owners seems to have protected access to the most popular areas for the time being. But the access situation is still very fragile.”
Jack Murray has, he says, given up on a plan to return and paint a 20ft mural in another part of the quarries, after the feelings of the owners and local climbers became clear. But the debate about what is and isn’t tolerable in quarries is sure to continue.
“Our worry,” says BMC access and conservation policy officer Dr Cath Flitcroft, “is that rock faces are starting to be seen by some as blank canvases to express their personal artistic vision with no consideration for the impact this has on the meaning of a place – or the impact their actions will have on access and the potential damage to the rock face that removal of artwork may cause.”
Given that society has become more tolerant of graffiti, perhaps we need to reconsider how we view quarries in the first place. Very few landscapes in Britain are untouched by human influence. So rather than seeing quarries as nature urbanised, perhaps we should consider them to be nature in re-hab – and let them heal rather than reinterpret them with urban art forms.