Eimear Sparks speaks to Irish illustrator and street artist Joe Caslin about his influential role in the marriage equality referendum, his work with mental health stigmas, and the upcoming 1916 commemorations.
What impact do you think your murals had on people in the lead up to the marriage equality referendum?
I had looked at other kind of referenda that took place in Ireland before that, such as the abortion referendum. Any time that I think back on that all I see is placards of little fetuses and people really aggressively protesting outside Leinster house or walking up and down Grafton street. I thought that this referendum was far more simple, in a way.There was something incredibly basic about it because it was just about love. I just wanted to make an image that was dignified and that showcased same-sex relationships, but the basic thing was love. I think it was an impactful image because it was the first time that a same sex couple or same sex embrace had been publicly showcased. We are bored by the imagery thrown at us every day of the week. I wanted to create something that was different and something that had power but that spoke very quietly and softly.
What would you say to the people who defaced marriage equality murals coming up to the referendum?
Nothing really. Once I put up the images I don’t own them anymore. They’re for the public and that’s the very nature of street art. You as the artist compose the idea and generate the art form but the second it goes on the building you don’t own it anymore. It’s a public piece of art. The art is there to provoke – the work that I make speaks about social issues. That’s my basis as a street artist. I focus on social issues that I think that we, as a society, need to confront. So I don’t own it. I don’t really care if people go up and touch it and wonder how it’s made; other people pull bits from it; some people throw eggs at it and other people are delighted when the rain takes it down. It doesn’t really have any impact on me – that’s just how it is. I’ve seen 40 drawings go up and I’ve seen 40 drawings come down. The way they come down doesn’t provoke much thought.
Your project, ‘Our Nation’s Sons,’ aims to shed light on the apathy and social exclusion felt by some young men in our society. What inspired you to begin this project?
I went to Edinburgh five years ago to go back and study. Part of what we had to do for our work was to devise a project. I’d been working as a teacher for 5 years before that and in those 5 years, I’d lost 4 kids to suicide.
I use art as a way of figuring out my head. I go into my world and do the drawing and by the time the drawing is done, I’m fixed and my head is straightened out a bit. I knew that artwork had always had this amazing power. If you use it in the right way you can focus a conversation. Five years ago in Ireland there was no conversation taking place about the position of young men. The emigration levels were ridiculous. The Trayvon Martin case took place in the United States and the London riots had just finished that summer. It was kind of like: where are the young men and why are they so disenfranchised? If we don’t give them a role and we don’t respect them and we don’t show them that they’re a part of the conversation, how do they react? Does society fall apart as a result? We’ve seen it in Ireland over the last decade. Suicide has touched the door of nearly every household in Ireland. 80% of all suicides are men. In the last year and a half the number of young men taking their life has slowly gone down. We’re lucky in that we began a conversation five years ago about mental health and made some conscious decisions to get it into the media spotlight. I remember when I started the project very few typical media outlets wanted to touch it because it wasn’t something that people wanted to read about or listen to. But now it’s a focus and every media outlet has seen that it’s time to talk about it and talk about how things can change, and what things have changed.
“If you put up an image and there’s nothing else there, you allow a conversation to take place – people start to ask questions about why it’s there and what it means. Bit by bit, people will figure it out.”
When Bressie made that speech two years ago it was a particularly difficult point. It just made things that little bit more palatable and that little bit more normalized.
So you think that there’s been a good response to the project?
Yeah, there’s been change at a macro level and at a micro level. For example, when we put up that massive drawing in Limerick, the whole of the city started to engage with it. I don’t put up any text with the drawings at all and the reason behind that is that it becomes an advertisement – you’re forcefully telling people how to think and what to think. But if you put up an image and there’s nothing else there, you allow a conversation to take place – people start to ask questions about why it’s there and what it means. Bit by bit, people will figure it out. Even when we were down on site in Limerick this lad drove over to us and rolled down his window and talked to us about something incredibly personal – about his mental health and his two sons mental health. That conversation was part of a thought process. He’d never had the opportunity to let that out or to speak about it. That’s what the artwork does, it provides ignition for that conversation to take place.
Who usually helps you put up your murals? Is youth involvement important in the process?
We try to get the whole community activated – get them wondering what the drawing is. The most interesting part is when we go down to schools and youth centres or drop in centres or even just pick people up off the street. We recruit a gang of young men to become the work force that installs these drawings. They are both the subjects and the creators.
They learn the nuances and the techniques that we use, how to drive the machinery that we use and they make something amazing. When I go down I have to be a ball of energy for the first few days, and then, bit by bit, I pull that energy away and they take over. By the last day it’s their project. It’s amazing when you watch those kids put up something amazing and they feel that they’ve created something powerful and something positive in their community.
“That‘s how street art works at the moment and that’s why it has such vibrancy and movement, because it bridges the worlds of the gallery environment and the urban environment.”
So was it because of the statistics of suicide that you focused on men rather than women for the project?
Yeah, I mean I come from a family of three lads. I couldn’t ever say what it feels like to be a woman because I’m not. I’m only speaking about the world that I live in. It’s not alienating 50% of the island at all – girls have always been a huge part of each of the projects that we do but what I know is what it is like to be a young lad in Ireland. I’ve lived that so that’s where I work from. If you’re an artist you dig into your own self to try to tell a story and if you don’t, if you’re telling a story and you haven’t lived it I don’t think it has that power.
Your murals aren’t designed to be durable, is this an important aspect of your work? Or would you ever be interested in exhibiting in a gallery?
The artwork lives within a couple of different platforms so there will always be an original drawing for each of the artworks and then once it goes up there are photographs so there’s another level. It does live as an artwork that has a way into the gallery – there are other access points that lead back into that world. That‘s how street art works at the moment and that’s why it has such vibrancy and movement, because it bridges the worlds of the gallery environment and the urban environment.
You been using a kind of potato adhesive for your works, how did you come up with that?
We’re blessed in this country in that we’ve some of the most beautiful stone structures and ancient buildings, and that’s where I want to put art – on places that you’d never really associate with street art. I’m lucky that what I put up with my installations causes no adverse effects on the building at all – its paper and potato, it goes up and when it comes down you won’t even know that the piece was ever there. We’re also in talks about using some really interesting buildings for some of the upcoming projects that we’re hoping to do next year, buildings of heritage. I have to do work with councils and heritage officers and people that protect these structures, and they won’t let me put up anything that could damage these beautiful buildings.
“You always have to dip into your mental health to make art that is powerful. You always have to tap into your emotional sense because if you don’t, then it’s just not art.”
Does your job as a teacher influence your work?
Being a teacher is weird one – under no circumstance are you a student’s parent, and you’re not their friend either, yet you are both. When you get a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning telling you that one of your kids has taken their own life, that absolutely breaks your heart. You have to go into school the next day and stand in front of a classroom and be the brave one for the rest of the school. That happens too much – far too much in too many school around Ireland. That’s what influences what I’m doing – I get to see amazing talent and vibrant kids and I get to work with really cool people every day of the week and they absolutely influence what I’m doing. They are my go-to when I need to ask a question and it’s great because I always get incredibly honest answers like ‘that’s shit.’
Are there any other artists doing a good job at tackling mental health issues through their work?
Maser is doing amazing work. He’s a Dublin based street artist and he went through his own mental or emotional health issues. He speaks about that and makes some really inspiring and thought-provoking pieces of art.
You always have to dip into your mental health to make art that is powerful. You always have to tap into your emotional sense because if you don’t, then it’s just not art. Some of the strongest artworks come from the soul of someone. Mental health is a topic of attention now but it has always been in art. Always. Forever.
Your YES equality murals were inspired by the painting ‘Meeting on the Turret Stairs’. Do you often take inspiration from specific work and incorporate it into your work?
Sometimes. That one was interesting – I came up with the idea for that artwork around Christmastime. I was sitting down and I knew I wanted to do a piece for the YES equality campaign and being an art teacher you talk about works of art every day of the week. That artwork has been referenced as Ireland’s favourite piece of art and every time it’s Valentine’s Day, that artwork always comes up.
It’s just really a watercolour of love. And to use that as a starting point meant that the image was already in the psyche of the people. There were different levels to it. if you wanted to look at that YES equality mural and just see a drawing of two lads then that was fine and then if you wanted to see that it referenced that artwork, that gave it another level. And then there were other levels such as the tattoos on James’ arm which was the motif that was around the frame of the watercolour painting. I always try to put in different artistic levels so there’s a kid of higher order of engagement in the artworks that we make. You have to make yourself interested in the work – otherwise you’re just putting out portraits.
There’s a maturity in the artwork that’s being produced in Ireland now. An incredible maturity and level of engagement.
You’re working on the 1916 commemorations. What kind of work will you be doing?
We’re looking at putting up a couple of pieces in Dublin to commemorate it in a kind of modern way by looking at how that period has influenced Ireland now. It won’t be an image of Pádraig Pearse stuck on a wall. It’ll be something very modern, very now. We’re just figuring out the details and talking through stuff. We’re working with the National Museum at Collins Barracks. Since we put up the equality piece people are far more open to having discussions about the work and street art is no longer just associated with vandalism. There’s a maturity in the artwork that’s being produced in Ireland now. An incredible maturity and level of engagement. It’s nice to be asked to do things like that now.