Joe Caslin is an artist and a secondary school teacher. He is the creator of the powerful mural that of two men embracing on George’s Street, Dublin. His iconic monochrome work narrates themes of identity, patriotism, masculinity, discrimination and mental health. His art is powerful in its subtlety and permits an audience to cultivate their own meaning and rationale.
In the early hours of April 11th, Joe Caslin placed a mural of two young men embracing on the crossroads of Dame Street and George’s Street in Dublin’s city centre. The artwork has been a focal point of conversation in the run up to the referendum on marriage equality.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with Joe Caslin – an individual who is unapologetic in his drive to make change through art. Although his work may only be stationery for a limited period of time, the cognitive, emotional and societal impact which he instigates is immeasurable.
How would you describe yourself, both personally and professionally?
Dedicated, empathetic and a bit mad.
Was it a conscious decision to have a dual-pronged career of being a teacher and an artist?
I consider myself an artist first and unlike if you are a maths teacher, it’s unlikely that you’ll also be a mathematician. As an art teacher, you have practiced art for a substantial amount of time. In my first seven years of teaching, I lost five kids to suicide – it happened very quickly and very early on in my career. That had a huge impact on how I was as a person. I then left teaching to undertake a Masters and prior to the course, you had to present a proposal of what you wanted to do and I thought I wanted to make role models for young men. I thought I could solve all problems by drawing! I quickly figured out that I couldn’t but what I could do was to create a conversation.
I started working on young male emotional health or mental health about four to five years ago, that conversation wasn’t happening in Ireland. We had gone through the bust, we were barely six months into it, we were on our arse as a country and there was very little respect being given to young people. Huge amounts of people were emigrating, suicide wasn’t at its highest but it was well up there and if you try to think of how far we have come from then until now. Now we have people who are willing to endorse the message, they have mental health issues and as young men, it’s no longer seen as such a big deal. At some point in their lives, one in three people will need help with their emotional well-being. I think we’ve moved on from the playground language that if you cry, you’re “gay” – thank God!
You mentioned earlier that you consider yourself an artist first and a teacher second, why not choose art as your sole discipline?
Art is incredibly hard. I’ll get asked, even now: – “Will you do a drawing on my house please? I’ll throw you two hundred Euro”. You wouldn’t go to a lawyer and ask them to look after you in court for a very small amount of money. Whereas in art, the response is usually “Ah sure, you’re doing it because you love it.” That mentality still exists and even more so in government and when you’re seeking funding. I am blocked out of most funding because I’m doing something new. I have applied to the Arts Council countless times but how can you take what I do and try to put that down in words on a form? At one point, it got so bad that the various different planning departments were sending me out so many forms that whenever they object now, I send them out a form that they must fill out for me. It’s incredibly difficult and I love teaching. I have set up the best case scenario – as an artist I work with kids and transfer what I have learned to them and in essence, it’s a collaborative project. Teaching has a stability and I need the money, not just to live but to fund those projects.
When you were in Edinburgh for your Masters, you took to the streets for a variety of projects, but was there an increased liberty there because it wasn’t home?
Personally? Absolutely because I can take more risks. I still haven’t brought anything home to Roscommon because I don’t feel like I have anything powerful enough to say, just yet. I’m still in the starting stages of my career and when I do bring something to Roscommon, I want to be proud of the art. Edinburgh is a beautiful city though and because of its openness, it’s very like Galway. Galway has an arts vibe to it and Limerick is cultivating that scene too because in a way, it’s become more susceptible to its roughness. Instead of running from it, they started to embrace it. Edinburgh did give me a certain amount of freedom and when someone says, ‘Here’s some money, off you go’ – it gives you confidence in yourself and in your work. Today though, it’s less of a struggle as people are coming to me asking me to work on projects whereas in the past, I had to fight for every little bit that I wanted to do.
Now that people are coming to you, how do you align your ‘brand’?
Unfortunately, its sometimes a difficult fit. I generally initiate each project unless there is a real power and substance to the incoming proposal.
How do you choose the projects which you work on?
I don’t know, it’s a gut feeling. I want to do something for the 1916 Rising. I want to look at how we are now as a state, I want to look at our relationship with the institution of the church, I want to look at who continues to have the power. There are many social issues that I want to look at but I couldn’t do anything for you at the minute, Sinéad because I’ve only lived in your shoes for the last two and a half hours. I know nothing of what life is like for you and I can’t comment on that until I know more about it. I did ‘Our Nation’s Sons’ because I am a son of the nation, I couldn’t do ‘Daughters of Our Nation’ because I’m not and I’ve never had that experience. It has to be something that I have lived through or have an empathy for.
Is there a sense of fear in creating autobiographical work and presenting it to such a large audience?
Each piece of art that goes on a wall – it’s me. If you sit in a room for a week or ten days doing one drawing – it absolutely is you. It’s a conversation that you’re having with the person that you’re trying to draw and there is most definitely a part of you that goes into it. You’re opening your soul and baring yourself.
In the era of social media, is that difficult?
I don’t really give much of a shit about that. If I never saw that piece over on George’s Street again, I wouldn’t give a damn. Once it’s up, it’s up – I’m on to the next thing. I mean, I have to put two lesbians on the front of a wall, that’s my priority… [laughs]
We were talking earlier about living in a certain experience to denote it in art, how are you going to tap into the narrative of the two lesbian women?
I know exactly what it is to be discriminated against. Yes Equality is about love and the referendum is about the lives and the future of many of my family and friends. That commitment and that connection that I have to them is easily transferable into two girls. That’s no problem at all but after that, it depends on the topic and instance. If that makes sense…
Very much so and we briefly mentioned the mural on George’s Street earlier but how did that project come about?
I have an incredibly small group of friends that I trust absolutely and over Christmas, they came over to the house – we were sculling on wine and I said something like, ‘Here lads, I’ve been thinking about this all night’. I got really excited and told them about two projects that I wanted to do, this mural being one of them, and they just said ‘Yeah, grand’.
I went to the National Gallery of Ireland and told them what I wanted to do. They looked at me like I had nine heads but then really came on board and that drawing is now in the archive in the National Gallery. That’s pretty powerful.
Could you describe the narrative which inspired the mural?
It’s a painting of a Danish ballad that was written over one thousand years ago about Hellelil and Hildebrand. Hellelil was a princess and Hildebrand was a bodyguard. They had fallen in love but her father wouldn’t let their union take place because she was in a higher social standing. In the portrait, they are meeting on a stone stairwell and she’s standing on a step above him to showcase that and to give it a visual metaphor. He embraces her and she is looking away from him. It’s their last embrace before they both die. Hellelil’s siblings kill Hildebrand and she dies of heartbreak.
I teach that painting as part of the Leaving Cert and knew that it was the perfect image for the referendum. Here, you have the state, a higher power, who is currently restricting this union from taking place. In the mural on George’s Street, the couple aren’t going to die…
Yes and if the referendum doesn’t pass, it will darken a lot of people’s souls.
We will actively wound our generation.
We will. I was all packed up – drawing done, printed, everything done, Dad in the van, Derek in the van with him, all ready to come from Roscommon to Tullamore to collect me. I had just finished school and we were getting ready to go to Dublin – the Cherrypicker was parked. Everything was ready and five minutes before the Dublin City Council offices closed on the Friday, they rang me and told me that I didn’t have the correct planning permission to go ahead but three weeks before that, I had received their permission. I had cited election /referendum legislation in my application and I received a permit from the Roads Department who had liaised with the planning department whilst processing the paperwork and we got the go ahead. But at five to five, the Council rang to say, ‘No, you don’t have the go ahead and if you proceed, we may bring enforcement proceedings against you’. I asked them to spell it out and to tell me what could really happen. They said that it could ultimately end up before the High Court.
I kind of had a walk around and had a look at myself and really, what do you do in a situation like that? I knew what I was doing was right and sometimes the law is wrong. Laws are only for a certain time – twenty years ago, certain things were illegal that today are now legal – the law needs to move. If I was in breach of the law, fuck it. There’s no judge in the country that would put me in jail over what I did. I knew what I was doing was right so we threw it up and then the world went mental [laughs].
Why do you think that one piece of art created such discourse and conversation?
The reason that happened was because it didn’t go in the natural media route. Neither The Times nor The Independent covered it and it wasn’t on any radio station because there was that law that says you have to give 50/50 to each side. I was asked to do lots of interviews but I wasn’t going on a radio station to have a row with people – that’s not what I am. I just let the drawings speak for itself, it escalated and possessed such power. The mural is so quiet, it doesn’t say anything very loudly, there’s no writing on it whatsoever, and it’s just a drawing that has a huge amount of energy in it.
Do you think the lack of comment from you and the media made it more powerful?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Any of the drawings that I’ve done before with ‘Our Nation’s Sons’, by not putting any words or advertisement on it, you’re allowing the person to enter into the drawing and to make a decision as to what it is. They find out their story in the mural and become carriers of the narrative rather than me saying, ‘This is what it is’. It’s like going into a gallery, you see something that you love and you take it on board.
Do you think the self-funded element of your work has added to the uniqueness of your art?
I don’t want to be affiliated with global conglomerations but then, on the other hand, I got funding from the Arthur Guinness projects three years ago and only for them, I wouldn’t have anything done with ‘Our Nation’s Sons’. They gave me the funding and stepped back. I have a great relationship with them as a philanthropy group, not as an institution but as a vehicle to give back to the city. It was money well spent on their behalf.
In recent weeks, prints of the George’s Street mural have been available to buy. What made you sell them?
It was a leap of faith. I had €23 to live on for eleven days after I put that mural up on the wall. I’m not joking when I say that – Anyone who I could have tapped for money, I did. Trying to source that money and attempting to get people behind that idea was both a tough deal and a massive risk. I took the risk of paying more money to get these prints done with the hope that people would start to buy them and then they did! That has given the mural another life but now people might expect prints from future artwork too…
I think it’s interesting that even though you had only €23, you still limited the number of prints to 300. Was that a conscious branding decision?
Yes, it was a conscious decision to limit it but not to limit it too tight. You want to give those who invest in the prints a sense of ownership but you don’t want it to become an advertisement either.
The next project is the lesbian couple, what’s a realistic timescale for such a piece of work?
The mural on George’s Street took approximately three months from the first thought to putting it on the wall and I’ve another few days left to do on the next drawing – I’ve been kind of avoiding it for the past few days…
Do you have to be in a particular head space?
Oh, yeah! Jesus, yeah! You can’t do a drawing with the Leaving Cert happening around you but now there’s more of an energy about it as I’ve found someone who might be willing to give over a certain space to the art. It would have been very hurtful to the LGBT community to put up just two men. I couldn’t draw every nuance of every kind of relationship but it’s important that we represent both sexes. I don’t want to leave anyone out.
Since the argument began about whether or not the mural was in breach of legislation, have Dublin City Council been in contact with you?
Yes, they have sent me a letter saying that it wasn’t in breach of any law. Although that debate and argument was frustrating, it has brought about a good relationship. I’ve told them that I want to meet with them and discuss legislation for future projects and to have clear guidelines over what they will and won’t allow. It’s a mature relationship and they’re not looking at me or my art as a vandal / vandalism but much like the law, they need to be brought along too. Their process could have taken five months and the referendum would have been over by then but because the issues I deal with are so immediate, change needs to occur.
Were you frustrated that the Council’s admittance to you not being in breach of the law didn’t make it to the press / public forum?
Yes and no. It would have been nice if it was indicated that what I was doing was right. I had stated and cited that legislation three months ago and acceptance of that would have been good but then it’s nice for people to see you as a bit of a renegade too. I’m not really too bothered… [laughs]
Past May 22nd, what direction do you see your art taking?
I’ve been asked to do a lot of work in New York and London but I’m not finished saying what I need to say in Ireland. ‘Out Nation’s Sons’ is going to continue because that story is only in its infancy. I want to establish myself and be proud of what I have done here before I make that jump and move to someplace else. I’m very tribal, I’m very Irish and I’m true to what’s happening here, everyone who I work with is Irish – from the director, the composers, those who install the murals, we all feel the same and don’t want to disappear just for the sake of it.
Could you see a dialogue between ‘Our Nation’s Sons’ and the emigrated population?
Absolutely. I have been repeatedly asked to go to Canada, to London and New York and to speak to that diaspora. I haven’t found exactly what I want to say yet. It’s incredibly hard because 9 to 5, I’m in school and then I have only a few hours in the evening to put my thoughts into action. I would love to have funding for headspace, to allow things to develop. When you’re teaching three hundred kids and then try to attempt this other kind of work, your head is well melted!
Would you ever change your medium to help protect it from the elements?
No. We’re able to use a different acrylic base that will protect it a little bit longer but it’s only temporary. At this point, I don’t want to put up anything that’s permanent because everything that I’m talking about will come and go. It’s a comment for a particular moment in time and then we’ll move on again. The relevance is in that moment and that’s what gives it its power.
Thank you to Joe for making this interview happen. For more ‘Minnie Meets…’ interviewees, just click here.