joe caslin is immortalizing ireland's marginalized youth in giant murals
Photography William Murphy
With less than a month to go before Ireland's referendum on same sex marriage, the political sphere has become hotly contested. On lampposts, No Campaign posters decry the plight of Ireland's children. On the radio, one anti-same-sex marriage protestor repeatedly enquires what gay couples do in bed. There is sound and fury on the airwaves, as well as unprecedented noise on social media.
In the midst of all this, the quietest thing happened on a weekend morning in April. Overnight, a large scale drawing of two young men embracing appeared on the road-facing wall of a local chip shop in central Dublin. It was an awesome sight, so still and silent and so incredibly dignified. It touched a nerve, got shared on Facebook, filtered through on Instagram and momentarily made its way around the globe. It distilled for many (and perhaps for most, if the polls are to be believed) what the referendum is really about: equality and the right to love who you want in your own country.
The mural is about visibility says its creator, Joe Caslin. "People in same sex relationships have to keep their togetherness private and out of public view," says the 33-year-old illustrator and street artist from Roscommon. "The piece is incredibly quiet, it doesn't shout. The scale is massive, so that shouts, but the piece itself is that physical embrace, a really soft, quiet, emotional piece."
Caslin is working to put the marginalized of Irish society back in the center of its public spaces. He graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art & Design with an MFA in Illustration in 2012, when he developed his first large-scale mural project. He called it Our Nation's Sons: portraits of young, Irish men, drawn to sometimes three or four storey tall building scale. The idea came to Caslin, who is also a secondary school art teacher, from seeing how troubled youth globally were being stereotyped and stigmatized. "The London Riots had just happened, the Trayvon Martin case had begun in the U.S. and as a teacher working with lads I could see the potential that was not being tapped," he says, adding lightly, "I went with the notion of solving all the problems with drawing on a wall."
Caslin's point is, however, no joking matter. In the midst of a crippling recession, Ireland's suicide rate among young men had reached "near epidemic levels" and mental health was just not being discussed. In his eight years of teaching, Caslin has seen five of his pupils take their own lives. "That was a big part of the motivation for the project," he says. "Personally, I have mates I've grown up with whose mental health has gone up and down. I've seen the recession make a massive impact on my friends."
The young men portrayed in the pieces, which have gone up on civic buildings and down main streets, are not mere passive subjects. Caslin scouts them where he plans to put up the mural and they help with its implementation. "So they get to make something that's pretty profound in their city," he says. "They get to speak to their community in a way that's not usually available to them. They get to do something positive. They're taking a negative subject matter and making it a positive, showing that any young man in any part of the country can make something quite brilliant and staggering if they are given the opportunity."
The way he describes it, Caslin's work as an artist sounds like a large-scale version of his role as teacher. Does he see the parallel? "I'm an artist and a teacher and I've found the best-case scenario. I love making the work and passing on the knowledge. It's like an apprenticeship. I call all the young lads tyros. A tyro is an old Latin word for learner or apprentice so rather than 'chavs' or this kind of stereotypical naming given to people, I give them this old idea of giving someone a hand or a lesson."
The latest lesson, Caslin's YesEquality mural in Dublin city centre, has deep cultural roots within Irish art. The same sex embrace references one of Ireland's most treasured paintings by the artist Frederick William Burton, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, which depicts a scene of forbidden love. "It's a painting of love," says Caslin of the inspiration. "I wanted to get this across in the mural: here are men, in love and that's it."
On the practicalities, Caslin says you need a lot of paper and biodegradable glue - all his murals are temporary - and you need a lot of money to make it happen. He tried to get funding for the YesEquality mural but ended up spending his own cash. He says he could be driving a BMW now instead if he'd kept the money, and I'm not sure he's joking. But why if it costs so much, does he do it? "It's right," he says simply and firmly. "Some people might go and talk to their uncle and say this is my belief and encourage him to also vote yes. That's their contribution. Someone else gives €50 to the campaign. My role is to put something up that speaks to a lot of people. It's just something that you just feel right when you're doing it. Sometimes you have to take a risk."
The risk is not without its rewards. Caslin says he's been overwhelmed by the support for the mural and the personal notes he's received. "I got a message this morning from a young man from out west and he saw the mural online and it gave him the confidence to go in public with his partner, just go out for dinner. Imagine not being able to go out to a restaurant? That's a disgrace." And what do his art class pupils make of all this commotion? "They're great. I walk down the corridor and I have kids going 'Aw sir, fair play. I love your piece, it's great.' I'm in charge of a certain group and it's not like I'm preaching an agenda to them. They just know what I'm doing."
Text Colin Crummy