“If Graffiti changed anything it would be illegal” is the famous quote attributed to global street artist Banksy, after it appeared on a central London wall in 2011. Creative art has been part of the social and political process for decades, helping raise awareness while challenging one’s convictions. Here in Ireland, one man has lead the way in combining creative instinct with desire for social change: It is Dublin street artist and activist, Will St. Leger.
After a conventional enough start in his field, Donegal born Will soon became unfulfilled by its commercial and profit-making aspect. With his political beliefs growing by the years, he began to focus on his art as a tool of social activism and protest, immersing himself in both personal ventures and commissioned projects. Since 2005 he has established himself as one of the leading names in the Irish art scene, completing various projects in Dublin and across the country. He is also a keen activist in his own time, having been heavily involved in LGBT campaigning for a number of years.
I chatted with Will about combining activism and art, how his strong principles and outlook impact his work, while also getting some insights into his creative projects over the years.
When was it that your activism and artistic passion merged?
W: It was back in the early 2000’s. I had been working in London during the 90’s with some graphic design agencies, but gradually became despondent with the commercial side of creativity. So after a break away from things I joined Greenpeace, and one of my first campaigns with them was the 2002 campaign called ‘save or delete’. This campaign aimed to highlight the effects of deforestation. It had a good bit of support, and Banksy actually created a poster for the campaign.
Stencils with an anti-deforestation theme were sent out to people all across the UK, and my role was to co-ordinate groups stenciling them in. It really hit off, and even ‘The Face’ magazine – which was a pretty big deal at the time – included our stencils in one of their editions.
And I guess this made me realise the impact a simple piece of art could have in trying to influence change. You always see people on street corners handing out leaflets and educating people, but a stencil could communicate the same thing in half the amount of time. So from then onwards it has been a natural progression for me.
You arrived back in Dublin in 2005. How would you contrast the Dublin street art scene back then as to how it is now, and have things changed much?
W: It’s completely different. When I first arrived in Dublin there was barely any large scale work or any sense of organised activities. It was all just low-level tagging, and you would also see some attempts at stenciling but really nothing major. But clearly in recent years we have seen number of big projects happening. In 2005 Dublin was a good bit behind London, where there was already a well established scene with loads of activities happening. I guess we are still lagging a bit behind, but definitely trying to catch up.
You’re well known for your strong political and ethical stances, and have been involved in both personal and work projects which raise awareness of issues ranging from government corruption, women’s reproductive rights, and foreign wars. At the same time your anti-capitalist views means you have also rejected many work proposals. How do your political beliefs clash with your work, and is there ever a concern that your principled approach might prevent the bills getting paid?
W: It’s true that I have my own set of ethical standards of who I’ll work with, and what projects I’m happy to undertake. But while I will usually reject offers from big corporations, on the other hand I often get contacted by charities and NGO’s. They have seen me do work in the area before, and I guess the word just sort of spreads. So in that sense I guess my beliefs have also worked to my advantage in helping me establish my own niche.
That being said, there have been one or two occasions where I have worked with corporations when they are promoting a socially progressive campaign or cause. For example a couple of years ago I created murals for the coffee company Kenco. This was part of a campaign which sought to highlight gangs targeting young city boys and making them grow coffee in the countryside. For me this wasn’t just a usual project and was actually highlighting an important issue, so I was happy to go along with it.
And how often would you find yourself turning down work on the basis of your principles?
W: Less and less as the years go on. I think certain people, companies, etc, have become pretty aware of where I stand on things and that I don’t pull any punches. So I guess they feel I am either just going to say no, or else that I’ll undertake the project but put my own spin on it to ensure it represents my own worldview. I have been contacted by corporations a few times in the last year, but it’s easier to just brush it aside by saying I’m busy. It makes both our lives easier and ultimately allows them to get their job done quicker.
What about any legal obstacles you have faced in doing your work – is the question of vandalism a perpetual headache for the street artist?
W: For me personally it’s not, and the reason is that I made a conscious decision about this straight away when I first started doing street art for large scale projects. Whenever I’m working with a charity or NGO on a big project, we will always ask for official permission to put it on the street. Reason being that when I have my own space and company to work, it really allows me the time to get the job done. But when I’m doing something which is probably more low-scale and unauthorised, I just try to make sure that it is not interpreted as vandalism or something with the intention of upsetting people. The end goal is to engage, not to annoy.
To be honest the closest – and I say that lightly – I ever came to any legal trouble was during my landmines project in 2007, when I placed 100 fake landmines in Dublin. I had 75 % of the job done, and then got a phone call that a tourist had contacted the Gardai about the presence of a landmine in Merrion Square. The Gardai understood what I was doing straight away though – to be honest I think they were just glad it wasn’t raining! And for me that kind of sums it up, in that the local council, authorities etc in Ireland are quite relaxed about things such as street art here. That’s good, as there are many countries where such freedoms aren’t afforded.
Your latest project ‘out of the shadows’ consisted of 10 statues of Irish woman with suitcases in different locations across Ireland, and sought to highlight the journey abroad Irish women have to make to get an abortion. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and have people generally understood what the statues represent?
W: One of my ideas was to go around Ireland and photograph an empty spot and cut a silouhette into it. But the person’s shadow had to inhabit the space, and that’s why they were 10 statues of women of all different shapes and sizes – so as a means of represent the 10 women who are forced to travel abroad every day for abortion, and who have been forced to do so for years.
I feel the most unique aspect of this project was the location. I decided to place the statues in regional towns across Ireland, as I feel women and campaigners from these areas can sometimes feel out of the loop from all the activism or cultural events happening in big cities. And of course these women are also logistically further away from many airports and points of travel. So the aim was to represent these people, and I also wanted to give publicity to regional pro-choice groups who might not have had their voices heard before. It was important for me to detach myself from it, and make sure the project completely focused on these people.
And yes I generally feel that people get the concept, especially women. It has certainly changed my perspective any ways. If I see a woman with a suitcase now, my first instinct isn’t always to think she’s just returning from holiday.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of the creative process?
W: The most challenging part is the space between what I like to do – such as my idea’s, budgets, concepts, etc – and what’s actually achievable on the ground on the day. It’s a constant mind-mapping exercise just trying to bring the two together. So because of that I often go to the scene of the job, just so I have an idea of how to plot it out. That’s the biggest challenge, but the other challenge is putting yourself into the third person. I always like to think I am communicating the message I want communicated, so I will ask friends for their opinion on it. It is especially useful if these friends are not familiar with the art or concept at all, as their opinions are completely neutral.
Any plans for the near future worth talking about?
W: I have a project on the horizon which is about the ‘lost girls’ of Nigeria, who have been kidnapped by Boko haram. This will be in a festival and city setting, and it will be an interesting challenge in trying to engage people and make them understand what it’s about. I’m also attending a London exhibition where people from different countries will come together for a meal. Each person will bring their own plate with them, and I plan on getting people to mix their plates around and then photo each person individually. In the last year I have also got involved with ‘Act up’ Dublin, a new organisation which is determined to end the Aid’s crisis. HIV diagnosis is at a record for gay and bisexual men in Ireland; back in 2006 the figure was 60 whereas last year a total of 289 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with it. Therefore I will be curating an exhibition on 15th June, which is world Aid’s day, to bring awareness to the issue. The exhibition is called ‘All Together Human’ and more details about it will be known soon.