Joe Caslin's 2015 murals in support of the marriage equality referendum drew attention from across the globe. He reflects on that time and reveals the inspiration behind the special artwork he created for Saturday's Irish Independent Weekend magazine cover
Joe Caslin is an artist and art teacher from Roscommon who created today's Irish Independent Weekend magazine cover artwork. He originally trained as a glass-blower at NCAD before training as a teacher, as well as gaining an MFA in illustration at Edinburgh University.
His 2015 large-scale drawings in support of the marriage equality referendum received worldwide attention when they were unveiled in the weeks leading up to the historic vote. He has taught art in secondary schools for 12 years and currently lives with his partner in Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Why did you create the 2015 drawings?
They were installed in April 2015 and I had noticed that the conversation around those weeks, in the lead-up to the referendum, had become extremely polarising. In my opinion, the core of the message of equality of love, and the right to marriage, had completely been lost. I wanted to create a drawing that cut through a lot of that spin. It was important that the drawing was placed centrally in Dublin - on George's St - and then that the follow up one was in a very rural location, down in Galway.
What was the inspiration behind them?
Every Valentine's Day there are articles about Ireland's most-loved painting. It's Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs [by Frederic William Burton, it hangs in the National Gallery]. The story behind the painting is that the higher power, which in that instance was the king, forbade their love from taking place. And in 2015 in Ireland, the State forbade same-sex marriage from taking place. That was the starting point for the artwork on George's Street.
What changed for you after it was unveiled?
Public engagement was incredible. I got some of the most beautiful emails. There was a young man who had been beaten up on that road years before and had only had the bravery to walk down that street again when the drawing was up. People were recreating the pose and sending me photos. Panti Bliss had put up a post on Facebook and there was something like a million interactions over a 24-hour period. I was doing interviews with Al Jazeera… that image travelled the world within a number of days and became the image of the referendum. And that's remarkable.
What was the inspiration behind your artwork for today's Weekend Magazine cover?
I couldn't believe that it's been five years since the referendum - you have to stop and look back, so the newspaper in the drawing is the object that you reflect upon. And then you have the person who is looking out at you, the viewer, but they are also bringing other conversations to you with other features in the drawing. I wanted to talk about the oppression of the trans community and the lack of representation for black, Asian and other ethnic groups. It's very important, I believe, that those colours are added to the Pride flag. The last element is the pink triangle on the T-shirt - that was once a badge of shame but I wanted to use it to highlight the work of Act Up and their fight to end the HIV and AIDS crisis. I think the marriage referendum was a point in time, and it's great to look back on, but there are still other issues and inequalities that we need to confront.
What's the biggest influence when it comes to your work?
Social-awareness issues. I would hope that my work activates and provokes and questions endemic issues that impact Irish society.
What artist do you admire the most?
It varies from week to week. This week it's Lucian Freud. I got a really beautiful book and I'm really delving into his work.
What's your earliest memory?
We had this big pram in my family - we were all put into the same one. There were three boys in our house. I was sitting in the pram in my grandparents' house, just looking out. I had one leg thrown over the side and these black, black eyes. I was called Black Jack because I had such a stare. And I was there, just looking out on the world.
What are you most proud of?
My students and their ongoing success.
What is your biggest fear?
Heights. I absolutely hate heights, which is incredibly ironic given that I work five or six storeys up on the side of a wall.
What's the first thing you'd do if you were Taoiseach?
End Direct Provision. As a system, it's inhumane, inefficient, and there are people making money off it.
What's your biggest insecurity?
Who'd you most like to go for a pint with?
Anyone at this point! Lockdown has tamed my fussiness. I'd sit happily with an enemy at this point.
What fictional character do you most identify with?
Scout Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird.
What is your most treasured possession?
Who are your heroes?
My grandparents and parents, as well as a friend called Chidi Muojeke. She is an incredible mother. She got ministerial leave to remain in the country about a year and half ago with her two sons. She taught me to have faith in things. She's originally from Nigeria and has been here for 11 years and fought every day for those boys.
What are you going to do right after this interview?
Go for a walk. I recently had heart surgery and I'm really trying to make the recovery successful.
What keeps you awake at night?
Physically, the wind. Psychologically, overthinking.
What's your greatest passion in life?
Drawing and people watching.
What do you regret not doing in the last year?
In hindsight, I could have hit Glastonbury a little harder.
What job would you be terrible at?
A vulture fund manager. The idea of profiteering off the vulnerable is vile.
Weekend magazine is available with the Irish Independent on Saturday May 16.