Street artist is spraying for social change

The writing was on the wall for the Project Arts Centre. Not long after graffiti artist Maser’s Repeal The 8th mural appeared on the facade of its building in Dublin’s Temple Bar last month, messages of support flooded in on social media.

Some observers, however, were incensed by the call for a change to Ireland’s abortion laws. The arts centre received around 50 direct complaints: among them were protests that the mural should not have been funded through taxpayers’ money.

“It wasn’t,” responded Cian O’Brien, artistic director at the Project. “Maser donated all the materials and time himself. Project just gave him the wall. No money was spent on the production of the art work. Any expense incurred was on Maser’s part alone.”

Dublin city council subsequently ruled the mural, commissioned by current affairs website HunReal Issues, was in violation of planning laws. Three weeks after it went up last month, the Project painted over the mural. Plus ca change, Maser must have thought.

Since the mid-1990s, when he first began dabbling in graffiti, the artist has been considered the outlaw of the Irish art world. Like Banksy, England’s agitprop street artist, his anonymity was necessary in order to avoid trouble with the police. These days, it’s more about branding. “My personality and my face is nothing to do with my artwork,” he said in 2008. “You can have the cheap fame and be the Glenda Gilson of the graffiti world, but it’s not for that. I want people to see my work and that’s it. I want to leave my mark on society, not in society.”

As part of Maser’s 2010 project They Are Us, he adorned public facades, including a tower block in Ballymun, St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders and Mountjoy prison, with lyrics by the protest singer Damien Dempsey. This collaboration raised €40,000 for homeless charities. “I write about tough times, but I always had a chink of hope in my songs, and Maser liked that,” said Dempsey.

Even Maser’s politically- motivated work is shrouded in optimism. The artist first came to fame for his Maser Loves You stickers and murals, which he plastered around Dublin during the 2000s. His vibrantly coloured Repeal The 8th mural is set against the backdrop of a heart. “His work is painted in a way, and uses colours, that gives it a humanity,” said O’Brien. “There is no elitism to his work. You connect with it instantly when you pass it on the street or in a bus. It’s very egalitarian.”

Although his Project Arts Centre mural lasted barely a month, it snowballed into other emblems. The original image has been projected onto the side of a building in Cork; it has been appropriated for t-shirts and social media profile images. A shop in Dublin even used the design for doughnuts. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has draped the image from its windows, claiming it does not require planning permission for a “temporary sign”.

“The legacy is extraordinary,” said O’Brien. “I think it will become the emblem of the [abortion referendum] campaign.”

When it comes to politics, however, Maser always preferred to let his art do the talking. “My work is more of an homage to the sign writer tradition, and a social commentary on current affairs,” he said in 2010.

Maser opted for a traditional degree in design, but crept out of his bedroom at night to tag walls with graffiti gatherings such as TDA Klann and FOES Crew. His breezy modernist imagery was noticed by the commercial world and the artist was commissioned to work on spaces for Sony PlayStation, Google, clothing shops and music events.

In 2014, he designed a window display for Brown Thomas and made a video for the song Cedarwood Road, from U2’s Songs of Innocence album. But a tattoo on his arm — “Family and friends before fortune and fame” — suggests he is not just in it for the cheque.

Maser continued to make street art alongside his commercial work. In 2014, he overhauled a petrol station in Limerick to create a pop art structure.

In recent years, Maser has been based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, painting murals and exhibiting work across the US and in Australia. He remains a frequent visitor to Ireland, where he has reportedly been dating model Thalia Heffernan in recent months.

In April he moved from public installation into the realm of traditional painting, when he exhibited at London’s Lazarides gallery. But he is inevitably drawn back to the public canvas.

“The context of the gallery and the street are very different,” said one graffiti artist. “The public has an ownership of street art that they don’t necessarily feel about work in a gallery.” Maser, like other graffiti artists, realises that the street offers opportunities for expression that are not found elsewhere.

“I feel like I’m orbiting the periphery a bit,” he said about his show in London earlier this year. “My art is outside the realm of the normal, and maybe I’ve always felt like that socially, too.”

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