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Art of Asbestos: In Conversation with a Street Artist

If you’ve been in Dublin in the past 15 years, chances are that you have seen hand-drawn, black and white lost posters around town. The author of these unconventional pieces is Art of Asbestos, a Dublin based street artist that has been contributing to the urban landscape for over 15 years. The Circular met with the artist in October 2019 to talk about the things he has lost, his thoughts on identity and street art.

Q: What is your project about?

A: The lost stuff I have been doing it for about 15-16 years. It’s all about the things that we think we need in life but we don’t. And the things that we obsess about, our possessions and when we lose them actually they are not that important. It’s about playing with that, and playing with the reactions people have. So it’s not about the important things, it’s about thinking about what we lose and then how I can create a story around that. And then it’s also about how people react to it, so my email address is on it, people respond to me, and I create a narrative. So it’s as much about the work that’s up, but also about the conversation that I have with people.

Q: Do you have any stories about the response over the years that you would like to share?

A: The most recent one, I put up a larger poster of ‘lost like’, as in the Instagram like, and someone emailed me and we had about 20 emails back and forth but he misunderstood which is kind of fun, cause he didn’t know and I was like can I get it back. And he’s like how do I get it back to you. And it seems he had actually taken the posters down and he said he threw them away. I’m like I don’t care but I just want my like back and this went on and then he started getting annoyed about it: ‘what is this, why are you doing this’. And I just wanted my like back. That interaction between people is really fun. Because sometimes they understand and they get a bit crazy, in a good way, and other times they just don’t understand and I just keep in character so that I keep playing with that communication. Sometimes it’s weird to talk to strangers.

Q: I have been seeing your posters around the city for a while and I’ve noticed that you are making them bigger now. What is that about?

A: It’s just playing with the environment and playing with the space and it’s fun to do them small but not everyone sees them, and the different scale is interesting because if it’s small and it’s on a lamp post and you are standing at the traffic lights you see it, but somewhere is better big, somewhere is better small, it’s just all about communicating with people in the city.

Q: What inspired you to do this? Were you doing another project and it kind of led to this?

A: I’ve always been creative, the lost stuff specifically came from seeing a lost poster for a Harley Davidson jumper, in a pub, that somebody had lost. I just thought it was really silly, but obviously it meant a lot to them. So I just played with that narrative of how it’s very personal when you lose something. So the character I created is invested in that loss but the knowledge that the pieces that I create are kind of ridiculous and not important.

Q: How do you decide where to put the posters? Do you put them all over the city or do you have any strategy? I see them a lot in stoplights and lamp posts

A: It’s generally thinking about places where I think people will read them first, places where I think they’ll stay. So certain sites get cleaned off or wouldn’t necessarily put them up to places that are nice. It’s about thinking about how it interacts with people, how people will get the most out of it. It’s all about being part of the city. A city isn’t about everything being perfect, it’s about the conversation. So always think that cities that are really sterile and are really clean feel as there is no one living in them, whereas a certain level of destruction and crumbling and texture adds to a city.

Q: Have you had any complaints about them, about the place that you put them?

A: Not directly, not for years. I had one person. I put some up in Tralee, in Kerry, and this guy emailed me, this is maybe about 10-12 years ago. He said something to the effect of ‘despite your artistic intentions, you are still littering’. It was kind of funny, he understood what I was trying to do a little bit, but he was really annoyed about it, and could almost feel a conflict in what he was saying. He was giving out to me but he was also slightly patronising as well. But it was fun, it was funny to get that. But in general no, people love them, people like them. I know not everyone agrees with them but not everyone agrees with everything.

Q: You said you put them up in Kerry, do you do that a lot? I saw on your Instagram that you also have them in Istanbul.

A: Anywhere I go, today is probably a strange day that I don’t have them on me, but everywhere I go in Dublin, if I’m on holiday, anywhere I’ll bring them with me. I’ve translated them into Italian, Spanish, French, German, Turkish, so anywhere I’m going and sometimes I get them to people if they are going on holiday to put up. In general, I don’t like to give them to people to put up because I like the fact that I always put them up and then the conversation is happening with me, but at times I do send them abroad. I’ve sent some to Canada recently, put up some in French and in English. Sometimes I do that but in general, I like to put them up myself. The Turkish ones are interesting because Istanbul is an amazing city and putting them up in Turkish rather than putting them up in English, I’m receiving conversations in Turkish, and I have no idea, I don’t understand a word of it. So I’m trying to Google translate it and go back and those mistakes are interesting as well, because try to talk to someone that you’ve never spoken their language and then try to translate everything through Google, you’ll get mistakes but those mistakes are part of the fun.

Q: Do you have any other projects going on?

A: Lost is kind of the main thing I do, but I also do mural pieces that are about kind of the sense of identity and the sense of persona. There are murals I’ve done all about masks that I use. Masks cause we all put up masks in the real world. The image you are portraying to me is a version of yourself, I don’t think anyone really portrays their true self to other people, we are always creating a performance… It’s not about lying it’s about what we want to project. I’m playing with my own identity, my identity of past selves and these murals are quite different to the lost stuff, but still come from a very similar place of identity.

Q: Do you do them with the same character, the Art of Asbestos character? When you talk about masks, is that kind of your artistic mask for the world?

A:Oh yeah. It’s not so much my artistic mask as it’s the mask that I’m trying to create as a human being. So we all have our frailties, and we all try to hide them and often the best way to be human is to expose our frailties and talk about being vulnerable. So it’s playing with that and then playing with the fact that in the graffiti community, the street art community, you hide behind an identity. You hide behind it because of the obviously illegal nature of it, but that creates to me an opportunity to create work that can potentially be more honest. Because you are not presenting your public persona, you are presenting a version of yourself and that version is sometimes more honest than the person you present everyday.

Q: You are allowed to be more free.

A: Hopefully

Q: Why do you think this matters? Why do you think people should be noticing your posters? Is there a goal?

A: That’s a very good question. I think that the reason street art started, in the early 2000’s, and I got involved around then, was a desire to be creative but not being locked into the art world. The art world is very hierarchical, you go to college to study, you leave, you get invited to work in galleries, that process of getting a show in a gallery, used to be and still is incredibly difficult, then your work gets maybe put into museums, then you die and then it gets sold a lot. Everyone now is trying to break that system, and creativity is only better I think because of it, quite in the early 2000’s people decided if I can’t get a gallery show, fuck that, I’ll just put my work outside, and it created a new narrative. Now, the simple fact is that not all of that work was good, just like not all the work that goes into galleries is good, or into museums, but it does create a voice. And the reason I wanted to do it was because I never went to art college, never studied it but I just had the desire to do something creative and you are then exposing yourself to criticism because you putting stuff out in the public and anyone can criticize it. But is also democratic and the people who respond to my work have fun with it. You’ve seen it around the place, makes you smile, makes you think. So it’s just another way of sharing creativity and it’s free, it’s for anyone to destroy, to take, to do what they want. Once I put it up I have no control over it, I can’t do anything with it. People paint over it, people rip it down, people steal it, people love it. I can’t influence them, but at least I can put it out there for them to enjoy.

Q: Since you started the project has anything changed about it? The size, the things you put as lost things…?

A: It’s getting more difficult to think of new ideas, but I have a long list on my phone of ideas I would work away with them some evenings. The biggest change has been recently going bigger and bigger. I was out last night with Maser, putting up pieces around Dublin. Thinking about that, but then also I’d never really done anything too political. The most recent one I’ve done is ‘lost crane’ about the whole process of construction in the city and whether it is positive or negative, and whose voice is being listened to so that’s the most political that I’ve done. I’ve never wanted to be political, for the sake of it. That was an opportunity which I thought it was something I was interested in, but I don’t want to make it about it being a driving force. To me it’s actually about the interaction with somebody on the street and giving them the opportunity to talk to me.

Q: What are your thoughts on street art? You found it as a different way of showing your art, what do you think about other artists you know, or other street art you’ve seen?

A: I think it’s interesting. Like any scene it starts out with the instigators. In the early 2000’s you had people like Shepard Fairey, Brad Downey, Swoon, Faile, Barry Mcgee, loads of artists who all came from the graffiti community, some of them. But, the next wave of that got better and better and better, some artists starting out weren’t very good but overall the standard is getting better. The people who started out, started it because they needed an outlet. It’s now changing. When I started in street art nobody would buy anyone’s work so you could have the most famous street artist in the world and nobody had a clue who they were and they were probably selling for a few hundred quid in a gallery. Like when I started out you could buy a Banksy original for 200 hundred quid. So, there was no interest in it, nobody cared about it. Now, the fact that people care about it has changed it so that a original spirit is gone but there is no point in caring about that because is always gonna change if something is successful it’s gonna change. Now people when they start out in graffiti or in street art, they will know that it is a way for them to progress into a gallery show, start doing murals around the world, travel. So they have an opportunity to make a career out of it, make money out of it. I don’t think that is a bad thing like a lot of artists people give out to because of the fact that they are making money and that they sold out but they are doing what they love and they are being paid to do it as long as they are happy that’s their decision, you can disagree with it but you can’t deny that it’s their choice so the opportunities are great. The fact that it’s become more mainstream, people are interested in it, there are street art tours, the public likes it. The challenge is always to keep the quality high, but that’s always the challenge in any cultural situation. And people’s opinions about what is good and bad is completely subjective, so what I think is great other people think is terrible, and vice versa so that’s the joy of creativity.

Q: Do you have any goals of making a career out of it? Do you get paid for any project?

A: That’s kind of not really the purpose of what I do. I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to make money out of it but not necessarily mean that I wouldn’t want to. At times I do, but it’s always on a case by case basis. It’s not a business.

Q: Anything else you want to share?

A: It’s just for people to enjoy the work, for people to keep and eye out for all the things that I’ve lost, if they can find them, by all means hand them to me. I’m more than happy for people to send me the items, if you found some leaves please send them to me. I’d love to get them back so I find that whole part really fascinating, the fact that people take time out of their day to write down an email address and open up a computer and open up a new email and write to me. No matter what the reaction to it is, sometimes is just people saying keep going, I love it. Sometimes is just people saying, going off with these crazy stories but I just want more and more people to see them and interact with them and comment on them and enjoy them, it’s a narrative. Ultimately what I want to do with that is share that, but I want to share when it’s a bigger project that there is enough to share so I don’t share that much of my interactions with people cause I want to make sure that when I do that I’m sharing a wide enough breath so that you can see the positives, the negatives, the different ways people interact with, the different ways people respond.

Q: Kind of like a case study.

A: Well, kind of. But more, whether that’s a book or an exhibition or a website, I’m not sure how it would manifest itself, or an installation, but I think that as much as people love seeing them there is definitely far more interesting situations when it comes to the way people react to them and the way people share, and the way people respond. That, to me, is what I want to focus on more.

If you spot any of these lost items make sure to send them back to!

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