Healthy Mind

Portraits by an artist, for all young men

It is estimated that there are over 6,000 spoken languages in the world today. As well as spoken languages, we now have a new generation of artificially constructed codes and communication systems. Within these enigmas, art is one of the most universally understood forms of communication, connecting people with the past, the present and the future.

There is a particular element of truthfulness to a piece of art that no printed word can convey. There is also the fascinating component of getting to see through the eyes of the artist, their view on the subject and the vulnerability and versatility this entails.

Viewing the world through a work of art is like stepping through the looking glass and into the wonderland of our past, our present and our future. This idea of retrospection allows the work to make the cultures of our past timeless and temporal.

Graffiti, or street art as it’s now more commonly known, is something we all recognise and regard differently. As with all forms of art, it is subjective. The movement of this form of art from being conducted cloak-and-dagger-style in the dark of night to being exhibited in galleries marks a pivotal moment in its history.

It is a somewhat autobiographical form of expression, allowing artists to create pieces representative of themselves.

While the history of such art can be traced back to the cavemen, using whatever materials they could find to mark the walls of caves and rocks, graffiti really became an art form during the 1970s underground art movement in New York.

The past decade has seen graffiti emerge from the tunnels and enter society as an acceptable form of artistic expression for the most part. Artists like Banksy, Blec Le Rat, c215 and Shepard Fairey, among others, have brought this art form into the media spotlight. Irish street art is moving out of its infancy with huge talents such as Maser, Joe Caslin, Canvaz and Solus working on commissioned pieces both at home and abroad, shedding light on personal and public opinion.

I spoke to Irish street artist and illustrator Joe Caslin about his project ‘Our Nation’s Sons’. In a statement on his website, he says:

“As a nation we have pushed a significant number of our young men to the very edges of society and created within them feelings of neglect and apathy. It is now time to empower these young lads and give them a sense of belonging.

“I cannot fix the complex problems of apathy and disillusionment by simply sticking a drawing to a wall. However, I can create something more meaningful than any bureaucratic promise and generate a more positive social impact than many published articles, political broadcasts or speeches.”

I asked Joe about his path to becoming involved in street art and how the project came about.

“I have taken quite a strange path in getting to where I am today,” he said. “I started out as a glassblower and designer, trained as an art teacher, then as a counsellor, taught for six years in secondary schools throughout Ireland, went back to college for a fourth time to study for a MFA in illustration, and along the way became a street artist.

“My inspirations are deep-rooted and go across the board, from close family members to modern day poets, educational heroes and social entrepreneurs. ‘Our Nation’s Sons’ came about via two main catalysts: through my work as a teacher and as a young Irish man from a socially challenging background,” he added.

The project acts a voice or to draw attention to those who may seem like the lost boys of today’s hardened societies.

“Sadness and trauma are daily human experiences,” he said. “I am lucky enough to be able to harness the emotional responses triggered by these experiences and focus them directly into my work.

“Darker times have not specifically led to better art. The societal and financial circumstances we currently live in have made us a more mindful nation in my opinion. We no longer live at the high pace of greed and fiscal haste, we are re-evaluating our position and battling; a position we are historically very adept at.”

‘Our Nation’s Sons’ began in Edinburgh where Joe was studying, and is now being rolled out in Ireland.

“The project began in Scotland simply because I was studying there. It was always an Irish based project but through my studies in Edinburgh I found both cultures inextricably linked and our situations echo one another.

“I hope the project has the same impact here in Ireland as it did in Scotland. The range of positive social impacts are very broad, from the experiences the young lads who are involved in installing the artwork will have, to the lad whose image is selected to be pasted to the side of a building.

“The local community and the families of those involved, to the very passer-by who stumbles upon the work and brings their discovery to the attention of others via social media or word of mouth. Any discussion around young men and their value to society is greatly encouraged,” he said.

The Irish leg of the project will take place over the next 12 months and will involve one or more large paste-ups being installed in each of the four provinces with Caslin’s native Connacht being first.

Achill Henge stands 15ft high and 100 metres in circumference on the remote west coast island and now boasts the first Irish site, of the ‘Our Nation’s Sons’ project.

Many of the young men seen in the striking images are involved in the process from start to finish assisting each step of the way and talking to the public.

The scale of this project plays a part in getting the message across without using a spoken word or language.

Projects such as Joes are essential today where Ireland holds the fifth highest suicide rate in Europe.

In 2010 (the most recent year recorded by the CSO) there were 486 registered deaths by suicide in Ireland – 386 of which were males with the age group 35-44 being the most susceptible. A study of young Irish men aged 18-34 years revealed that 78 percent knew someone who had died by suicide, 42 percent knew more than one person, and 17 percent had a close friend who completed suicide.

For each person who dies by suicide it has been estimated that at least six other people are affected. Caslin’s work can be viewed online at

Images courtesy of Joe Caslin and Gavin Leane.

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This article first appeared in The Edition.