In conversation with Emmalene Blake, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell asks about process, politics and productivity in lockdown.
Named as one of The Irish Times 50 People to Watch in 2019, it is clear the list got it right with regards to Emmalene Blake. Painting under the name ‘ESTR’, Blake is a Dublin born-and-based Graffiti and Street Artist. While pieces depicting famous artists such Lizzo, Billie Eilish and RuPaul had catapulted ESTR into national recognisability, recently ESTR has gained international attention for painting portraits carrying important messages about the Coronavirus. Cardi B’s 2m ‘Coronaviiiiirus’, Sting singing “Don’t stand so close to me” and Sinéad O’ Connor’s “I stay in every night and sleep all day, since you took my pub away'' are just a few of the many walls carrying humorous but strong messages about public health guidelines, painted on the walls of the estate in which she lives.
Other street art by ESTR holds more political clout; Lyra McKee in Belfast, the “Not Asking For It’ underwear, and the recent depiction of George Floyd. While always beautiful, her work strikes a balance between the comic or visual pull which grabs our attention, and the import of the message being conveyed. I asked about this and much more in conversation with Blake:
Why street art? How did you begin learning to spray paint? Who has inspired you?
I've always been into graffiti and street art. I used to go around Dublin City trying to find and take photographs of all the different street art and graffiti that was appearing when I was in my late teens. I also started discovering the work of artists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquait. I love Haring’s work, he’s my favourite artist. I played around with spray paint a little bit before starting my Fine Art degree, and a bit throughout it as well. But it wasn’t until I was nearly finished my degree that I started to properly get into using spray paint.
I started making simple enough stencils and trying them out, spraying some paste-ups to stick around and spray painting small stencils onto canvases. I started then going along to different events in the White Lady Gallery, which was a street art gallery, and submitting paintings for the exhibitions there. At the same time I began going to the graffiti jams in the Bernard Shaw. I then just asked one time if I could paint at an upcoming one and it went from there. I got into painting these events more regularly and met more people, and got asked to join the Minaw Collective, and made friends within the street art world that I could go paint with.
What is your process? How do you choose a canvas, a concept, a message?
The majority of the pieces I paint are in response to something that has happened or is going on in Ireland or worldwide. They will be issues that I feel strongly about, or things that don’t sit right with me or things that are going on that need more attention brought to them. I feel lucky to have this platform and way of expressing myself and opinions on these different issues, and hope that I’m representing a lot of other people’s feelings as well with my work.
It’s not all serious though, I do like to be a bit lighthearted with my work. Even when it is about serious issues, if I can respectfully be lighthearted about something in a way that might get people to stop and think about it more than a serious piece will, then that’s what I’ll paint. There are some pieces that this isn’t possible for though, so for those I’ll keep it serious and to the point.
Many of your pieces are very humorous, while carrying a strong message, with your works addressing the Covid19 pandemic lifting spirits across the country. How did you begin doing this?
I had been thinking about painting something pandemic related for about two weeks, but hadn’t got my shit together to do it because my anxiety was pretty bad as a result of the pandemic. However, not painting wasn’t helping that at all so I made myself sit down and come up with a few designs to paint to encourage people to be social distancing - but do so in a fun way that people might enjoy rather than a preachy way. The 2km restrictions were announced just as I had a few designs, so instead of painting them in the city centre like I had intended, I started to paint them around the housing estate I live in instead. Since the first one, I’ve painted seventeen pieces around the estate now, and a few elsewhere in Dublin since restrictions eased.
Getting out of the house, even if it was just to the wall at the back of my house, to paint is what kept me sane and got me through lockdown. My favourite Covid piece? I don’t know if I have one to be honest! Maybe the Back To The Future one. Or actually, the pair of canvas paintings I painted throughout lockdown that were auctioned in aid of Scoop Foundation. They were probably my favourite lockdown creations. They’re called ‘Together Apart’ and each one has a child spray painting half a love heart, so when they’re hung together they make a full love heart.
Some of your pieces are more political, for instance the work you made in collaboration with Felispeaks for Concern Worldwide last year. Are there other issues you would like to address or campaigners you would like to work with?
Yes, always. There are so many issues I want to paint about, I permanently have a list of them on my phone. There is so much shit going on in the world, it seems like things are going backwards in terms of human rights issues a lot of the time, in a lot of places. If you look at what’s happening in Belarus at the moment, and Poland and so many other countries. Not that there aren’t human rights issues here in Ireland – the homelessness crisis has been going on way too long for one.
And it’s not just human rights issues, the environment and climate change as well – deforestation in the Amazon is still escalating at a ridiculous rate while the world is distracted with the pandemic... Which I suppose actually is a human rights issue itself, climate change is having devastating effects around the world already. And in terms of the idea of ‘the good ancestor’, it’s a human rights issue if we think about what kind of world we’re passing on to those who will have to live on this planet after us.
So yes, there are always more issues I want to paint about, it’s just about finding the time to paint them all!
I have read that you were greatly influenced by a teacher in your life, and understand that you host your own art workshops now.
At the moment I teach in Art & Design in Youth Reach, but I do run street art workshops for different youth groups, companies and organisations from time to time. I obviously haven’t been doing much of that for the last few months now, but the centre I teach in is back open now, so back to teaching there!
Work by ESTR can be found on http://www.emmaleneart.com/, or maybe even a wall near you.