Rachel Healy speaks to Maser about the road from graffiti writer to established artist
Al Hester, more commonly known as Maser, is one of Ireland’s most renowned artists, known for his large-scale murals around Dublin. The artist’s most prominent works include the ‘U ARE ALIVE’ mural on Camden Street, ‘DON’T BE AFRAID’ on Richmond Street and his ‘Repeal’ logo, which became synonymous with the referendum and campaign to repeal the eighth amendment in the Irish Constitution in 2018.
From working as a commis chef in the Montrose and dropping out of university, to teaching art in Mountjoy Prison and working in the States, painting murals all over the world, to now having a solo exhibition at Gormleys Fine Art and setting up his own studio, Atelier Now, Maser said when one thing finishes, he is straight on to the next.
Maser recently finished his first solo exhibition in Gormely’s Fine Art in September, entitled Bookmarks in Time, which consisted of acrylic and spray paint on canvas. The artist explained that “The work I did for Gormleys is very botanical, rooted aesthetically in graffiti…pulling back to my roots”. In this interview, Maser discusses the route from graffiti writer to established artist.
He would bring us to the National Gallery with charcoal and pencil to draw… [I can remember] not being able to draw, but still enjoying it. I think that was definitely a trigger for me.
When reminiscing about his introduction to art, Maser recalls one of his earliest influences; “I can still remember very clearly, when I was 6 or 7, I used to go over to a friend’s house into the attic. His dad had it converted into a studio. It was a new space, a creative space. He was a graphic designer, he did illustrations. He would bring us to the National Gallery with charcoal and pencil to draw… [I can remember] not being able to draw, but still enjoying it. I think that was definitely a trigger for me.”
This artistic spark was furthered by an introduction to his friend’s older brother, “He was really into hip hop music, he had a cool bedroom with all the posters on the wall and spray paint and photos of graffiti with the tags". These urban inspirations opened the door to street art, leading a teenage Maser to seek out areas across Dublin in which to evolve his budding graffiti skills. “We were going to abandoned reservoirs and abandoned factories, where you could spend a lot more time and really develop your style”.
During these early years, graffiti in Rathmines was appealing, but at that time in Ireland, art was only ever seen as a hobby, “It wasn’t nurtured… whereas now you can be who you want to be”. At that point Maser admits that no one was ever thinking further than the weekend. He was enjoying hanging around with like-minded people and exploring the city.
While admitting that “we were all rebellious at that age”, Maser notes that being rebellious, “wasn’t the driving force or our intention… we weren’t going out with the intention to destroy… [it was more that] this is an interesting place to paint.”
Maser worked as a Commis Chef in the Montrose Hotel and dropped out of a fine art degree in university as he felt he wasn’t ready academically and struggled with keeping up with assignments. Facing well intentioned questioning from a concerned mother regarding his career plans, Maser enrolled in graphic design at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), in Dun Laoghaire - “Graphic design let me be creative, and there was a job in it. I really, really loved it and I found my place in it”. This move would go on to have a profound stylistic influence in his career.
The Dubliner’s style has certainly evolved from graffiti. In his youth, his goal was never to become ‘all city’, a graffiti term which denotes a street artist’s omnipresence throughout a city. Instead, Maser was more interested in the art aspect.
A person is an amalgamation of all their experiences and people they’ve met and what they want to take on or shed.
Maser’s more recent works include abstract subjects with botanical details. His influences from his graphic design education in IADT are apparent in his use of intense colours and typography, while his graffiti background is evident in his energetic expressive forms, gestural movements and layering. Maser’s works are reminiscent of the French artist Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) cut-outs in his abstract compositions of colourful geometric shapes. However, Maser is not limited to canvases and murals, the artist’s works previously included massive outdoor interactive installations, displaying stripes and colour blocking to create optical art environments.
The artist, who has painted murals in Dublin, Liberia, Montreal, Arkansas, Milan, Hawaii, Sydney, New York and Copenhagen, to name but a few, includes positive and thought-provoking messages such as, ‘EMANCIPATE YOURSELF’ seen previously at the Bernard Shaw on Richmond Street and Seamus Heaney’s famous last words, ‘Noli timere’ displayed as ‘DON’T BE AFRAID’ on Richmond Street.
When asked about his influences, Maser commented, “I’ve had so many great times and memories with so many people. I’m genuinely blessed.” The artist remembers his teacher, David Smith, “An incredible man. He taught me strict discipline. When you’re tired, that’s when you do another three hours… he gave me this armour to keep going in the studio”.
Maser cites his collaboration with musician Damien Dempsey as one of his career highlights. The two worked on the “They Are Us” project between 2009 and 2010, during which a nine-storey block of flats in Ballymun was painted with the words, “Concrete jungle mother farewell to your stairwell forever”.
Attributes of being a good artist involves trying to be a good person too.
The Dubliner explains that there is no one obvious influence, but that, “A person is an amalgamation of all their experiences and people they’ve met and what they want to take on or shed”. He says that ultimately, “Attributes of being a good artist involves trying to be a good person too”.
As well as enriching Dublin’s cityscape, throughout his career Maser has been interested in giving back to the community. While painting a mural in Temple Bar, Maser came across a heroin addict who would have a life changing impact on the artist. “He was the head butcher, and his brother was the manager of the store. His brother died tragically. He couldn’t handle the grief, he lost his job, couldn’t afford an apartment, ended up on the booze, committed a crime, ended up in Mountjoy Prison, got addicted to heroin there and was released and was homeless.”
This ultimately led Maser to spend two months teaching art to the young offenders in Mountjoy Prison (previously St. Patrick's Institution), where he realised where the homeless people he had met while painting were ending up. The artist and inmates collaborated by painting murals on the prison walls with inspirational quotes such as, “There's friends I’ve yet to meet” and “Inside our minds, we hold the key”. Maser later raised nearly €30,000 for the homeless by selling his artworks, which was enough to buy a medical van for the Simon Community.
Maser again made a political statement and called for permanent change in his design of the ‘Repeal’ logo for a badge in 2016, which would go on to become the official emblem in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment (in reference to abortion) in the Irish Constitution. The logo was initially designed for a badge, later being painted on the wall of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. However, the Project Arts Centre received complaints from anti-abortion campaigners and the logo was painted over in the original blue paint of the building. “I saw loads of people demonstrating outside and painting their faces blue…. That wasn’t for the mural – that was for the movement. The mural was just a visual to that…. They were upset with suppression and what that represented”.
Be mindful of what you listen to, it can steer you to a great place if you want to go there.
Another iconic artwork by the artist is the ‘U ARE ALIVE’ mural on Camden Street, which was undergoing its fourth iteration on the day of the interview. “I wrote that because I was at my little cousin’s funeral, who passed away tragically. We were out the back with all his mates… But they were still speaking of him as if he was there… like he was still alive in the room. So, “you are alive” just stayed in my head...We were driving back and I wrote down, ‘Avail of this once in a lifetime opportunity’ and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to paint it as if it’s an advertisement and there’s always a clause. Like there’s always terms and conditions…”
The first version was white text on a blue background which read, “U ARE ALIVE* *avail of this once in a lifetime opportunity”. The second iteration was painted on a rainbow stripe background to coincide with the marriage referendum. The third version, which was a result of a collaboration with the street artist, Aches, included the text, “*so get your head out of your phone”. The latest edition reads, “U ARE ALIVE, you are not less”. Maser admits that there is a lot of noise in that area of Camden Street and he wanted something very simple as there is a finite time to communicate a message to someone driving by.
Close by on Charlemont Street is the artist’s studio, Atelier Now which he opened in 2018. Maser set up the studio/gallery as a collaborative safe space for contemporary artists to showcase their art. Here, Maser uplifts his resident artists, “visual artists just need a bit of encouragement… we don’t get enough of that in Ireland”.
Maser credits his mentor in America with having dismantled his brain and rebuilding it back and aims to do the same to others, by offering a four-month artist’s residency programme to ambitious and creative artists. The artist highlights the importance of “Not just art, but your environment and your habits and who you hang around with”. While the artist wants to push his artistic practice more, he says he wants to “invest more energy into other artists and my community because it’s a very rewarding return”. Maser notes the importance of the artist’s mental state and provides on-site yoga, mindfulness and meditation. He said that people appreciate when you give them your time and that sometimes all they need to hear is “You’re able and capable of doing this”.
Meditation is my best attribute to my success.
The artist said he went through a period where he didn’t have any work life balance and was getting stressed. He says that practicing meditation was a game changer, even going as far as to say, “Meditation is my best attribute to my success”. When asked if practicing meditation changed his artistic style, Maser replied, “I think I loosened up for sure, I got more confident. Your art is definitely representative of you. There was definitely a shift there. [I was] finding my own voice a little bit more. Meditation slowed it down a bit more. Now I have way more scope to do more projects”. He said we should be taking more from what we learned in lockdown or we will fall back into the same pressures again. Maser says that he has learned, “compassion for myself, compassion for others and gratitude...The simple things we put to the side… when they come to the forefront, they really navigate you to a better place...If you’re happy, it invites better opportunities”.
Maser admits, “I want to slow it down a little bit, not for slow of pace but to tune my work”. Despite this, the artist said that he is busier than ever, with an upcoming artist’s residency in Paris and exhibiting in Rhodes Gallery in London. Early in his career, Maser was told that there were only ever 100 Irish artists who lived off their trade. Despite this, the Dubliner said he listened to his gut and wanted to do his own thing. Over the years, Maser learned the importance of discipline and gratitude. He realises that things can change at any moment, but “I'm just enjoying the journey right now”. He wants to impart the knowledge that students should, “Go as far as you can” and “Be mindful of what you listen to, it can steer you to a great place if you want to go there”.