Thomas Pool: How would you describe your background and training?
Omin: I began sketching at a young age and then got into graffiti in my early teens. I had a good bunch of mates and collectively we pushed each other to go that bit further. We formed a group called TML (The Missing Link) early on, which then morphed into the FOES crew (Fresh On Every Surface). We set out to do the most elaborate productions and biggest blockbusters at the time. That’s what graffiti was and is – it’s a competitive environment and getting your name out there is the aim of the game.
I did a year of art and design in Ballyfermot College straight after school. I took two years out after this and went traveling. Then back to college for a certificate in multimedia at DKIT. Then more traveling and painting. Then back to DIT as a mature student to complete an honours degree in Visual Communication.
On completing my degree I set up Thinking Cap, a business catering to logo design, branding and traditional hand-painted signage. I worked at this for five years straight. Throughout this time, I was always painting for myself as a passion in the background. I began to get more commissions and recognition for my own personal work and was enjoying the process much more. So I decided to really focus on developing my own style and approach to commit fully to large scale mural painting. This has been the most creative part of my career. It has been hard work at times, but really rewarding.
TP: As an artist who’s been involved with the Irish street art scene for over 20 years, how have you seen it evolve during this period?
O: There is much more of an interest in street art and an overall emphasis on the positive aspects of public art in general. In the beginning there were only a handful of people producing large scale artwork in the public realm. These days there is a whole heap of talent out there. I have been involved for a good while now, and it’s great to see that there is more public funding being made available and being included in the conversation. There seems to be a real push to reinvigorate public space, and, depending on the approach, it can also shine a light on local history and culture in the process.
There is still a lot more that can be done and hopefully future governments and councils see the benefits with investments in public art and how it provides a better living environment. In saying that, we also must be mindful that it’s not just left to ‘the powers that be’ to dictate what goes where. In some cases, it is just seen as a cleaning up project with no thanks given to the artist or the actual efforts involved in producing the artwork itself.
TP: How has your ethos shaped your practice so far, particularly the influence that traditional graffiti has had on your art?
O: I started out as a graffiti artist. It grew naturally for me and my mates as we put in some serious work early on. We stuck to doing graffiti for years and loved it, I still do. The progression of my career coincided with the popularity and growth of what we now call ‘street art’. I prefer the term ‘muralist’, or ‘graphic artist’, as that seems to tie in a lot of what I do.
There has been a clash between street art and graffiti, that if you do one thing, you can’t do the other. I don’t see it like that. For me, the walls just got bigger.
It’s about creating a balance – if I work too much on one area, like on a big commission or in the studio for a long period, I feel I need to balance that out with painting something for myself. That usually takes the form of painting on the street or in an abandoned space. It’s an urge and an itch that needs to be scratched. It’s where the love grew, and I like the challenge of creating something new for each occasion.
In the beginning I mainly used spray paint. In the last few years I have enjoyed re-introducing acrylic emulsion and painting with rollers and brushes. Yes, you get a different look and feel, but it’s a different type of feeling upon completing a piece when you have mixed your own paint rather than just using a colour straight from a tin. I’m not afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone and I like to explore different approaches to painting. I feel that if I’m not challenging myself, or enjoying the process, then what’s the point?
TP: Street art, and graffiti in particular, has often been described as a sign of urban blight by political commentators. But your work, as well as the work of the organisation you helped found, SEEK Urban Art Festival, and other festivals like Waterford Walls and Hit the North, have been key factors in reversing some of the negative effects of de-industrialisation in many urban centres. Do you feel that street art is now getting the recognition, and respect, it finally deserves?
O: Yes, I do, graffiti and street art are a part of the public fabric. In regards to the mural side of things, SEEK has definitely put Dundalk on the global street art map. It has been an honour to host artists at the top of their game, from Ireland and abroad. Each artist has left a masterpiece to be admired for years to come and has definitely been embraced by the local community.
I’m a firm believer of quality over quantity. I love seeing artwork everywhere, but when a place becomes too saturated, it becomes a bit much, even for me. I think if festivals or councils are planning to promote street art I think they should also think about areas where people can just go and paint. I think this is really important for sustaining the culture, but it also gives younger people (and the older ones) the opportunity to have somewhere to just go and do your thing, develop your style and techniques – like the old Tivoli car park in Dublin, if people remember when it was covered in graffiti.
We did this from day one with all the walls we have in Dundalk. We sought out places to paint by just going up and asking permission from house owners or shop owners. People are usually pretty obliging – it’s either a yes or no. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. We made sure that we always had a number of locations in town where we could paint and we would just do them on rotation.
TP: The current Public Art Mural Bill before The Dáil is seeking to allow artists and property owners to commission murals without needing approval from local councils. Where do you stand on this bill and how do you feel it will affect street art if it’s passed?
O: It’s about time. It is something we just did from the very beginning – we got permission from the house owner or building owner, and once you had that consent we felt it was okay to do so. In some cases, we would even get a letter of consent from the building owner, just in case the guards rolled up and we had to confirm we had permission. That usually did the trick and they let us go about our business.
I think somebody in Dublin City Council took an issue with all the new murals popping up around the city and took it upon themselves to clamp down on it.
They failed to see the positive aspect of it, that it was actually bringing people together. There was so much of a collaborative effort to produce these walls, and what it was bringing to those areas was such an injection of positivity, an enhancement of the urban environment, and a visual narrative within the urban landscape.
TP: Your first solo show, ‘Ill Communication’ at An Táin Arts Centre in your hometown of Dundalk, is on display (it will be when this is published) until 22 December 2023. What can you tell us about it?
O: I am super excited to finally be able to share all of this work. Having a solo exhibition is an amazing opportunity to give people an insight into your practice. I have exhibited in the Basement Gallery at An Táin numerous times over the years, but never had the opportunity to host a solo exhibition. The gallery is quite large, so it was great to have prior experience of the space when preparing for the show. I wanted to be able to fully showcase a wide variety of work, and with the various rooms I was able to do just that.
Some of the more recent pieces are a mix of representation with a graffiti aesthetic and graphic abstraction. I have also introduced oil painting into my process, and I feel it breathes more life into each painting. I have been using the alla prima technique, so I usually aim to complete the ‘oil’ part in one sitting, painting wet on wet.
I love to weave natural and digital elements throughout my work. The digital and analogue worlds collide to create something unique. People can easily connect to a character or natural elements within each piece and, on further inspection, the digital elements hint at a slightly distorted reality. I like when people have to take a second glance just to be sure.
In the search for visual references, these days I try to work as much as I can from my own source material. I think that’s important. I take many photographs of the day to day things and I’m always on the lookout for those fleeting moments. I feel I have much more of a connection to a piece if the idea came from my own source material.
I ended up taking loads of photographs of festival goers at Electric Picnic this year. Manipulating the pan effect on my phone I photographed throngs of people just walking past. This unearthed some really interesting results. These elongated, stretched and glitched-out characters ended up in some of the paintings for the show. The more I looked at the photos (and began to paint from them) it became clear that this was a document of people – the current styles and fashions, a snapshot in time. It’s something I definitely want to revisit in the future.
Overall, my approach to painting these days has changed, as well as what it is I like to see in a painting. Through a combination of the rough with the smooth, the graphic with the gritty or spacious with the chaotic, beauty can be found within all of these elements – but finding balance is key.
Omin is a graphic artist and muralist based in Dundalk, his exhibition ‘Ill Communication’ is on display at An Táin Arts Centre until 22 December 2023.