Eoin Butler's Q&A
WILL ST LEGER, street artist, talks landmines, Banksy and accountability for illicit actions
You quit a nice pensionable job in London to become a street artist and political activist. In retrospect, how big a mistake was that?It wasn’t a mistake. I graduated from college in 1995, super ambitious but with no real opportunities here in Ireland. So I went to London and within a year and a half I was running a design company. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a great belief in what I was doing. I’d always been an activist. Now I felt I was losing my way. So I jacked it in and went to Thailand to study Buddhism.
Yes, a lot of people go there to “study Buddhism” in their mid-twenties.No, it really was very good for me. I decided I wanted to be a creative person, but I wanted to combine that with activism.
You joined Greenpeace and were involved in the occupation of various oil rigs and incinerators. Were you ever arrested?Lots of times. And charged. You would think that, when 15 peaceful activists break into a nuclear power plant using £20 worth of DIY equipment, the British government would be grateful for having their security flaws revealed. But obviously not.
You became influenced by the English street artist Banksy.Yes, I was living in Shoreditch, where a lot of his work appeared. Then he came and worked with us for Greenpeace in 2003.
Did you meet him?Yes.
Did you have to sign a waiver promising not to reveal what he looks like or how posh he is?Well, he never admitted he was Banksy. But I knew it was him, because he arrived with Banksy’s manager. I came to realise that street art could influence the public in a much more interesting way than simply standing on a street corner handing out fliers.
Your Irish street art depicted Michael Collins carrying shopping bags. Why?I came back to Ireland in 2005. I’d been away for 10 years and I was shocked by the transformation of the place. Everything was very consumer oriented. Also, there’s that scene in the movie where Collins asks, “Can’t the Irish republic give me one day off?” So I liked the idea of him having a day off, going into Brown Thomas and buying a nice shirt.
You also showed the Virgin Mary carrying a ghetto blaster. Is it offensive to Catholics to depict Our Lady using such an out of date sound system?Personally, I don’t think it’s any more farcical to depict her carrying a ghetto blaster than it is to depict her as a white Caucasian, when she was a Semite. Also I like the idea that she might be listening to rock ’n’ roll.
Unlike a lot of other street artists, you’ve never used an alias. Why?Because I believe in accountability, even for illicit actions. When I planted fake landmines in Merrion Square for International Landmine Awareness Day, the park was immediately shut down. I went down and spoke to the senior garda there, explained that it was an art installation and showed him my name printed on the fake mines. He said “Ah, you’re grand. Just some American fella spotted them and got quite excited about it. So we had to do something.”
The Gardaí are the original conservationists, they never expend energy unnecessarily.Yeah, I said to the guy, “Are we cool then?” He said: “It’s a nice day. If it was raining, I’d be mad at you.” That’s why I’m so glad I live in Ireland. If it had happened in the US, I’d be wearing an orange jumpsuit and speaking to you through bulletproof glass.
You’ve also staged exhibitions where pictures were transmitted to audience phones by Bluetooth, where people were encouraged to steal the artworks ...I’m also doing a new exhibit on November 8th called Cause and Effect, where 100 strangers have bought a piece of art sight unseen. The whole piece is a jigsaw, so it’s an experiment. We’ll see if they elect to keep it together or each take their own piece and break it up.
Are these ideas you’re genuinely interested in exploring or just gimmicks to attract publicity?Definitely the former. I did two conventional exhibits where people came in and swanned around drinking wine. And I thought, “this is bullshit. I want to see them fight each other. I want to see them arguing”.
Finally, after all your anti-corporate, anti-consumerism rhetoric down over the years, you’re now doing an advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka.Most of the work I do is for charities. I’ve been asked to do a lot of corporate stuff and I’ve turned it down.
I’m not accusing you of being a sell-out. Quite the opposite, everyone has to earn a living.Right.