Rask is an artist that is intimately tied to the history of North Ireland’s capital Belfast thanks to his participation in organizing one of the biggest murals in Europe, The Belfast Peace Wall. Growing up in Belfast around this conflict puts Rask is in a unique place to talk about the history of his home and the insight he has gained from living as a traveling artist/ was happy to share some of those insights below.
First off I just want to thank you with taking the time to talk with us, whenever I came across your work I was really impressed with how your body of work is so embedded in the history of Ireland. In 2009 you helped organize artists to paint along the Belfast Peace Wall, can you tell us a little bit about your experience with this and how the community has reacted over the years?
Thanks, I really appreciate your kind words, sure. I’ve been painting Belfast with my good friend Movs for many years. Belfast has always had a mural culture, mainly political, but I think this made it easier to get walls. With his help I forged links with a local community leader in the shankill and after lots of talking we convinced him to let us paint the peace wall.
We had already painted in the neighborhood and had a great reaction, but the peace line was the one we wanted. There was also a desire in the area to diversify away from the political murals. As far as a wall for graffiti it was perfect, over a mile long smooth concrete and about 14 ft high. Plus it had all the history as a back story which made it a really interesting site.
The first painting was a small group and to be honest I was a little apprehensive. I wanted to do something special for our first time painting the wall.The wall was grey, battle scared and littered with sectarian and political scrawls. We rolled in with a mixed bunch of writers from around the globe who had been in Dublin at another jam on a mini budget and painted over 2 days.
Finishing on the second day a local called me to his house and handed me a case of beer. “I think there’s one for everyone,” He said “you guys made my day, you’ve changed the grey wall I’ve looked at for years.” That was more for me a sign we had done something special and the beginning of many missions up there.
You’ve mentioned before that you want to make the Belfast Peace wall the biggest piece of graffiti art in Europe, how much has it expanded since 2009?
We pretty much took it all out over the next few years. Then other art groups began doing projects so we lost a few small sections
Then overnight it seemed like the tourists came. Originally it was just us painting and the locals. Now everyday hundreds, honestly hundreds come to sign the wall and scribble on pieces. Normally I would be pissed but every writer who comes loves it. Everyone asks for a picture of their piece when the tourists get to work on it.
In a way it gives us a reason to go back and repaint it, but within a day you have scribbles on there. I guess it has now become one of THE walls for writers to hit and we have had a huge amount of people come through so I m happy that we achieved that.
In the west we take art for granted, we don’t really see the power of the image in our communities because we don’t really have any major strife in our communities like yours. How do you think creating art along the peace wall in Belfast affected the community? Are people more peaceful now then they were 6 or 7 years ago, and how much of that could the art that was created in this city take credit for?
The neighborhood has definitely changed. The road is kinda a rat run so originally you did have guys speeding up and down the road. It was weird but the paintings seemed to make people slow down and look at the artwork. Now there are speed bumps, new trees, new houses etc but more importantly people have changed but that’s a slow process. Did the artwork help, I dunno but it sure made the wall look a lot better. It would be too simplistic to say painting a wall changed anything but it definitely made the wall seem less imposing and the local community seem to like our work and the fact it’s non political. I’m a firm believer that a bit of color can definitely affect the mood.
In your early days did you have any confrontations with the police from putting up graffiti?
Nothing more than a few chases, I had more troubles in later years haha.
In a previous interview you said: ” I grew up in Ireland during the height of the troubles, memories of the hunger strikes, random sectarian murders and bomb attacks are vivid memories for me and from an early age, I have been aware of the difference between “them” and “us”” I was hoping you could share a story from this time during your childhood.
In many ways I was very lucky. I live about 20 minutes drive south of the border with Northern Ireland. Relatively close but a world away from what it was like to live in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Sure we saw some things in my hometown but nothing on the level of what was happening up there .i crossed the border regularly and saw it first hand. That stuff is now in the past where it should remain. I’m glad my kids will only read about it in history books. The most important thing is that we don’t dwell on it and continue to move forward in peace.
Before you were introduced to graffiti in the 80s you’ve mentioned it came to Ireland as a package with rap and b-boy culture. When were you first introduced to this culture and were you an artist before this time? Do you have any formal training?
I, like most people in Europe saw graffiti for the first time in movies like wildstyle, beat street, breakdance and later on a tv programme called Bronx Zoo. I first saw these movies in about ’84 or ’85. Pretty much every group of young guys in my neighborhood had a roll of Lino and tried to imitate the dancing. That was the main thing and my first introduction into hip hop culture.
But people were painting too, after the breakdancing faded away 2 local guys carried on painting and they were the first writers I met. It’s their fault I never stopped! They lit the fuse. I have no formal training in art and I still find it weird to call myself an artist. I’m not caught up on titles or definitions but I do prefer to say I’m a writer.
What kind of training did you do to get where you are today? Who were the artists that inspired you when you first started?
I’m not sure what you mean. I’ve had no training, nor do I think I’ve gotten anywhere with what I do.
If anything I’m just persistent and passionate about painting graffiti and facilitating other people to paint in ireland, and I have and will continue to paint and organize until it stops being fun. I’m most definitely not doing anything groundbreaking. I have been blessed to paint with and befriend many amazing writers and I’m truly thankful for pretty much all the experiences the writing has given me.
Inspiration, I guess in the beginning local writers jam and ski because they were the only pieces I saw in the flesh. Getting subway and spray can art blew my mind, too many to mention. But I’ve always been a fan of NYC style so I guess people like Tkid, duster, tats cru, skeme, seen to name a few of my early inspirations.
What I meant by what kind of training is how did you go about learning how to design the art work itself, not just the medium of graffiti. Do you have any aspirations to teach one day? It sounds like Belfast would be a great place to pick up from a lot of different artists.
I guess my training, or learning curve pretty much began when I attended a jam in Scotland in ’93 ran by local writer eez who decided to run a jam in a small scottish town of Livingston. This in turn inspired me to run my own jam in Ireland, seeing him bring people like phas2 , vulcan and a host of legendary Europeans made me believe that it was possible to do this in Ireland. My motivation then was to connect with writers and learn from them while also showing them we had a small fledgling scene here in Ireland. I think since 94 we have made a lot of people aware of an Irish scene but most definitely i and many other Irish writers have learned a lot from having the opportunity to paint and work alongside some truly amazing writers.
I do still get involved with youth workshops, in a way I suppose its giving something back to a culture I love. I’m hoping that in some small ways I can change how some of these young people think. maybe even one will put down their phone and pick up some cans or markers. I try and explain that I was them, and what potential they all have. There is a lot of distractions for young people these days but I’m hopeful.
You also have a annual get together of writers called the Bridge. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about it and how artists can get involved? Also what are you up to now in your personal work?
As I mentioned earlier I began this event in ’94 after visiting an event in Scotland. my good friend eez from Scotland helped me in the initial stages of planning and realizing the idea. I always had a dream of painting the whole bridge, it was the site where i painted my first piece in 1987 back then anything was possible, I was sitting in phone boxes with stacks of coins calling overseas to organize writers.
First came the crazy idea, then came the hustle to make it happen. The painting was the easy part suddenly a small town in Ireland had writers from all over Europe and NYC visiting each year. the jam kind of took on a life of its own. I had no real plan, just a desire to put Ireland on the global graffiti map and connect and learn from other writers from other countries. But one year became five, became 15 and our next jam will be the 23rd year. Running solidly since 1994 I now have no plans to stop. I’m told its the longest running annual graffiti jam on the planet, that’s great but i will continue as long as it remains fun and people want to come.
It has become a special jam for many people who make the trip each year so I’m hoping we can make it to at least 50 years!
In terms of getting involved we are always open to people who want to get on board. these past few years it has been impossible to secure the level of funding we used to receive, i guess due to the economy struggling in Ireland. However we have always done the event for the love and therefore we will continue to do so. What we cant offer in finances we can offer an abundance of good times and genuine Irish hospitality and a beer or 2 in the evenings! If you’re a good person, good fun and like the idea of jumping on a concept wall (of some description ) then we are always interesting in having new people come out.
My own personal work, well I’ve just got back from Basel in Miami which was a crazy amount of fun. I’m pushing a new crew called Fours and 6 of us managed to link out there to paint a lot. All very serious writers but also a lot of fun, its a very friendship based crew which is rally important to me. I’m trying to paint as much as possible as I feel that at some point I will have to slow down. I’m not getting any younger. I feel as sharp as an 20 year old but I have some miles on the clock. Its still a lot of fun to me, I will continue to paint as long as its fun. Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I like to have a chat a lot while painting a little!
Traveling is still a big love of mine so to be able to combine that with painting has always been a gift. I intend to keep on traveling, there is still a bunch of places I need to see. As long as the body allows I’m gonna keep popping up across the globe dropping a piece when its possible this year. I’ve also made my first dip into gallery work which has been a learning curve. I feel at home outside on a wall, so the gallery thing is still new and confusing to me. However I will hold my first solo show in 2017, which i think will be a nice way to mark 30 years of painting graffiti. Although I’m not sure what form the show will take yet with regards to content.
Interview by Wesley Edwards