Will St Leger’s done a lot in his 44 years.
A Greenpeace activist in his youth, he’s since channelled the political through art. He’s been arrested at the Dáil gates, planted handmade landmines in the Phoenix Park, and, most recently, installed a missile on South King Street to raise awareness of the conflict in Syria.
Yet there’s a softer side to his output, playful as much as political. And the man is no different from the works he produces.
A Humorous Hellraiser
Clutching an e-cigarette and sporting a leather jacket with Morrissey on the back, St Leger has to crank open his studio door with an iron bar. On the shelves lie dozens of dormant spray-paint cans in every colour. The light’s dim as he reaches down to the centre table and picks up a stencil for his forthcoming project.
To raise awareness about pollution in Dublin, he intends to spray-paint invisible phrases around the city. When the fuel from cars and buses has taken its toll, the words will be become visible. It’s the kind of project he relishes, playful yet political.
Growing up on the Donegal-Fermanagh border in the 1970s, St Ledger saw bombs explode. Coupled with a troubled father-son relationship, conflict has been a theme throughout his life.
“Conflict has always been there since I was a child,” he says. “When I was younger, when I was twelve, thirteen, I remember seeing movies on TV and I wanted to be a soldier without a gun.”
Taking an active role in Greenpeace protests in his 20s, St Leger then found himself in London from the mid-1990s until 2006, when he moved back to Ireland. It was then that he started to make his mark artistically.
His first show in 2006 was Artivism, protesting, through stencils, the Celtic Tiger greed he saw upon his return to the capital.
On April Fools Day 2007, he planted fake landmines around Merrion Square, the Phoenix Park and other green areas in Dublin to protest the manufacture of landmines by a small number of international arms companies.
In 2007 and 2008, he opened Art Raid, shows which allowed punters the chance to steal a piece of original work. After an alarm bell sounded and security guards had left the room, people tore from the walls what they could.
In November 2010, St Leger printed counterfeit bills with Bertie Ahern’s face on them. Stuffing 300 into a burlap sack, he marched to the gates of Dáil Eireann. He nailed an eviction notice to the gates, set up a small booth and distributed the notes to passers-by.
Although politically active, St Leger says he has no time for party politics. He chooses, rather, to focus on larger social issues in his work, with the more playful side expressed through his beloved street art.
A City’s Temperature
From his studio in the Liberties, we make our way down by Christ Church Cathedral towards Temple Bar.
Before taking in some of the city’s street art, St Leger lets loose on the Catholic church, an institution he thinks is in desperate need of reform.
“If the church really want to show they give a fucking shit about people who are homeless, turn these spaces in day-care centres,” he says. “It’ll do much more than five pensioners coming in with their rosary beads, mumbling bullshit.”
Taking no prisoners, the artist speaks his mind and puts his money — what little there is at times, he says — where his mouth is. Conflict is a constant, after all.
Ducking down the side streets of Temple Bar, St Leger knows just where to find the public art he relishes. Street art, he says, is the best way to get to know a city space.
“If you want to gauge the temperature of a city, look at the graffiti,” he says. “If you don’t see graffiti there’s two things happening: either everyone’s repressed and scared or else no one has any imagination and they’re all zombies.”
On Sycamore Street, St Leger points out Conor Harrington’s work Black Herds of the Rain before seeing just how many needles lie strewn behind the parked cars today. Not so many at the moment, plenty of blood-stained alcohol wipes though.
Placed across the sides of numerous buildings in the area, he points out artist Intra Larue’s individual breast sculptures. Down an alleyway he spots a Maser.
Street art in Dublin “has evolved an awful lot from what it was ten years ago,” says St Leger. “Scale’s now become an important aspect.”
Today it’s all large murals and gable ends, he says, grand gestures that make the front page. But he still prefers the smaller, hidden gems.
He stops to observe two bolts in a brick wall, under which someone has sprayed a smile. It’s this “human touch” he loves, and yet he’s not beyond the grand gesture himself.
On Essex Street, along the wall of the Project Arts Centre, are painted the words “TROUBLES FADE OUT IN THE OPEN” in white capitals. As with much of his work though, there’s a slight twist.
In January, the artist opened his Bank of Secrets at Gallery X on South William Street. He invited people to deposit secrets they’d written on paper, which would never be opened, just burned. Mixing the ashes with water-based paint, he created the mural on the Project Arts Centre.
He’s constantly looking to engage with the public in the creation of art. It’s not just for the public or for any grander sense of involvement though. He has to keep busy, he says, even if it means no income.
When St Leger’s father died in 2013, he rebuked his son on his deathbed. It was “like a fuck-you to somebody and then just disappearing out of their life”, he says. The two hadn’t spoken in 20 years.
After a “cathartic process” of healing, St Leger has kept busy every since.
“November and December are always really quiet times for me. There’s not a lot of working going around,” says St Leger. “I get affected by the seasons, with not enough light there I suffer from depression, but over the last few years I’ve recognised that it’s going to happen and so I’ve become more productive about it.”
Hence, Bank of Secrets, a project he describes as “probably the stupidest thing in the world to do”. It made him no money, after all, but it kept him busy during the colder months and that was enough.
And whether it’s an installation piece or a painted wall, he’s constantly on the move through Dublin’s streets. If he ever does do another gallery show, he says, “expect something fucked up to happen”.