Dublin, Ireland

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the work of Dublin-based street artist, Asbestos, was a mural in Cork city, titled ‘What is home?’. The large scale artwork on South Main Street shows a figure with a cardboard house over his head, holding his head in his hands. To me, the striking image seems to ask those who pass by: what makes a home? Is it a building, or a feeling? Is it where we feel safe? 
Later in our conversation, I discover that Asbesto painted it with the housing crisis in mind. “As a country we are currently in an existential crisis over housing and our need to put a roof over our heads. There is a fear and uncertainty about finding a safe space, and the system seems to be stacked in favour of the landlords.” 

Masks are a prominent feature in Asbestos’ street art, and as we chatted more, he reveals that these masked figures draw from a deeply personal incident. Just 46 days before he was born, a car bomb went off in Dublin, where his mother had walked by five minutes before. This event remains a source of what he calls “creative speculation” and prompts his ongoing exploration about persona and identity. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that I may have never existed - if she had been there five minutes later. It makes me question what it means to be alive.”

While travelling in Belfast, I took a detour to see Asbestos’ (then) newest mural in-person. ‘Let Me Unsee’ centres around the neverending and all-consuming nature of the digital world we live in. Enveloped with eyes, his masked figure seems to be a plea against the endless scrolling and the constant overstimulation that we face on a daily basis. With so much media to consume, it sometimes feels impossible to tear our eyes away. 
Another mural I spotted was a collaboration with The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, which depicted a figure made of burnt matches. Each match is a tribute to those who died from covid-19. A hoarding facing the pavement features a quote by Joseph Beuy: “pass freely from one level of existence to another...”  

Other than portrait-based murals, I was surprised to find out that Asbestos has been doing street art in the form of posters and paste up art since 2003. You can even spot his hand-drawn, black and white ‘Lost’ posters around Dublin today.  
For Asbestos, these posters are both a good way to get him out of the house and to interact with strangers. He typically receives a couple of emails a week and they often bring him some joy. 

If you’ve noticed by now, you’d realise that Asbestos prefers to remain anonymous. When asked about it, he simply states that “mystery is interesting.” Being anonymous affords him a certain freedom to playfully expose himself or push boundaries, like for example with his masked figures. To him, the ‘Lost’ posters and masked murals are a character or persona that he embodies. 
I really enjoyed my conversation with Asbestos, it made me consider issues of identity, masks and the holding the tension between the terror of exposing yourself in your art and the joy of being vulnerable and letting people in. 


Visited May 2022, published April 2023.