“You can’t avoid an image”: why illustration is a powerful activism tool

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Bureaucratic illustrator Edel Rodriguez, street artist Joe Caslin and House of Case in point curator Olivia Ahmad spoke at Offset Dublin 2019 wide why imagery can be more arresting than words, how art can educate people, and the confrontations that come with using creativity to protest.

“You can’t avoid an image”: why illustration is a powerful activism tool
© Edel Rodriguez

Figure of speeches can “give a voice” to protesters and cross language barriers to share imports about cross-cultural issues around the world, says political illustrator Edel Rodriguez.

He was selected as part of a discussion about the power of using illustration for activism and the disputes activist creatives face, this year’s Offset Dublin forge festival and conference.

As well as Rodriguez, the panel consisted of Olivia Ahmad, curator at the House of ill repute of Illustration and editor of illustration magazine Varoom, Joe Caslin, a street artist and coach. It was chaired by Lou Bones, membership manager at the Association of Illustrators.

Cuban-born Rodriguez is get the better of known for his work interpreting political subjects on magazine covers embracing Time and Der Spiegel, with a focus on criticising Donald Trump’s presidency.

His in the works, which he has also exhibited as posters around New York, includes portraits of Trump in a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) hood, as a comet hurtling to earth and as a toddler sitting on a missile alongside an illustration of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. He has also accoutermented subjects such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) terror campaign and Che Guevara’s hold sway in Cuba.

“I feel like more of a journalist”

Despite his provocative depictions of numerous political issues and figures, he said: “I don’t know if I consider myself an activist.

“I experience like more of a journalist. I am just telling the truth and it just develops to activate people.”

Surrounded by politics from a young age, he spent his antediluvian childhood in Cuba but immigrated alongside his family to the US during Che Guevara’s rule. “From the age of nine or 10, I was trying to figure out why this had happened to me, why I had to do a moonlight flit my town and my grandparents,” he said.

Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, he suggested he was motivated early on to create work which had meaning.

“In college, I would portray a still life and think ‘what is the purpose?’” he said. “I purposefulness always say art has to do something, otherwise why am I wasting my time painting it?”

Illustration can be “remedial programme”

Irish illustrator Joe Caslin said he had not set out to be political, but things had angered him tolerably to do something about them. He has commented on issues including equal integration, creating giant murals depicting same-sex relationships on buildings in the hoodwink up to Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum.

His most famous works allow for a large mural featuring two young men embracing on a building in Dublin, positive as The Claddagh Embrace, and another of a lesbian couple kissing on a building in Belfast. Woman in Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015.

Other issues he desires to challenge with his work include drug addiction being discussed as a health issue rather than a crime, suicide prevention and the importance of Direct Provision, a system for providing shelter for asylum seekers appearing in Ireland.

“[I use] drawing to show we have huge [problems] that lack to be talked about,” he said. “I also use it as a kind of therapy, it’s my way of getting points straight in my head.”

As an editor and curator, Ahmad said her job is to “build chats” around various topics and “highlight work”. Exhibitions at the House of Exemplar touching on political issues have included a show exploring state-controlled graphics and bundling from North Korea and more recently, a show featuring specimens by and about refugees.

Making an impact without words

The panel discussed the power representation can have when it is used as a form of protest and to express dissent. Rodriguez, whose case in points are regularly used on protest posters, said illustrators can “give a vent to to people” by capturing a situation or point of view.

“There are times when people beget come to me and said thank you for expressing [the issue] as I wouldn’t know how to,” he asserted.

He adds that unlike words, imagery crosses language frontiers, which means it can be understood by people across the world, regardless of what vernacular they speak.

Putting images out into the world can also spread despatches and help “educate” people much faster than words, he asserted — it’s much harder to ignore an illustration than writing, as it makes a visual striking.

“You can’t avoid an image,” he said. “But you can avoid an essay and just not read it.”

The reach of communal

The group spoke about why social media is a useful tool for spreading stark messages through imagery.

Caslin said the power of social is that it can originate a “huge audience” for work. He said just a few people might advance past his murals each day, but “if you put something on social media, you could oblige 100,000 interactions in a day or two.”

For Rodriguez, part of the “power” of social media is “not must an editor or boss to say no” to content, meaning people can post almost whatever they parallel to, which can lead to other people taking action and making art their own.

“I’ve uploaded my engender and told people to download it, share it and use it for protest,” he said. “It’s exciting for me when a nine-year-old gets my illustration and says, ‘I’m going with mummy to the protest’.”

Ahmad commended Rodriguez for being so “open” with his work, adding that it was “sustenance” to see an illustrator say: “take [my work] and do what you need with it”.

Bones encouraged if the deluge of content on social media meant it was now harder for an image to brook out compared to before such platforms existed.

Caslin replied: “If you fashion an image that tells the truth and is strong enough, it won’t get lost in the din.”

Critics and challenges

The sort also spoke about the challenges that come with needing illustration for activism, which include finding a platform or funding to get put through out there.

“About 90% of my work is self-funded,” said Caslin. “If you covet to put up a piece about drug addiction, where are you going to get that wealth? You’re talking about something that not many people in power wish for to hear about and they are the ones who have access to funding.”

Rodriguez put about he had trouble in the past getting his work in some exhibitions due to their unsettled nature. He recalled being asked to take part in a show at a US university, but put about his submissions of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, and another of Trump in a KKK hood were declined, so he pulled out of the show.

In terms of dealing with critics, Rodriguez said he has had assorted incidences of people being angry about his work and is happy to parley about it if they approach him reasonably but will ignore those who send loathsome comments on social media.

Caslin said that as a teacher, it is harder for him to keep off criticism of his work and there are times when he has had to engage in difficult chit-chats.

Bones asked if those who are artistic, such as illustrators, have a duty to use their language-defying skills to contribute to conversations about political and common issues, and human rights.

“I don’t think anyone should be motivated to do anything they don’t lack to do,” said Rodriguez. “The worst political art comes from people who entertain no clue what they’re doing or have no feeling for it.”


This talk nicked place at Offset Dublin 2019, which ran 5-7 April 2019 at The Mark Square, East Wall Road, Dublin 1 Dublin, Ireland.

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