Interview with Aches, the Irish Artist whose Mural of Savita Halappanavar became the Image of Yes in the Irish Referendum
The referendum to overturn the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution made headlines around the World. Not least because of its eventual landslide win in favour of yes but because of the level of conversation and debate it prompted in the country.
Long seen as controversial the amendment, which in itself was only added to the constitution in 1983, had the effect that in no circumstances at all could a termination be carried out even if a woman was in serious risk of her own health. It resulted in some of the strictest abortion laws in the world and many thousands of women having to travel abroad, often to the UK, in order to carry out terminations.
One woman’s story in particular captured the attention of a nation. It was in 2012 when a young woman called Savita Halappanavar experienced complications during a septic miscarriage and was refused treatment that would have saved her life. It kickstarted a national debate and led to where we are today with the Irish people delivering a resounding Yes when asked whether the 8th amendment should be scrapped.
It was a piece of street art which seemed to provide a focal point for the moment. A mural which acted as a kind of rallying point for when the result was announced. A portrait of Savita, with the word ‘YES’ written as part of the piece, appeared outside the Bernard Shaw Pub in Dublin and soon started to attract tributes and messages to the woman whose sad story would eventually lead to major change.
‘Aches‘ was the artist behind the work! From Dublin originally he is known more as a graffiti writer than a muralist and it was a last minute decision for him to paint the piece. Only deciding the night before to do something which would go on to reflect the importance of the moment having originally secured the space on the wall in order to write his tag ‘Aches’.
“I thought I should do something a bit more meaningful” he told me. “When she passed away I was young, in my teens, and I had no notion of the whole of the whole conversation and would have probably been on the pro-life side”
It was Savita’s story which had kick-started the debate. Then over the next six years further stories would emerge of Irish women being forced abroad to carry out what were sometimes much needed medical procedures. From a man who might well have considered himself anti-abortion before, it would change the artists perception of the issue. Something which was presumably also shared by many other people who voted ‘Yes’ on the day and who might have flocked to his mural afterwards in order to pay their respects.
“The circumstances are quite sad, I would have rather not had to paint that woman’s face” he told us. “I would rather that I didn’t know her, but unfortunately we know her name because of what happened… it comes down to an issue of healthcare really for me, women should be able to get the healthcare they need, in their own country”
The attention that the mural received though still caught the artist by surprise. “I painted it and then thought no more of it” he told me. Painting it on the Thursday morning, he voted on the Friday and then flew out to paint at the Meeting of Styles festival in London on the Saturday when the results were being announced. It was only when friends started to text him to say that his mural was all over the news and the papers in Ireland that he realised that something big might be happening.
“It was quite overwhelming to see the response to it” he said before explaining how when he flew back to Dublin, the mural would be one of the first places he’d plan to visit with the intention of reading some of the notes, “There’s a lot of really heartfelt messages that have been left there”
Our bumping into Aches had been quite random. Sitting in the cool artist hangout pub ‘Monty’s’ on Brick Lane he’d finished the days painting and had popped in for a pint. We’d been fairly obsessed ourselves with the outcome, following the news and watching the coverage so it was a little bit of serendipity to end the night propping up the bar with the man whose mural was, at that time, causing such a stir.
“Street art was a really important part of the campaign” he told me. Referencing other pieces from Irish artists such as Maser and ESTR who had also been active in their support for the Yes campaign. “The great thing about it was that it was just individual street artists, no-one backing them to do it, they just did it because they felt the need to.”
Aches was interviewed at the Meeting of Styles in London on Monday 28 May 2018. He painted the mural on Thursday 24 May 2018 outside the Bernard Shaw Pub in Dublin and voted on the Friday. The Yes campaign won with 66.4% of the vote.