Stop being slaves Justin McMahon believes wall paintings can empower people

Swiss street artist Justin McMahon, aka JustOne, is an anomaly in Dubai’s art scene. He tags public spaces like an angry teenager and his mural makes a face at Dubai’s residents, sticking his tongue out, his name sprayed on top of it.

In less than a year of being in the UAE he has made his mark. This graduate in filmmaking from Geneva’s Fine Arts School has painted for brands such as Paramount, Cadillac, DIFC and done other commissions, including at the corporate offices of Zee TV. He is also exhibiting at two galleries — The Mine in Al Quoz and Dubai Street Art Gallery. 

Emerging from Europe’s graffiti art movement, JustOne became interested in mural painting in the early Nineties. JustOne’s practice has evolved from tagging to the more educational mural popular across the globe. As a street artist and having to adapt to many kinds of demands, surfaces and mediums his skills range from photography, graphical design, to short film directing and editing.

This 37-year-old’s works have been inspired by advertisements — from the Indian Bollywood hand-paintings to European Trompe-l’oeil. He examines current affairs, and the systems and structures that shape beliefs and perceptions. “I started tagging as a teenager. I painted my first mural in 1991. I was 17 at the time,” McMahon says.

McMahon believes murals bring art into the public sphere and are a relatively effective tool of social emancipation or for achieving a political goal. “Sometimes murals are created against the law and other times I have been commissioned by coffee shops. Often, the visual effects are an enticement to attract public attention to social issues. State-sponsored public-art expressions, particularly murals, are often used by totalitarian regimes as a tool for controlling the masses and propaganda. However, despite the propagandist character of those works, some of them still have an artistic value,” McMahon says.

The artist uses versatile techniques. “I am inspired by photography. Through photo-realistic graffiti assembly I make a mural design based on a chosen story that I need to tell. This is done mostly for legal and/or commissioned artwork,” McMahon says.

While venting his anger by tagging public spaces, McMahon realised that was not enough. “I started with tagging at night as an angry teen with a simple spray can: it takes a couple of seconds to write your name, with your own specific style previously developed, and a couple of nights to get your name out in different areas of the city. Since it’s imposed on people’s routine and in the public space, you grow up to realising its true values. Inspired by other artists, I wanted to do more elaborate walls. That is when I started looking for hidden places where you will have time to paint and develop your skills. Places that are remote, industrial areas, abandoned buildings, etc … I learnt that eventually you can ask the authorities to give you a wall. It is not easy to convince them since they have the feeling you are going to damage the wall by just writing your name,” McMahon says.

In Geneva, the artist managed to get walls easily and get paid for his works since it was the best way to keep the wall from being tagged. It kept the younger taggers away, since they respect elders (taggers here are usually younger from 17 to 25 years old). “One landlord told me they were spending 15,000 euros [Dh69,950] a year to clean up the tags on the walls, I simply told them that if they gave me the same amount to paint a couple of walls, they would be saving money since then it could be there for years without being tagged on. I eventually managed to prove them I was right,” says the artist.

JustOne murals can also be found in Dakar (Senegal) and Tiruppur (India). In Dubai, you can find his works at Tecom, Marina View towers and the Dubai Street Art Gallery.

“I use walls to communicate with the target group. Especially teenagers and young people,” McMahon says. “I have done workshops for adults on teamwork and motivation for Procter and Gamble in Geneva; another one for Innocence in Danger, which works with children who are victims of paedophilia.”

He believes that a wall painting is a way to show people they can interact in society and not only be slaves to brands or employers. “I also strongly believe it’s a way of spreading a healthy message to the population, old and young,” McMahon says. “It’s also a way to claim the public space back from corporate brands that saturate the city with their mass-consumption propaganda — which they call ‘marketing’— too often promoting unhealthy food, a certain image of women — and basically pushing people to consume just any product ... not really a healthy lifestyle.”

McMahon’s work is greatly inspired by his travels, which are a significant source of his reflections and engagements. McMahon has fond memories of his trip to Dakar, Senegal. “The only country I know that has no laws to stop wall-painting. You can just paint anywhere in the city. The graffiti artists there have the people’s best interests at heart — they only paint for social awareness. For example, about the poor having access to medical care, against Aids, not neglecting scholarship, etc. It’s considered a way to clean up the streets, too. Painting a wall in Dakar also means cleaning up the area — people stop littering and urinating on the wall. A painted wall here is symbolic of gratitude — having somebody taking care of the place they live in or work next to, ” the artist says.

In most of the US and Europe, graffiti is mostly about writing your name all over the place, a kind of ego trip. But public artists are essentially the ones who bring people and law-keepers together. “A policeman came towards me while I was painting. I thought I was going to get into trouble. But as he came closer, he lit a cigarette and started commenting on my piece — he noticed that I was doing a good job,” says McMahon, who also admires the elusive Bansky.


Known as artist B’lu, Archana R. D. is a freelance writer based in Dubai. She is also a student of global art business with the Sotheby’s.