‘Samia is in Rafah. She says there’s thousands of kids living in tents. They’re all starving and freezing’

What’s Next For?: Street artist Emmalene Blake has been highlighting the suffering and hope of Palestinian people

On Tuesday night, over a pint of cider, the artist Emmalene Blake wrestles with whether to get up and speak in the open-mic section of Pride Poets, a monthly event at Street 66, a bar on Parliament Street in Dublin. Nervousness and a resistance even to the thought of public speaking are bearing down heavily, but Blake feels compelled to share a recent poem, Second Time Painting You.

Blake, aka ESTR, is a visual artist, mural painter and teacher. Jane Fonda’s mugshot, a tribute to Vicky Phelan and portraits of Katie McCabe, Damien Dempsey, Kelly Harrington, Katie Taylor, Bernie Sanders and George Floyd, among others, have appeared on walls around Dublin. During the pandemic Blake’s paintings of pop-culture icons went viral internationally. “I was painting to not have a panic attack!” Blake says of that era. “I needed to busy my mind. I was just going out painting and then sitting in, cutting stencils, to keep my mind occupied.” The results were 18 pieces on an estate in Kingswood, in Tallaght.

Since the bombardment of Gaza began, Blake has focused on work highlighting the suffering, hope and resilience of the Palestinian people. It has, in one instance, forged a relationship 4,000km apart. In October a devastating photograph spread online of a kneeling woman holding the body of a child wrapped in a shroud. Blake was instantly drawn to it. “Before I painted the original piece, at Harold’s Cross, I got in touch with the photographer, asking for permission to paint the photo he had taken. But I didn’t know who the woman was.”

As it happened, the woman in the photograph, Samia al-Atrash, then saw Blake’s mural on Instagram. “She got in touch to tell me it was her, and it was her two-year-old niece, Masa, who was wrapped in the cloth. She was killed alongside her four-year-old sister, Lina, and their parents. So Samia got in touch with me to say thanks for painting it and for trying to raise awareness about what was going on.”

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Al-Atrash also wanted to tell Blake about her family. “She’s in Rafah at the moment. She’s been displaced a few times ... We talk every day. I got her a couple of eSims so we can stay in touch, because she wasn’t able to get internet. I’ve been trying to help her. She says there’s just thousands of kids living all around her in tents. Obviously, they’re all starving and freezing.” With Blake’s help, al-Atrash has been assembling aid packages to distribute to children.

Blake decided to paint Masa as she was when she was alive: bright, happy, cheeky, carefree. The result is a two-storey mural of Masa in the toddler’s beloved pink. But what lies behind the painting is also significant. Blake had been planning to use a projector plugged into a car cigarette lighter to help her draw Masa’s outline. When that didn’t work, she contacted Aches, one of Ireland’s best-known mural artists.

“I had seen him do a doodle grid before,” Blake says, explaining that she decided to ask him how it worked. It’s an improvised method that street artists use to create big artwork. “Go up to a wall, doodle whatever, but don’t use all the same shapes ... What you do then is you take a photo of the wall. You have your design or your sketch – and there’s loads of different apps you can use, but I have Procreate on my phone – so I open the photo of the wall with the doodle grid in Procreate, drop my sketch on top of it and turn the opacity down, so it’s kind of transparent. You can then see the sketch on top of the wall.” The doodles – generally shapes and symbols – act as a painting guide: “Like, okay, where I painted this flower, that’s where the corner of the mouth starts.”

To paint Masa, Blake first spray-painted her poem on the wall. Those words became the doodle grid for her spray-painted portrait, Blake’s poem gradually being covered by the image of its subject.

Back at Street 66, the poetry reading is in full swing. Blake orders another pint of cider, then a glass of water. Blake’s name is called. Walking up to the mic, Blake reads Second Time Painting You. The room falls silent. Then applause breaks out. The host, Sonya Mulligan, lovingly admonishes Blake’s assertion that they’re an artist, not a poet – “you don’t get to say that any more” – before alerting the crowd to the portrait of Frida Kahlo that Blake painted on one of the bar’s walls, and to a huge Keith Haring-inspired mural on the back of the building. One young person dries a tear, another hugs Blake. “That wasn’t so bad,” Blake says. “I feel okay now.”