O’Brien was born in 1961 in Maryhill, Glasgow district, where he had a typical working-class catholic upbringing. On leaving school, Joe worked in various labouring jobs, always sketching and painting in his free time. It was when he was working at the pool hall in the QM Union at Glasgow University, that a lecturer took an interest in his drawings, and suggested that it was time he became a proper artist. This experience set him off, he left his job and ended up disappearing into the east end of the city, using a prison cell in a former jail in the Calton district as his studio.
He spent five years living and working in complete isolation. This period was crucial for the development of his work, his paintings progressed from small landscapes to more surrealistic and figurative representations. When he emerged from his creative cocoon, galleries felt confident in his work and he was soon making a living as a fully-fledged artist.
For O’Brien his work is like a personal journey, he finds inspiration from dreams, memories, encounters, fairy tales, experiences, folk culture, thoughts and the wonder of imagination. His talent has been recognized by leading collectors who referred to him as Scotland’s ‘most significant rising star’.