Joe O'Brien was born in 1961 in Maryhill, Glasgow. O'Brien had a normal, working-class upbringing as one of four brothers. Upon leaving school he worked in various dead-end jobs before finding the courage to answer his artistic calling. In order to learn his craft, the reclusive O'Brien locked himself away in an abandoned Victorian Prison for a period of seven years. Despite his self-imposed solitary lifestyle lived in a cell, he would never feel more free.
After emerging from that cell O'Brien would go on to share a studio with his contemporaries Peter Howson and Frank McFadden. Art critics, galleries and writers have often compared O'Brien's style and talent to that of fellow Scottish artists Peter Howson and the late Steven Campbell.