by Rebecca Gill
Belfast has been plagued by political unrest for many years, the conflict reaching its peak between the 60’s and the 90’s. Like Berlin and Bethlehem, a city divided by walls built up from the political strife, the city’s troubles are traced onto the urban space through its murals marking out Protestant and Catholic territories. Gable-ends becoming the canvas for sectarian art work, Belfast’s cityscape and historical identity has been dominated by this period known as The Troubles and its violent history.
Yet the view on this urban landscape is beginning to change. Emerging from the alternative punk and graffiti scenes, a new form of unifying street art is painting over the city’s brutal history and defying the partisan murals now representative of a past identity of Belfast. The artists and their subject matter are breaking away from the mural’s intimidating and divisive messages and transforming the city into a place of unity in every sense of the word.
Belfast’s cathedral quarter is fast becoming a glowing hub for street artists from around the world, turning what was once a segregated place, into a nucleus of multicultural diversity. This cultural rebirth is attracting ever increasing numbers of tourists to the cathedral quarter; once a ‘no go’ area is now buzzing with musicians and artists breathing new life into the neglected and worn urban space.
Local art curator Adam Turkington has gained permission from the council to commission the painting of graffiti works around the city and founded Seedhead Arts organisation, producing arts events such as Culture Night and Hit the North street art festival, as well as taking tourists on guided tours of the old murals and newly emerging graffiti art work around the cathedral quarter. His philosophy is to help the already growing urban space and the artists within it. This faced paced form of art work (all works are finished in one night) is transient and continuously evolving with alongside the urban space; works are painted over and replaced with new ones, building developments mean art works are destroyed with the buildings, and fresh works are appearing continuously. The city is becoming an art gallery providing a new sense of space unrestricted by political divides.
The subject matter, released from the political confines of the murals, is a burst of artistic freedom welcoming art of all subject and styles. MTO’s ‘Son of Protagoras’ is a popular piece, referencing the tumultuous history of The Troubles it depicts a young boy crouching, holding a dove killed by two arrows each marked with a cross representing both Catholicism and Protestantism. Protagoras being the father of agnosticism, the art work is communicating the destructive forces of religion.
Another work acknowledging the city’s history is Andy Council’s ‘Belfast Phoenix’, painted onto the North Street Arcade which burned down in 2004 and has since been left derelict, Belfast’s famous buildings and landmarks (such as the Bank of Ireland building, the Albert clock, Belfast City Hall, Ulster Hall, the waterfront, the MAC and Crumlin Road Courthouse) forms the figure of a phoenix bird. This image ‘rising from the ashes’ is a tribute to both Belfast’s resilience and the street art itself, bringing the forgotten urban architecture back into the public eye and the city’s cultural capital.
Although these two examples reference Belfast’s past, most art work is encouraged to avoid political content in protest of the murals which previously punctuated the cityscape. This new democratic form of art allows everyone to make their mark on the city and introduces a visual language that breaks from the past and will speak to new generations. Painting on walls is steeped in northern Irish history through its murals but its purpose is now driving in a new direction of counteracting political strife. The city and the art are engaged in mutually beneficial relationship; art reshaping Belfast’s cultural identity and Belfast’s walls adding to the art through the city’s political significance. Belfast is a thriving example of art working alongside urban space.