Berlin, Bethlehem, Belfast. These cities, like so many others with traumatic histories, have walls that speak. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, there’s a long history of using wall paintings to make political statements, but young street artists are shifting that conversation by changing both the medium and the message.
Scores of political murals pepper the streets of Belfast, some dating back to the 1920s. During the conflict commonly known as “The Troubles,” mural painting reached its zenith. Between the 1960s and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland was caught in a long-running guerrilla war between those who wanted to stay a part of the United Kingdom (called “Unionists” or “Loyalists” and aligned with Protestantism) and those who wished to secede from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland (called “Nationalists” or “Republicans” and of the Catholic faith). Over 3,500 people were killed in the conflict.
Both sides of the Troubles commissioned muralists to paint propaganda on exterior walls, particularly in the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast. While some of the most aggressive and intimidating have since been painted over, murals can still be seen in which each side blames the other for famine, torture and murder. Several tours offer the chance to see these historical images.
But a new walking tour by Seedhead Arts shows the vibrant street-art scene that is changing the look of Belfast. While nodding to the past, many of these young painters endeavor to leave the Troubles behind.
The tour meets at noon on Sunday in the Cathedral District, in the heart of Belfast, and is led by an artist or, in our case, the co-founder of Seedhead Arts, Adam Turkington. It costs 8 pounds (about $9), which can be paid in advance online or in cash on the spot, and it takes about two hours.
From underground culture
Turkington began our tour by explaining that street art is distinct from political murals. Instead of commissioned and propagandistic, street artists come from the same 1970s underground culture in New York City that spawned rap music and electronica DJs. Whereas murals are planned and brushed over time, street art is rooted in graffiti; and although artists may no longer need to elude police, pieces rarely take more than a couple of days to complete. Like rap music, a competitive element remains; and male dominance persists.
While the work is based in the use of spray paint, Turkington pointed out various other media used by street artists, including stenciling, paste-up posters, slap-up stickers, and even the use of electrical tape of various colors. He also described how artists make the larger pieces by working at night and projecting an outline of the painting on the walls. (He admitted this paint-by-numbers technique is frowned upon by some purists, so it’s rarely spoken of.)
Among the largest and most stunning pieces in the city is “The Son of Protagoras” by a French-born itinerant artist, MTO. On the side of a building overlooking a parking lot, a hunched-over boy with flaming red hair looks ominously at St. Anne’s Cathedral, less than a block away. In his hands he cradles a dead dove, pierced by two arrows, one bearing the insignia of the Catholic Church, and the other of the Protestant Church.
Turkington told us that MTO arrived in Belfast two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, surprised to discover that the city was still riven into two camps. The Troubles weren’t over, in spite of the much ballyhooed peace accord.
Regarding the subject matter, legend has it that the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras was the first agnostic, saying, “Concerning the gods, I have no way of knowing whether they exist or not.” “The Son of Protagoras,” for which Turkington’s son served as the model, stands in judgment of the ecclesial structures that were — and are — complicit in Belfast’s antagonisms.
A changing cityscape
The very nature of street art is that it’s always changing, so the tour is necessarily fluid. Walls and buildings are torn down; fences go up, obscuring paintings; some art is tagged by graffiti, and other pieces are replaced by newer art. We peered through a fence at “Two Tigers” by Marian Noone, aka Friz, a native of Ireland and resident of Belfast. Framed by two roaring tigers, a girl’s eyes are connected with theirs by dazzling blue lightning. In front of the wall stood a backhoe, and Turkington lamented that we’d be one of the last groups to see this piece, since a parking garage was going up in front of it.
Three enormous metal buoys, part of a long-ago decommissioned fountain in front of Ulster University, were painted as part of Seedhead Arts’ 2018 street art festival. Recently gifted to the Titanic Foundation, they’re due to move in 2019 across the river to the Titanic Quarter of the city, a touristy area that plays up the city’s maritime history and the ill-fated ship that was built there. (An Irishman told me, “Remember we built the ship, but the English drove it. It was fine when it left Belfast.”) Once moved, the buoys will likely be painted a solid color, erasing the vibrant colors and figures that now decorate them.
A few blocks later we stood beneath the massive “Lobster Pot” by Sam Bates, aka Smug, an Australian native who lives in Glasgow. “This is some next-level [stuff],” said Turkington. He described how Smug refused to use projection, but instead stood back from the wall, flicking back and forth a card bearing a small draft of the painting, so that the image and the wall merged in his mind’s eye. Then he climbed the ladder and started painting.
Smug is known for the photo-like quality of his work, especially facial hair, not unlike Chuck Close’s famous “Big Self Portrait” at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. In “Lobster Pot,” a stern, unshaven chef looks down at the street-level viewer with one blue eye and one brown. And in another nod to the ever-changing canvas on which street artists have to work, Turkington told us how Smug stayed an extra day in Belfast to repaint the lobster and get it just right. Three weeks later, the building’s owner erected a fence that covers the lobster.
For the tour’s piece-de-resistance, we stopped alongside the Black Box Theatre, an institution of avant-garde work in central Belfast. Turkington pushed aside some dumpsters and took care not to step in a patch of vomit on the asphalt. He took a notebook out of his shoulder bag and showed us photos of the several paintings that predated the current work. The wall, he told us, was meant to be repainted every year. But when Conor Harrington, an Irish painter based in London, finished “The Duel of Belfast, Dance by Candlelight,” everyone agreed that it had to stay.
Two white men, dressed in outdated British clothes, duel over a dead dog, fighting about something of no value. A black man sits in the background, uninterested. The entire scene is overpainted, so that the paint drips and it looks as if the scene is degrading before our eyes. This is an old world, past its prime and relevancy, fading away, and yet the men fight on, as if it’s the only thing they know how to do.
Some of the new street art in Belfast is whimsical and apolitical, while other pieces continue in the tradition of political murals. All of it speaks loudly in a city that has known trouble and that endeavors to move forward, even the paintings that provide commentary on a fading past.
Tony Jones, a writer and theologian, and Courtney Perry, a freelance photographer, are married and live in the Twin Cities.