BELFAST – Belfast’s walls have long been occupied by painted murals, mainly bearing political images and messages of protest. Catholics and protestants, feminists and conservative groups, anti-abortion and pro-choice movements used to fight with spray cans to own their territory.
But now, not quite 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement – which, in 1998, finally brought peace after decades of conflict – Belfast artists want to move away from the region’s tormented political legacy.
DMC, aka Dermot McConaghy, is a case in point. His portraits of sad blue ladies have helped to change the mood of Belfast’s walls. Missed Calls evoke human loneliness in the age of cell phones. He joins EMIC, Stephen Fagan (Faigy), Johnny McKerr (JMK), Kev Largey (KVLR), and Marian Noone (Friz) in this vibrant new street-art scene, which has developed over the past decade throughout Northern Ireland, and which the Ulster Museum recognized with a show in 2011.
“The country really changed a lot in the past ten years, socially and artistically,” says DMC, who, like Faigy, lives and works in Lurgan, south of Belfast. “Now a new, friendly net of connections makes things more interesting. And what makes the region special nowadays are its people, their sense of humor, an anger that has become an energy, and not its history anymore. That’s why I’m staying, anyway.”
Belfast now has an annual event in October, Hit The North, during which artists from all over the world come to contribute: the famous Bristol-based street artists Inkie, Cheba and Andy Council have shown up quite a few times, along with Londoner Dan Kitchener, Irishman Joe Caslin, and Irish-born, now London-based Conor Harrington.
Some of the works that resulted allude to Belfast’s new spirit. Council’s Belfast Phoenix, which points to the city’s transcendence of its violent past, has become one of the city’s treasures; On Talbot Street, The Son of Protagoras, by French artist MTO, displays a dove of peace hit by two arrows, cradled in the hands of a young boy.
The man who has made the biggest contribution to the explosive growth of this artistic movement is probably Adam Turkington, who, with his Seedhead Arts group, negotiates access to walls and invites artists from Dublin, Rio de Janeiro, and all points in between to come to Belfast. Seedhead’s “Culture Night,” on the third Friday in September, attracts more than 90,000 people each year. And since January 2016, Turkington has been running a street art tour that takes visitors from Hill to North Street via Talbot Street and Saint Anne’s Cathedral.
Apolitical? Not exactly
Do the new directions in Belfast street art add up to a turn away from politics itself? Turkington doesn’t think so. “Artists refuse the narrative of the Orange and Green in this country,” he says, referring to the colors representing the two major political forces – Unionism and Irish Republicanism – and the two long-dominant parties, DUP and Sinn Fein. “By rejecting politics as it used to be here, they make a political statement.”
And political statements can take other forms in Belfast too. Joe Caslin did a very pro-LGBT artwork near the Black Box, a café and art venue on Hill Street. In early November, Robert Martin’s R-Space Gallery, in Lisburn, showed prints by Obey, the American master of subtly subversive street art also known as Shepard Fairey. Gary Rowe, aka Real1, an artist from Tottenham in London who also lived in Italy and Namibia before settling in Northern Ireland, redecorated the gallery’s exterior walls with a magnificent piece on Donald Trump, just a week before Election Day in the US – a hard-hitting set of images that became a source of inspiration for artists on the eastern side of the Atlantic as well.