6.5 Hours Flirting With A Belfast Boy
5 Days Living in Dublin2
Listening to Blasphemous Rumours by Depeche Mode
Getting lost is Dublin in the cold, pouring rain has a little more than just a silver lining. The magic is in the feeling of winding your way through the physical world to discover a wild batch of flowers or curated lawns of Merrion Square. Trying not to fall in love with the artist, but with the whole picture, I present to you a slice of the pie of Northern Ireland’s street art scene as found in Belfast.
We landed at the train station at the top of the afternoon and by half twelve we were situated in a black taxi on our way to see Belfast’s world-renowned murals. The driver, Mr. Duffy Jr. He dove right into segregation and shared a fair warning that the most important murals are inside of homes, behind walls.
We started in Santo Station, which is not in Santo but that provides a symbolic framework for the journey we were about to embark on. A city where 80% of people live in segregation by way of housing and school. The driver went on to hone in on the real problem, a lack of national identity being under British rule, which he shared as we drove past the High Courts where they still wear “funny wigs” near St. George’s Market. We drove past the Assembly building or head of the Protestant church across from the oldest school that is remarkable in that it is non-denominational with “change for good–vote the alliance” signs in the same neighborhood driving to West Belfast, which is 95% Catholic and iconic for its terrace housing. Then into Shankkill which is the ‘original Belfast’ and home to an old prison.
The drive lasted about two hours and included details on the subject, artist, site and history of each mural we visited. Ultimately, to sum up the dichotomy of the scene after such a short experience, there are murals and then there is graffiti/street art, which later we will tease through as defined by the famous Glen Malloy. The murals are the political landscape and backdrop to Belfast’s religious communities, communities that are identified and kept separate by flags, lights, housing, art, gates and walls.
Peace walls surround the whole of town and albeit citizen demand to keep them for peace of mind, the government is initiating a process to remove the barriers as a symbol and transition into conflict resolution. Within the same notion, Graf writers have been invited to freely adorn the Protestant side. It is the oldest and tallest wall. Today the wall is the tallest height, to protect from projectile objects that are launched from one side to the other. It is a legal wall**
*Site specific art responds to the particular history or presence of a site. For example, the Oscar Wilde Statue in Merrion Square responds to the fact that he frequented that place to write or XX installing a poorly made dog pissing next to the Wall Street bull by Alex Gardega.
**A legal wall is a designated area known to the street painting culture where people can freely go and jam without permits or any problems related to prosecution or otherwise
The Protestant side was being painted while we stood there photographing and tagging it: “the sky is not the limit, limitless is” is all I could muster up to write. A car sat parked with Southern Ireland tags, which 20 years ago you just would not see. You will know that the murals make clear statements and are fully curated and celebrate history, politics and change often with the political climate, all of which are site specific*. I have yet to observe plaques alongside mural sides memorializing the predecessor of the site; preserving history as it is depicted in painterly monumental erections.
The First mural we saw is a Protestant mural labeled as 1690 for the Battle of Boyne on the 12th of July. The orange order or orange men fought under the leadership of King Billy (William III). Today results in a big parade on that same day to commemorate the history of the battle. Belfast was conquered by the UK (Queen Elizabeth) a mere 400 years ago. Secondly, we saw the guns follow you like the eyes of the Mona Lisa as told by Mr. Duffy. It is especially imposing if you are a stranger, not a tourist, but a new neighborhood resident, which is seen as part of the problem.
Around the corner were other murals that spoke to the future of hope. Lesley Cherry’s work is all around you and the first piece is a quilt of all the words of hope, a means of using the power of language to change the dialogue of violence and really to highlight the role of women as champions of care and support and thus of hope. In the same vicinity is a photo-mural of all the youth of Belfast standing for dreaming (a better life).
In a place where the police stations are fortified (compared to small towns near Connemara and the Killer mountains have stations open for two hours on a Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon) the juxtaposition is intense and fortifying in many ways. I learned quickly that wall real estate is serious. There is a wall that is blank, reserved for the Republican Party, and you can bet it is not going to be touched until then.
The second half of the day left me urban exploring with Glen Molloy, who BBC dubs as “Belfast’s Bansky” and a man that is going to be quite hard to sum up or really even describe. We headed to the Cathedral Quarter’s Hill Street to meet at the Duke of York (DOY) Sunday June 4th at 4:30PM. A man who as we have learned in other posts has also changed his graffiti identity often, or at least enough to avoid trouble. VAN to Poison Pen pal, Glen Malloy is going to be a tough case to crack. He is an act of rebellion and quickly recognizes the impact of street art for substance, a man looking for real meaning and a way to use the power of the paint.
We started the tour at his piece that depicts famous locals that frequent the DOY as well as paying homage to Fat Boy Slim who came to DJ in the club before a big gig. Glen is a man that only started his journey in coloring in the streets about 2.5 years ago after 45 years of struggling with art and the expression thereof. He is available and ready to shower the streets of Belfast. We walked around for almost 2 hours looking at art by VisualWaste, SmugOne, MTO, Connor Harrington and KZR. He depicted the city via street art tweezing apart the words graffiti and street art as well as “space fillers” or pieces that have little to no meaning, that maybe look pretty and of course are way better then a blank wall.
We stood in front of his portraiture work that has a distinct yellow line that contours and adds contrast to the work. He pulls out his digital portfolio on his phone and points out the distinct red line. His work celebrates people, not politics. “There is too much politics in the walls now, I am not going to add to it” I painted George Michael after he died because he was such a profound influence on me in terms of music. Glen use to DJ for many years and as now knee deep in the art scene. He gained some unwarranted attention on the mural given his religious affiliation as it was seen on a surface level as maybe a potential statement on queer culture, but it was not at all the case.
When it comes to religion, “I believe there is one god. Not that god or this god but notions of compassion, healing and being more worried about himself not going to hell”. He goes on to describe the nuances of the two words. Street art is the kids that went to art school. They come out being able to paint like that. He goes on to share how visualwaste got a way on. “So many commissions Bansky was not taking so VW stepped up and took them”
We walked through an area that 10 years ago was known as Murder alley, a modern vision of Willy, the local developer that turned the now hip area into a Mecca for street art, booze and dancing. We turned the corner and saw worth by Madrid train Bonner turned street artist @sabeknonsense Graf involves a distinct culture, no formalities, no schooling, no resources. Rarely does Glen use the words public art unless he is trying to sound sophisticated. He feels that the Graf kids started to change walls to be seen as canvases that then evolved into street art. Graf is not stencils, that is street art. It’s the difference between legal and otherwise not walls.
We stopped at MTOs work, a dig at unity with a slight depiction of agnostics. The flags in the birds represent the two sects of religion. He walked us around to to the subway where Graf started in the mid 80s. He said he felt like a father to those walls. We chit chatted a bit more before darting off to catch the train home and some of his last words were laughing that he sometime forgets to paint eyebrows.