Belfast's murals: Off the wall?
Once they were threatening symbols of paramilitary control, but now Belfast’s murals have new themes, as Jamie McDowell and Kerry McKittrick discover
As the heat of the Troubles lessened in the mid-’90s, the remaining embers of tension were cooled by talk of a new beginning.
The peace process has spanned decades, and the length of time it'll take the paramilitary groups to completely fizzle out can't be easily predicted.
Some observers argue that the transgression from politically mobilised militant groups to criminally motivated street gangs has been all too easy. Some groups still prefer to operate under the name of their previous paramilitary organisation, taking advantage of the fear that their often abbreviated collective title strikes into the heart of communities.
Within loyalism, murals were traditionally aggressive in their nature. They were markers, often depicting handguns, masked men and the hallowed AK-47. They separated communities, showed who was in charge and also served as tactical borders — reminders to rival loyalist factions whose turf it was — and it need be respected.
In recent years, the face of the mural has changed. Community groups have worked tirelessly to remove the gunmen of the gable wall and replace them with messages of hope and achievement.
In north Belfast, an iconic mural on Cultra Street in Tiger’s Bay has been replaced.
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The previous mural portrayed two gunmen flanking a huge tiger's head with a UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) emblem to the left and UYM (Ulster Young Militants) one to the right.
Artist Ross Wilson and Tiger's Bay resident Leanne Marshall have helped spearhead the movement to have images in this part of the city changed.
“I wanted to help as long as the children had a say in terms of what went up,” explains Ross.
“Three words emblazon the new image of a tiger's head; community, pride and culture. I did the painting with about 20 primary seven kids from Currie Primary School on the Limestone Road.
“I was very surprised how radical the people in the area were in terms of their attitudes towards changing them. Paramilitary leaders were very positive about it.
“In a different part of north Belfast I also worked on replacing a mural with an image of a woman called ‘Mother, Daughter, Sister.' Some young girls wanted something that would be representative of them.”
Leanne adds: “We want to change murals so they're not territorial any more. The community is taking control.
“Before, kids who were born after the peace process would look at the paramilitary murals and everything they knew about the Troubles would be based on that.”
Explaining how her area has changed, Cailin Hardy at the east Belfast Partnership, outlines how an area called Kenilworth Place, off the Newtownards Road, has re-invented itself: “We recently finished a cultural mural called ‘No More' that replaced the old redundant and deteriorated Titanic themed mural located in Kenilworth Place.
She says: “Originally the Titanic mural was positioned away from the main road and a political mural was visible on the main road. We worked with local community reps and agreed the replacement ‘No More' mural would be inset off the main arterial route on the Newtownards Road and the replacement Titanic mural would be on the road and act as a greeting to visitors to the area.
“The ‘No More’ mural depicts an image of east Belfast lad Dylan Wilson holding hands with Dearbhla Ward, a local girl from Short Strand. It promotes a more positive cultural image.”
At Skipton Street, off the Albertbridge Road, a mural depicting sporting triumph records the exact hour, minute and date that David Healy scored his winning goal against England for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in 2005.
A few hundred yards down the road is an image of iconic loyalist political leader David Ervine with the yellow cranes of Harland and Wolff in the background.
Local residents Sally Hegarty and her son Adam (14), from east Belfast, both approve of the new artwork. “I think the new murals that are going up are a lot less intimidating than the older ones,” says Sally.
“I was talking about the murals with friend the other day and we agreed that the people in north Belfast seem to be at the forefront of changing the face of murals.
“Some of the historical ones are brilliant. If you don't know much about the history of the area they bring a new aspect, especially for tourists. Sometimes we see bus loads of Germans stopping to take pictures of them. It's good for the area.”
And Beersbridge Road resident, Danny Costcallde (23) adds: “I think it's great to see artists working on new stuff and that there are less guns in the pictures. It makes the community look less threatening and shows a little bit of history at the same time.”
The artists’ impressions ...
Some artists who design and create these murals across the country prefer to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. The process of creating a mural takes time, and while a traditional artist may enjoy the safety and comfort of their own studio to ply their trade, the street artist has a minefield of social and political issues to address.
Mark Ervine (37), the son of the late PUP politician David Ervine, is one such artist. He decided not to follow his father into politics, and instead, choose the paintbrush to tell the story of his Protestant heritage. The dad-of-two lives in Belfast with his wife, and was one of the main contributors to the recent Base street art festival held in the Ulster Hall in January.
“I started painting when I was about six,” says Mark. “There was a painting competition in our community group in east Belfast and I won. That was a great feeling and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Mark has made his name through painting murals, but has never done anything for a paramilitary organisation: “I've always painted political murals, but not paramilitary ones though I’ve been asked to do so.
“I've always been interested in Protestant culture — a result of being constantly told when I was growing up that I didn't have one. We weren't taught it in school, so learning about your history was an extra-curricular activity. Through my murals, I try to represent the key moments that have affected Protestants down the years.”
Mark's work has earned critical acclaim — and also landed him in a spot of bother. “In some areas, I obviously have to ask for permission before going to work on a mural — especially if it's on top of a paramilitary one. For example, in 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I painted a scene of St Patrick over a UVF mural — with permission — in east Belfast. It didn't really go down too well. I wanted to point out that St Patrick was just as much a part of Protestant culture as any other culture . Unfortunately, a few people thought differently and it caused a furore. For me, it's all about identifying with something and putting it out there for debate.”
Mark also told of the encouragement and inspiration his late father gave him: “Dad helped me greatly, right from the start. Years ago, drawing or painting murals was a pretty dangerous pursuit. You could get shot dead while doing it, and mixing with other the ‘other community' just simply didn't happen. When I look at some of the things we paint now, I'd never have even thought about doing them before 1998. But even now I have to be careful in case I upset the wrong people. “
Mark has been collaborating with another mural artist, Danny Devenny, a former republican prisoner.
Their works on Divis Street include a copy of Picasso's ‘Geurnica' and a mural in recognition of the International Brigades who fought against General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. “If someone had told me 20 years ago that I'd be working with a former republican prisoner today, I wouldn't have believed them,” says Mark.
Mark shows me one of his murals at the Rex Bar, on the Shankill Road. It depicts Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant in 1912.
“This is another example of a mural that has been changed a bit [by people altering it], but it's one of my more historical ones,” he adds. “There are so many different styles of street art. If you look at Italy, France and England and the graffiti scenes there — then in South America, with the politically motivated murals in Mexico and Peru to do with workers rights, there's so much variation.
“And when I look at where I come from, with the culture and the history, I can't help but think, why shouldn't Belfast be a part of that movement?”
‘One Falls Road school has eight of my murals on it’
Frank Quigley (57) lives in west Belfast. He says:
“I first started painting when I was in prison for arms possession at Long Kesh in 1973. It was something I started doing on my own. I was in and out of prison a few times, the last time being in Portlaoise between 1982 and 1988.
When I got out I started portrait painting and dabbled in photography. I won a scholarship through the Millennium Commission to arts college in Belfast and did a degree in fine applied arts.
Then I started working as an artist. I did some portraits and photography and a few political murals. It was in 1989-1990 that I started painting murals properly.
The first cultural mural I did was commissioned by the Probation Service. Myself and a Mexican artist were asked to work with some young people to create it.
I've now painted about 50 altogether. One building in particular — St Comgall's Primary School on the Falls Road — has eight of my murals on it. Some of them take a couple of days to do, others can take weeks.
Because I work with so many groups now I try and let the young people work with me. They give input into the design and do a bit of painting to fill in outlines.
I'm a jobbing artist so the murals are only part of what I do. But they are a big part.
I even did my thesis in university about them.”
‘They remind folk what they don’t want to go back to’
Dee Craig (38) lives in east Belfast. He says:
“At secondary school I started to paint murals for people in their children’s bedrooms and then began painting murals. One of the first was at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement — a Red Hand of Ulster, with the thumb down and a big NO on it.
The change in murals has gone along with the changes in Northern Ireland. The murals are a bit behind the politics, though. The ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement had a big impact. After the loyalist ceasefire I painted a mural at Mersey Street of hooded men but they weren’t carrying guns. It’s important for the community to see that while the guns are gone the men and the cause are still there.
Children need to see political murals to find out about their history. Murals also remind people what they don’t want to go back to.
Murals are a community thing — they want them painted, both the political and the historical. We have workshops where each group decides what kind of message they want the mural to have.
I painted a mural at the interface between the Short Strand and the Newtownards Road. It features a poem, No More, by a community worker, Jim Wilson and shows Jim’s grandson shaking the hand of a girl from Short Strand. It's one of the first cross-community ones on the Newtownards Road.”
Bill Rolston (63), professor of sociology at the University of Ulster, has written books on murals. He says:
“Northern Ireland's mural painting tradition dates back to 1908 and is the oldest continuous one in the world. I became interested in murals at the time of the IRA hunger strikes in 1981 when there was an explosion of republican murals. Then I noticed the murals in unionist areas which had been around for longer.
In the 1980s all murals were political but not necessarily paramilitary. After the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement the murals in loyalist areas started to become almost exclusively paramilitary. They were almost solely under the control of whichever paramilitary group was active in the area. Loyalists weren't aware of their history the way republicans were so other themes disappeared.
Republican murals were more varied in their subject matter — as well as paramilitary ones, there were political and historical ones commissioned by women's groups and trade unions.
After the 1994 ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 painters in republican areas decided not to paint hooded gunmen any more. The guns are still there, but only in murals with historical or remembrance themes.
They had plenty of material to fall back on — mythological or historical scenes. But loyalist areas have little tradition other than the paramilitary murals. Once they stopped painting the gunmen they had little else left.
The Re-imaging Communities Programme was started in July 2006 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The aim was to create more welcoming environments in the community. There were movements before that. In places like the Newtownards Road Rev Gary Mason was working to get paramilitary mural replaced by ones of people like George Best – local heroes. The Re-imaging Programme brought everyone together.
Murals are part of our history and shouldn’t be sanitised. I want to have the gunmen out of the murals, but the trick will be to keep the politics. The politics of these murals is our history.”