The history of street art is a long and complicated one, with no defined starting point. For the purpose of this article, “street art” is defined as graffiti and mural art, either often evolving into the other. Street art in its various forms has conceivably been used as a primitive form of social media — shouting (or whispering) the artist’s perspective to passers-by. In local terms, it could be argued that street art began in Ireland around the 4th century, when the ogham script was developed and often used as early signposts; it is theorised it was created in order to secretly communicate under the noses of the imposing Roman British authorities.
More recently, in 1908, a new, more obtuse form of street art began in Northern Ireland when a mural of King William of Orange was painted on a white horse on Beersbridge Road in east Belfast. From then, it became a tradition to paint a mural of King William every July as part of the Battle of the Boyne celebrations, a tradition which carried on until the 1970s with a short revival in the 1990s. These annual murals of King William were the start of a muralistic legacy which carries through to this day, although modern Irish street art has evolved into a more nuanced and colourful form. (See our separate research article on Murals.)
In 1969, Liam Hillen (although often incorrectly attributed to Paddy “Caker” Casey) painted a slogan on a gable wall in the Bogside area of Derry, which has become an iconic work of art symbolising one side of what became known as The Troubles. “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” marked the start point of a “no-go zone” area of the city, from which the RUC and later the British army were banished. The painting of what’s now known as Free Derry Corner began an era of politically motivated street art, which was often used as a form of demarcation of either Loyalist- or Nationalist-controlled areas.
Today, Free Derry Corner is traditionally used as a kind of political posterboard, where locally supported movements are often highlighted, as seen recently with a collaboration between Brazilian Carlos Latuff and Derry’s Razer commenting on the Israel–Palestine conflict.
Free Derry Corner and its adjacent gable wall murals, painted by the Bogside Artists in the later stages of The Troubles, have since become a major tourist attraction, alongside numerous other street art landmarks in Northern Ireland. Another example is a mural of Bobby Sands on a gable wall of Sinn Féin’s press office building on Falls Road.
A marked and notable change has begun in the form and function of many murals, most notably perhaps when an Ulster Freedom Fighters’ (UFF) mural on Sandy Row was painted over in 2012, now depicting a meticulous image of “King Billy” on the wall. Just last year Freedom Corner on Newtownards Road was repainted and softened with the inclusion of local women preparing food for members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and while the UDA are still being celebrated, it is being done with less threatening imagery.
Across the road from Freedom Corner stands (as of writing) what was once a Belfast Met campus and the more recently evicted Vault Artist Studios, on which there is the potential antidote for the subdued violent message of the wall. A large mural of a pink parrot by street artist Francois Got Buffed (FGB) stands watch over Freedom Corner, with the word “JOY” by fellow “Vaulter” Rob Hilken in bright yellow adjacent, further flourished by Hilken’s fruity touch of replacing the “O” with a lemon.
Just around the corner from that is a now weathered Spread the Love piece, also by FGB, depicting a tub of margarine with a heart symbol on top, which you will find spread all over lampposts throughout Belfast and beyond in sticker form. In a small garden nearby, there is another striking mural, Linenopolis, by UK-based duo, Nomad Clan, which celebrates east Belfast’s historic linen industry.
This modern form of ubiquitous street art has seemingly become effervescent in Northern Ireland in recent years, with thanks to street art festivals such as Hit the North, an annual celebration of the modern Northern Irish street art scene which began in 2013 on North Street in Belfast, in an effort to rejuvenate the dilapidated area. Organised by Seedhead Arts, it has since grown in size and moved to the Kent Street crossroads, slightly north of North Street, remaining in the shadows of the impressive and disused Bank of Ireland on Royal Avenue. The purpose of the festival remains the same — to highlight the importance of regeneration while rebelling against gentrification.
One of the highlights of the festival in recent years has been the work of Asbestos, whose masked characters explore his own identity and the fact he could have easily not existed at all as a result of a near-miss car bomb his mother walked past 46 days before he was born. His most recent Belfast piece is in homage to other artists who he is always learning from. A previous Asbestos piece in Cork, What is Home? — highlighting the Irish housing crisis — was shared by Taoiseach Micháel Martin without context nor permission, for which the Taoiseach later apologised to the artist.
Another street art festival of note, Peaball’s 2023 “Get Up” paint jam in Derry/Londonderry brought Aches back to the city; he previously painted James McClean in his trademark split-primary-3 dimensional effect style in the Ireland international’s old stomping ground of Creggan in 2022. This time Aches painted Torn, a young man overlooking the River Foyle, where many local youths have lost their lives, with a cameo of Fontaines DC in hoodie form, perhaps a nod to the Dublin native’s own heritage, but with a deeper to-be-found meaning in the directionless gaze of the piece’s subject.
Get Up was also able to attract world-renowned street artists such as London-based Dave Bonzai, who painted a striking liquid chrome shamrock on a gable wall which greets you as you enter the city centre from the Bogside, as well as Australian artist Fintan Magee. Fintan’s piece, Girl with Killer Whale, on the wall of the newly opened Ebrington Hotel, is painted in a bevelled glass style to emphasize the fragility of youth (portrayed by a young girl) and of the peace that currently exists in Northern Ireland (seen in the dove). It also pays homage to Dopey Dick, a killer whale that in 1977 was spotted in the River Foyle in the middle of the troubled city and found himself bringing everyone in the city together for a brief moment of peace.
The theme of fragility is apt when considering street art, particularly in Northern Ireland, where street art finds itself in a difficult position thanks to ceaseless arts funding cuts, which receives the lowest governmental arts funding across the UK and Ireland. Not to mention our weather, which certainly knows how to erode the more fragile works. When you consider the medium of a can of paint to create the intricate details on modern works, this seems obviously less durable than the thick layers of paint brushed on murals of the past. While no doubt the artists will continue to communicate beneath the noses of the authorities, these thin layers will eventually wear away and bare the bedrock of what lay before it.
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