Transforming the canvas: Belfast street art

Transforming the canvas: Belfast street art @ESRCFestivalNI
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
7 November 2017

Street art is a prominent and distinctive feature of nearly every major urban environment and Belfast is no different. As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University hosted a talk at the Black Box bar and performance venue — “Walking and Talking about Belfast Street Art” — followed by a walking tour of the street art featured in the Cathedral Quarter.

The main speaker of the talk was American academic, Omar El Masri, of Ulster University. He was joined by a panel of three other speakers who are local street artists: Adam Turkington, Tim McCarthy, and David McClelland. Much of El Masri’s research has been on street art within post-conflict cities such as Belfast. He provided a brief introduction, detailing some social theories of street art and its specific context in Belfast in light of the city’s history. Not only is street art a “quintessential urban phenomenon” but it is also a “socially engaged art form”. El Marsi also discussed the theory put forward by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre — called “right to the city” — which asserts that reclaiming public space can lead to a better society. This has also been called “spatial justice”. This is the concept whereby individuals should take up space and withdraw from it with the expectation that others will also eventually claim and withdraw from that space. Subsequently street art can then be viewed as “expressions of spatial justice, since they make up no permanent claims to the space of the occupier”.

Adam Turkington then spoke about his thoughts about public space and street art within it. He began by commenting on the negative impact he feels paramilitary murals have on local communities. In contrast he stated that other works of street art can be incredibly meaningful and can inspire people. Additionally he spoke of his dislike of “community consulting” when it comes to street art, and how in his opinion it ultimately results in substandard art work. Turkington commented, “I don’t believe art should ever be done by committee and especially not by community consultation — you can ask them but you don’t let them draw the picture, that’s what artists are for.” He finished by stating that his definition of public space was ultimately about community, how it is built, and how different people can cohesively come together.

The next short presentation came from Tim McCarthy, who discussed where his artist inspiration came from. Much of his art, he explained, was motivated by his anger and frustration from his negative experiences of school and from his first-hand experiences of bombing during the Troubles. Furthermore, he described how one of his pieces was inspired by the exasperation he felt in reaction to what he saw as the inappropriately religious speech given by then Lord Mayor Belfast, Eric Smyth, when Bill Clinton came to visit in 1995. McCarthy also commented, “I took great solace in getting my anger out in my sketchbooks”, and that his art was noticeably dark during this period. His work became more politically angled following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After this political work (as well as other pieces) received positive feedback in a Dublin-based exhibition, he decided to become an artist full time.

Last to speak was David McClelland, who wanted to address the question of why he created not just street art but art in general. His definition of art is “where an artist interacts with the medium and through that the art is produced”, and he said that this could also be applied to dance or music. More specifically, he described how he enjoys painting and how he includes further elements to his work “to add in another meaning or to strengthen that meaning”. McClelland also stated that the common theme through his work was that it “explored the simple everyday things in life” that he found interesting or funny. The explanation for this was “a desire to get away from the negativity of things”. In closing, he said that he hoped that people would simply be amused by his street art work rather than trying to fathom a deeper meaning: “It’s just something that I found funny and I hope that you will too.”

The discussion was opened up to the audience with a question and answer session. There was debate over community consultation and whether it was helpful to the artist or not. Turkington reiterated that he believes direct instruction is overly bureaucratic and stifles creativity: “Give them the tools, give them the information, and just let them do brilliant stuff and trust them to do brilliant stuff.” McCarthy disagreed, stating that he believes that “compared to what we’ve been used to over the last load of decades it is a starting point for putting art in the public dwelling”, adding that there needs to be “an organic process where there’s a trust built up in communities that you’re going to do something that they have a voice in creating”. He also said that there is an expectation that communities get directly involved in community work, including street art. Turkington then further clarified his opinion saying that balance was needed. McClelland remarked that community street art was similar to being a graphic designer commissioned to do artwork for a business — while the artist has some freedom to create what they want the art ultimately has to reflect the image or vibe the client wants. Turkingon concluded, “You take information from the community because they have to have buy-in, but there’s a point where you need trust.” The three panellists discussed some of the issues and obstacles that they can face when asked to paint art in public areas. Examples ranged from having to appease two groups within a community who can’t agree what the art should feature and having to deal with overbearing individuals who claim to be “community leaders”.

Afterwards, the audience was taken on a walking tour of street art in the Cathedral quarter. The organisers of the event provided maps showing the walking route of the tour and where the 38 in total art works were located. Together El Masri and Turkington identified the artists who created the works, their inspirations, and the meaning behind their street pieces.


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