Written by: AJ Kutlu
There are two things that you are exposed to the most when you visit Belfast: People who “busk” for a couple of hours (street musicians) and street art. Some of the buildings in Belfast are objectively gorgeous like the City Hall, but most of them are not very eye catching. However the not-so-beautiful buildings are, thanks to the graffiti and street art, just jazzier. Even though the city is very well-known for its political murals, you can find in the city center lots of graffiti off a less political nature. But why is Belfast possibly the world capital of graffiti?
Graffiti – a great form of contemporary art and a great communications tool
I have always been a fan of street art; even though I was constantly exposed from my dad (who is an artist himself) to the likes of Italian Renaissance paintings, my preference was always Banksy or Shepard Fairey. Seeing murals dedicated to famous NBA players like LeBron James in magazines made me fall in love with graffiti too. This is why seeing so much graffiti in the capital of Northern Ireland was for me one of the highlights of our Study Trip this summer.
Graffiti is a very popular form of the art genre “contemporary art”, which is estimated to have its roots dated back to the 1960s. Besides graffiti, you can also find within contemporary art other modern art movements like “Pop Art” which was pioneered by Andy Warhol and “minimalism”, which can basically be illustrated by that completely blue-painted canvas hanging in the Stedelijk Museum. “Street Art” is one of the more recent contemporary art movement, which gained popularity with the rapid rise of graffiti in the 1980s. However, street art is not only graffiti; street art also entails murals, stickers put in public spaces and installations.
Oh boy, Belfast had a lot of puzzles to solve
Even though there is as much political murals in Belfast as graffiti, their messages are clearer and they are not completely constructed from scratch since they are based on important figures of the society. This is why I like graffiti more than murals; artists use walls of a building for their painting instead of a canvas. They use sprays instead of oil paints and the scale of the final art piece is usually significantly bigger than a regular painting.
Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message” and since then every time I look at an art piece, I don’t try to analyze it anymore. I rather examine the graffiti and its colors with their relation to the building or the wall which it was sprayed on. This method certainly helps interpreting the message which was conveyed by the graffiti artist on a wall, because it enables to add a different sphere about the art piece besides the deep, highly intellectual meaning. Just by looking at the surrounding and the placement of the graffiti, you can put the small pieces of information together and solve the puzzle. And oh boy, Belfast had a lot of puzzles to solve.
Graffiti culture in Belfast
“Belfast is a weird, passionate, messed up place. The legacy of our conflict is about more than people, it’s about place. It’s about how the people of Belfast navigate this divided city, and how we build shared spaces for people of all backgrounds to co-exist.” This is how a Belfast-based street art community Seedhead Arts describe their city. Belfast really couldn’t be described better than this; it also explains partially the relationship between graffiti and Belfast.
Graffiti is about place and so is Belfast, thus it is just a perfect match
Graffiti exists, because youngsters in many different cities wanted to mark their territory by spraying their names or initials of their crew on buildings in an artsy way. To make this statement as easy as possible, it can be said that graffiti is about place. Graffiti is about place and so is Belfast, thus it is just a perfect match. But time flies and things change; both graffiti as well as Belfast changed too.
Since 1969 Belfast is a divided city. The so-called “Peace Wall” is dividing Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists for many years now, but the Peace Agreement from 1998 made things better. Even though the city is still divided, everything is getting better slowly. Graffiti artists also don’t do graffiti to mark territories, they just want to leave their marks in the city with magnificent art pieces.
So what about the graffiti on the picture above this article? It is to be found in a way in Belfast, which leads to a street full of pubs, where any type of people, Catholic or Protestant come together to enjoy some beers. Preferably it is the national beer of Ireland, Guinness. Oh, and there is the City Hall right above the Guinness on the graffiti. Now take a look at the graffiti again, maybe you can understand the message better…
Cover: AJ Kutlu