‘We used to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe,’ a red-haired woman tells nearby passengers as Dublin’s industrial northside chugs behind us. Is this true? A quick Google tells you that yes, twenty years ago, Northern Ireland did have one of the highest incidences of live births amongst adolescents on the continent. The potential reasons are debated but ultimately unknown. ‘It was after the Troubles, you see,’ the woman continues, ‘all of these young people were let loose.’
Coastal views turn to that echoing our own city. Brown-brick houses, tech towers and smoke. A few days prior we booked a walking tour which promised an overview of both the art and the peace wall along the famed Shankill Road, and we’re glad of this as the train pulls into Lanyon Place. Aside from the Titanic memorial, we have no other way to contextualise Belfast. Exiting the station we spot our first visual cue towards tension: a station sign indicating an ATM offering both pounds and euros has had the euro symbol scratched out.
Our tour guide greets us outside of Belfast City Hall. He is friendly, knowledgeable and speaks in an accent belying his own extensive travels. He is quick to inform us that he is politically neutral. As we walk, he alerts us to a number of important facts. The first of which is that Belfast is a city run by women. In 2021, Zimbabwe-raised Kate Nicholl, who has parentage linked to anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, was elected Lord Mayor. Her Belfast is a modern city that aims to look forward rather than back. Last year, it was made one of the UNESCO cities of music and, though now disqualified, it was in a bid to become Europe’s 2023 Capital of Culture.
Fittingly, one of the first pieces of street art that we encounter is Dan Kitchener’s “Blurry Eyed.” Glaring neon blue against the greige cityscape is a portal into a video-game graphic Tokyo. Kanji signs reflect off of the slick street as a black Belfast cabbie drives down it, its back to us as it escapes into the night. One could assume to signify leaving the city’s dark past behind. Later, we are shown another work that Kitchener has entitled “Hope.” Stark against the brown, rubbish-strewn surrounds of the Shankill estate, a Japanese woman faces away from the city lights behind her. True to its title, the piece, done solely by the Australian- born artist’s hand, is meant to evoke a desire to explore new places.
Street art has become something vital to Belfast’s cultural rebirth. Every year, the city is host to the Hit The North festival (HTN), in which artists from all over the world come together to use the city walls as their canvas. The results are striking. On the back of a building in Belfast’s Talbot Street, a young boy crouches down, a dove pierced by two religious arrows held in his hand. He looks angrily towards Belfast Cathedral. Painted by French street artist, MTO, the piece is entitled ‘The Son of Protagoras,’ after the famous Greek agnostic. The message is poignant, and one of the futilities of sectarian violence.
Other art appears more poppy, less obviously political. Codo Art’s cartoon-esque faces cover sections of Kent Street, like brilliant, technicoloured minions. Beside him, in equally arresting colours are abstract concepts produced by artists such as Carla Hodgson and Kerrie Hanna. Creativity is alive on the walls. Even the tags from various local groups are outstandingly vibrant. Everywhere you look as you walk, the mundane scape of the working city is transformed, to incorporate whole other worlds. This is the new route that Belfast is taking; a move from what was, to everything that can be.
However, we soon discover that for every building-wide amalgam of colour, there are ten, more subtle political works. Traffic signs become vitally interesting messaging boards. On an ‘Access Only’ street sign, a stick figure hangs, nailed from the T-bar. On another, a broken line indicates the uncertainties to Belfast’s current prosperity to be brought about by Brexit. Is a door being opened or closed? The signs are representative of the modern-day issues that still afflict the city; our tour guide informs us that Northern Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK. One of our culminative sights is that of Bobbi Sands’ mural. As much as the city’s street art may aim to transport the viewer elsewhere, the past remains, achingly virile.
But it cannot be denied that it is what was that makes the Belfast we see now so dynamic. The artwork seems to find a balance, between the garish and intimidating sectarian posters, and the escapist. A sceptic could argue that much of the art is a literal veneer, to hide the trauma that still exists – if not broadcasted on the walls, insinuated in the current affairs of the newspapers, the memorial paintings still bleeding from the Shankill and Falls roads. I think that would be an unfair and premature take.
When you see the art in Belfast, what you see above all is the power of choice. The petrolic splashes of colour are entirely incongruous to the bricked-and-paved city around them. Tokyo is over nine-thousand kilometres away. The pop-colours, the Greek philosophy, the artists from all over the globe: little of it is northern Irish. And yet, by virtue of it being wanted, and being painted there, it is. A city once damningly known for its unrest, it is reshaping its culture – or, at the very least, our perception of it – through art. In a little twist of irony, the country’s teen pregnancy rate is also the lowest it has ever been. Perhaps much of the troubles really are (with a nod to Dan Kitchener) being left behind.