18 Nov Sunday Street Art Walking Tour in Belfast
The words “street art” and “Belfast” generally conjure to mind the famous political murals throughout this city. A deeply troubled political history is preserved through the very walls of Belfast, a constant reminder of what has passed. And this is all for the most part, very recent history. Rewind just forty years and this city was in a constant state of high alert. I imagine for those who lived through it, this fraught time doesn’t feel all that long ago.
In this sense, it has been refreshing throughout the past couple of years to start noticing a different kind of street art garnering a presence in the city. Belfast has been gradually becoming considerably more artsy and vibrant, with eye-catching artistic pieces popping up overnight, as if by magic.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I often wonder how this city is viewed by tourists. These pieces of street art represent for me, a more cultural Belfast, a Belfast imbued with a touch of that feeling you get across the water, exploring a European city that’s new to you. Street art offers a very urban, visual representation of the ideas, trends and political issues informing the cityscape, and modern Belfast exploring this art form is very exciting.
Belfast offers lots of tours of the political murals across the city however there is only one street art tour. With my interest piqued by Belfast’s street art for quite some time, I thought I’d spend my Sunday afternoon doing something a bit different – viewing a selection of just some of the pieces the city has to offer and finding out a bit more about this burgeoning street art trend in Belfast.
Admittedly, a street art walking tour in Belfast on a November afternoon is not the wisest idea. It was freezing, or BALTIC, as the locals here in NI would say. Mercifully, the worst we had to content with was a biting chill in the air – we dodged the rain and had a lovely, bright Sunday afternoon to spend exploring the city streets.
The tour, hosted by Seedhead Arts, kicks off on Sundays at 12 just outside the Duke of York on the cobbled lanes of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Our tour guide Tim, rounded us all up and started us out down the iconic umbrella alley. This led into the Duke of York/Dark Horse smoking area – surrounded by walls completely covered in street art. This is such a fab part of Belfast – I love these pieces because they embody Northern Ireland so well, fusing together the controversial and political aspects with history, culture and funny quirks so unique to this country.
There’s just so much going on, so much to pick out. The Europa hotel is said to be the most bombed hotel in Europe. It was apparently damaged 33 times by IRA bombs between 1970 and 1994. And this piece is just rolling with it. There’s an orange man crossing the road by a sign in Irish and the shining yellow beacon of the Harland and Wolff crane shines out above it all. In Northern Ireland, identity has been so polarised between Unionist and Nationalist lines and I love how this collage just throws together two sides so traditionally opposed in such a colourful, energetic way. Apparently the artist Ciaran Gallagher just updates and adds to this Norn Iron collage as and when he sees fit.
I found it interesting that the majority of people on the tour were actually locals. Our guide explained that the tour was originally organised to give tourists something to do on Sunday afternoons when the city tends to be silent until about 1pm. However, they found that instead of tourists they were getting a majority of locals seeing what the story is with all the street art cropping up across their fair city.
Veering away from the local aspect and into a more international framework, we visited this piece on Talbot Street by internationally acclaimed street artist Dan Kitchener. Our guide pointed out how this piece is very reminiscent of that futuristic Blade Runner aesthetic and I felt cultured and intelligent because guys… I thought that before Tim even pointed it out. Yep. Needless to say I felt a momentary wave of smugness. It is a superb piece Also love the juxtaposition of real life cars with an artistic representation in this photo. Meta?
Talbot Street had a double whammy for us with this piece by Spanish street artist Sabek alongside Kitchener’s piece. This piece is called “Conflict” – quite pertinent Belfast. That blue arrow seems to be a running theme throughout his work. I wasn’t able to nod knowingly and say that I knew that at the time though.
This piece, Son of Protagora by MTO struck me the most on the tour. I think that’s down to the level of detail our guide went into with the whole story/process behind putting this piece together and the message behind it. The piece represents how this country has let religion screw up any real chance of true peace. And funnily, it actually faces a cathedral. It has become a bit worn through the wonderful weather we get but I actually feel this worn element adds further character to the piece.
What was fab about this tour, aside from the fantastic pieces of art obvs, was how it brought me into little pockets of of the city that I hadn’t even been to before. Like Kent Street, where this striking golden monkey can be found. I developed a whole new level of appreciation when our guide described just how difficult it is to get spray paint to be as neat and clean as it looks in the single hair details of the monkey. I also like how contemplative he looks.
Next, we moved into an area of the city centre, North Street. This street feels particularly aged, flanked by lots of old buildings. There’s an eerie quiet in this area as though it hasn’t quite moved on with the rest of town but rather stayed somewhat in the past. Our guide described how a lot of these old red brick Victorian buildings are going to be knocked down soon. Which is pretty saddening.
I never really noticed this building before but apparently back in the day it was a superb department store. Pretty difficult to imagine it nowadays. Our guide described how it burnt down in a fire many years ago. The saddest part though was hearing there was a pet department in which all the animals died in the fire. A phoenix composed of Belfast’s iconic buildings, this piece represents, as phoenixes tend to, rising from the flames. And it’s particularly pertinent now since apparently there are plans to refurb this building and not knock it down.
A FEW OTHER SUPERB PIECES
A piece outside the Sunflower Pub by Kashink. Abortion is a contentious subject in Northern Ireland. Currently, abortion is illegal here unless the woman’s life/health is at risk. If you look very closely you’ll see someone has written “STOP” above “ABORTION RIGHTS NOW!”
If you aren’t subjected to Narnia in some shape or form, are you really in Northern Ireland? Bet you can’t say you’ve seen Aslan in a pimp’s hat though.
Our tour guide Tim is actually a street artist himself by the name Vetz. This cute dog piece is one of his own. He almost exclusively paints dogs which I very much dig. Doggo street art? Yes please. One of my favourite pieces of street art in Belfast is of a super happy staffy which I found out he painted. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo of it on the tour but you can view it and read more about Vetz’s work over here.
Living in Belfast and traversing its streets on a daily basis, you develop a bit of a limited, blinkered view. You see the same sights, rush through the same streets and generally just go through the motions, visiting the same places you always have. It was nice to remove my blinkers for an afternoon and view Belfast through the lens of art, hear little snippets of the city’s history and generally just take stock of what an interesting, dynamic little place I live in. Who knows, maybe it has awoken something of the flaneuse within me.
Seedhead Arts Street Art Walking Tour runs every Sunday at noon. Find out more about it here.