In Belfast, street art battles community rifts

Maureen COFFLARD
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Belfast once adorned its walls with murals marking the bloody history of Northern Irish conflict, but now murals have another aim, helping erase the Catholic-Protestant divide

From the art of war to the art of peace: for decades Belfast adorned its walls with huge community murals marking the bloody history of the Northern Irish conflict.

But the murals springing up across the city centre have another aim -- helping to erase the Catholic-Protestant divide.

"I grew up in front of these political murals and I thought that my goal was to take the city and make it look completely different," street artist Glenn Molloy, a former DJ, told AFP.

Instead of guns, paramilitaries and clenched fists, his murals in the city centre feature portraits of celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Lee and David Bowie.

With little hope in sight that this week's elections in Northern Ireland will end a bitter political stalemate, Molloy said his work is aimed at celebrating the positive.

"I wanted to give something positive, bright, cheerful, something that the people could relate to, rather than to be oppressed," said Molloy, who is also well known for painting portraits of the city's homeless population.

Painted in black and white -- with the contours of their faces defined in red -- his portraits have earned Molloy the nickname of "Belfast Banksy," in reference to the famous British street artist.

- 'A powerful message' -

In the Protestant unionist stronghold of east Belfast, some buildings' facades hark back to the violence that reigned in the British-ruled province from 1969 to 1998.

"We seek nothing but the elementary right implanted in every man: the right, if you are attacked, to defend yourself," is written on the facade of a local pub.

A 10-metre (33-foot) high painting depicting two paramilitaries wearing balaclavas and armed with a machine gun is right next to the quote.

The intimidating theme can be found on other murals several kilometres away in the former north Belfast bastions of the Irish Republican Army.

"I don't care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting" -- a quote attributed to guerrilla icon Che Guevara -- can be read on a wall next to two bloody clenched fists.

Across the city, in both Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, the colourful murals helped to demarcate territories.

But in the city centre a motley array of colourful and non-political murals has for the past few years given Belfast a new face.

One shows a car driving through the night, another enormous work depicts a bearded cook with a lobster. Further down, a young melancholic girl is painted in blue.

Overall, more than 100 pieces of street art have been created by artists from Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe.

Adam Turkington kickstarted the movement with a street art festival he created five years ago called "Hit the North".

"Being non-political in Northern Ireland is being political. Defending aesthetics, beauty, having fun, making the city look better is a pretty powerful message," he said.

"In Belfast, art and especially street art echoes the silent majority, those who are not voting because they are fed up," and "the tyranny of a tiny minority" obsessed by divisions and religion, he said.

Although the majority of these murals have no particular message, mysterious French artist MTO, in 2014 painted one of the most political pieces on display.

"The Son of Protagoras" shows a squatting child holding a dove killed by two arrows. One is Catholic, the other Protestant.

"Protagoras is the father of agnosticism. MTO's message is that religion is ruining this place," Turkington said.