What Is A Mural?

The archetypal mural in Belfast is …

  • painted
  • directly onto a wall (or other surface which serves an enclosing/dividing function such as a shutter or gate)
  • to depict an image concerning the sectarian political situation, either something expressly paramilitary or some aspect of one community’s historical and/or cultural background
  • and is sponsored by the local community, at least in the minimum sense that it has community approval, and might be financially or materially supported;
  • however, this approval or support is nowhere evident in the mural and neither is the mural signed by the artist(s) (That the mural is painted if not by the community then for the community, is some defence against claims of plagiarism when the images of others are used. Republicans used the images of the cartoonist Cormac, artist Jim Fitzpatrick, and artist Robert Ballagh, as well as freely borrowing many specific images (e.g. of Nelson Mandela, of the Ballyseedy memorial); loyalists used the figure of Eddie The Head from hard rock band Iron Maiden, and of Spike and Tom (from the cartoon Tom & Jerry).)

Many such murals are still (2018) being painted in Belfast, but each aspect listed above is subject to variation. Wall art might be …

  • sprayed (either free-hand or using a stencil) or pre-printed, sometimes using a digital computer
  • onto boards (including laminates) which are then affixed to walls
  • concerning topics that are in weakly or in no way sectarian (e.g. not paramilitary and not even historical or cultural; they concern topics such as daily life (especially in years gone by), global causes (such as racism), public health issues (such as suicide prevention), children’s and youth imagery; these are intended to be cross-community. We should also note the rise of street art, which tends to be non-sectarian, some of which is being placed near sectarian works (such as on “peace” lines) – see below for more on this point
  • with sponsorship by businesses or heritage groups or state organisations (the latter two are intended to demonstrate that the piece is either non-sectarian or is intended to express the culture positively)
  • the sponsorship is acknowledged on the piece or on a plaque next to it and it is signed (or at least marked) by the artist(s)

(See also the Glossary of terms used to categorise posts; for example, the blog’s main categorisation is murals, boards, posters, stencils, graffiti.)

The main trend in Belfast wall-art is the move away from paramilitary murals towards historical and cultural murals – which carry on the war by other means – and towards non-sectarian murals. The archetypal mural instructs or reaffirms a community in its identity, especially its military identity; at the other end of the spectrum we have pieces that are merely decorative or have (only) aesthetic meaning (personal tags and much of what goes under the name “street art” would be included in these latter categories).

Republican murals began as a form of expression from a community that did not have access to traditional forms of media, and murals will exist whenever a group feels a need to get its message out. The hunger strikes of 1981 led to an explosion in republican messages on walls, initially in the form of graffiti and small murals that did not cover entire walls but reaching full maturity in the form of full-gable, multi-coloured, detailed, images by 1986.

1995 can be used as a dividing line between the paramilitary and post-paramilitary eras of muraling, on the republican side. The move of Sinn Féin into parliamentary politics meant a halt in aggressively paramilitary muraling; today, IRA (and INLA) volunteers can still be found on many walls, but in the form of memorials to deceased volunteers. Other post-ceasefire themes express a cultural or historical moment, or have a local identity, but are intended to be a positive expression of a culture, rather than an oppositional one.

Dissatisfaction with the peace process has meant that the support for “physical force” republicanism has never entirely gone away, and the support for armed resistance can to some extent be measured by the sophistication of its wall-work. It is noticeable that it consisted mostly of graffiti and stencils (as well as printed flyers) until very recently (2015) when murals and boards began appearing, particularly in Beechmount (and in Creggan).

On the loyalist side, 2002 serves as something of a dividing line, as this marks the first wave of concerted “re-imaging” by the state. Since then, efforts have been made to get rid of the “hooded gunmen” (most famously the UFF mural at the bottom of Sandy Row) but they have had limited success and paramilitary organisations are still be found on large-scale and prominent murals, still featuring hooded gunmen rather than portraits of past volunteers (though for a notable exception see C. Coy Street).

In addition to memorials and cultural murals, many murals are intended to be entirely non-sectarian and cross-community. In 2012, for example, there was much attention paid to the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Titanic was built in Belfast, and is a symbol of Protestant industry. However, there was an attempt to make Titanic a cross-community icon, perhaps made easier by the fact that the sinking had entered world-wide culture. Various murals and boards relating to Titanic were sponsored by Belfast City Council and an organisation called the Titanic Foundation. Titanic was even the subject of a mural in republican west Belfast, outside an Irish-language school.

Of course, all of the above is debatable! A list of resources for further reading and viewing can be found in the right sidebar.