What Is A Mural?

What Is A Mural?

Murals are images painted on walls, typically visible to the public, and so a form of mass communication. Many other modes of mass communication reach larger audiences, given that murals are restricted to passers-by (and re-presentation in media). But the use of a public wall is sometimes the only platform available. Public art and graffiti will exist whenever a group (or person) feels that it is being marginalised and wants to get its message out to those living around them.

Republican murals, for example, began as a form of guerilla protest by a community that did not have access to traditional forms of media such as newspapers, radio, and television. Loyalist muralists of the 80s likewise feel unheard: the police appear unable to prevent the deaths of Protestants and defence associations – and their murals – arise in response to this threat. Paramilitary groups on both sides were not sanctioned by the state and were (eventually) treated as banned organisations again meaning that they had to seek alternative avenues for communication.

An individual can also feel that they – as individuals rather than as community-members – go unheard and take to the streets with (unsanctioned) graffiti and art that says “I am here.” and expresses their personal values. Street-art typically has only aesthetic value, though some pieces have expressed political themes, local or global. This wall-art is not meant to bind a community or represent a community to an external audience and it is up to individual passers-by to value it if they choose. Although murals are street art in the sense of “art on the streets” we reserve the term “street art” for work that is not about local politics.

The lack of access to traditional media is tied to the primitive nature of early republican wall-art and public expression by individuals (often graffiti) and fringe groups (such as so-called “dissidents”. republican messages on walls in response to the hunger strikes of 1981 initially took the form of graffiti and small murals that did not cover entire walls but had matured by 1986 into full-gable, multi-coloured, detailed, images. The size and sophistication of these murals indicate that their creators – often just the artist but sometimes also the person with the idea – has the time and resources to produce the piece and the confidence that an audience will entertain and perhaps accept the message, at least to the extent that the mural will not be defaced or removed. (Compare the development of murals in the 1980s with the works by éirígi, which became a political party in 2007: in 2008 éirígí produced stencils (M04501 | M04535), in 2009 a printed poster (M05139), and in 2012 a stencilled board (X00679).)

The classic mural in Belfast (and elsewhere in Northern Ireland/the north of Ireland/”here”) …

  • depicts some aspect of the sectarian political situation, either something expressly paramilitary or some aspect of one community’s historical and/or cultural background
  • is directed at the community (internally) and/or outside communities (externally),
  • is sponsored by the local community in terms of material, labour, or finances,
  • is unsigned by the artist(s) and its sponsors are not listed on or around the mural,
  • is painted
  • is on a wall (or other surface which serves to separate private from public such as a shutter or gate).

An example that illustrates all of the features listed above, and an early high-point in muraling, is the mural of the mythical Rí Nuadha (King Nuada).

It was painted in 1987 (the image is from 1988 M00603) and differs substantially from earlier “proto-murals”. Compare it to the mural below, from 1981:

Free! Belfast only partially covers the wall, suggesting it was done without ladders, or perhaps only with a step-ladder, and presents a montage of symbols on a black background. Rí Nuadha, by contrast, completely occupies a gable wall, even though this wall has an unusual shape because of the protrusion at the rear of the flats. Gable-end (or simply “gable”) walls are preferred because of their large size and the absence of windows. Houses here are side-gabled (rather than front-gabled) and so most gable walls are at right angles to the street, but at any junction at least one of the gables will be visible. Here is an image of the the north side of the green in the lower Shankill estate in 2008. Five gables are visible from left to right (two more are off-camera to the right) where rows of houses end at the green in the centre of the estate.
(Google Maps/Street View 2008)

Rí Nuadha is a copy of a painting by Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick, painted in Springhill by Gerard ‘Mo Chara’ Kelly. Neither Mo Chara nor Fitzpatrick is acknowledged in or around the mural. That the artist does not claim the work and instead presents it as painted by the community and for the community is some defence against claims of plagiarism when the images of others are used. In addition to Fitzpatrick’s work, republicans drew on the images of the cartoonist ‘Cormac’ (Brian Moore) and artist Robert Ballagh, as well as freely borrowing many specific images; loyalists copied paintings of King William in 1690, and used the figure of Eddie The Head from hard rock band Iron Maiden (Eddie has his own Visual History page), and of Spike (the bulldog) and Tom (from the cartoon Tom & Jerry).)

Rí Nuadha
was painted using household paints gathered from the local community applied to the side of a house that technically would have belonged to the owners of the house. The mural bears no mention of those who contributed towards it.

Mo Chara described the mural’s content, purpose, and audience as follows: “The first thing any colonialist does, in any country, is to take the native culture, including its language, and replace it with theirs. The role of the colonist is to make the native people feel bad about their own culture, persuade them through military, legal, economic, social and every other means to abandon their language and culture and adopt the ways of the oppressor. Our kids get Batman and Robin, Sir Lancelot, Robin Hood. They’re all English or American; they’re not our heroes. I wanted the kids to take pride in Irish history and Irish culture.” (An Pobal A Phéinteáil, Ch. 6) Adults in the area undoubtedly took inspiration from the image of Nuada rising, too: Springhill, like the neighbouring Ballymurphy, suffered from mass unemployment and its residents were in constant conflict with British and RUC forces.

It is unlikely that this mural was intended to be outward-facing, as people not from the immediate area would have little cause to enter Springhill. Police and soldiers did enter the area on patrol and some of them had their picture taken in front of it, apparently acknowledging its power. (It was occasionally paint-bombed by British forces and its great detail and many colours made it difficult to repair – there would not be many murals of this level of detail until after the ceasefire and there would be many during the Troubles which were pointedly simple in their choice of colour and design – as a stark example, see  Mandela, Father Of Freedom M00529 which Mo Chara painted the following year, 1988.)

Also, because of their quality, this and the adjacent Loughgall mural were often used as a backdrop by television news reporters, both domestic and international, reporting on the Troubles. This audience was not available to most murals until the age of the internet and social media.

The location of a mural can limit the audience that is exposed to it. Some murals, like the Nuada mural, are located on walls centrally located within neighbourhoods. The following North Belfast UDA Roll Of Honour, for example, would not have been found by any but the most dedicated mural-hunters, as it was in a cul-de-sac off a cul-de-sac within Tigers Bay. It thus serves to remind the local residents of the sacrifices of the volunteers. The same mural on a wall visible to outsiders (in this case, republicans and neutrals) would also have served to assert the UDA as a threat to those populations.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (from Nuadha and the North Belfast UDA Roll Of Honour) is the so-called “international wall” on Divis Street. This long wall (which at any given time is only 50% devoted to international causes, so the name is a something of a misnomer) is directed at both locals and at tourists. “Locals” in this case means much of republican west Belfast, as Divis Street is highly-trafficked road connecting the city centre with the Falls Road and so the murals are seen by thousands of motorists every day, not just those who live in the Divis and lower Falls area. The wall is also a tourist hot-spot, as throngs of visitors during the summer months daily climb down from their coaches and taxis to take photographs.
Visitors from the United States are regularly confronted with their administration’s perceived misdoings, as republican ideology is decidedly anti-imperialist. This mural, extant from 2004-2008, put the occupation of Iraq under President Bush in parallel with the Viet Nam war – “America’s greatest failure”. (The International Wall has its own Visual History page and there is also a page on International Solidarity more broadly.)

Some ‘classic’ murals are still (2021) being painted in Belfast with all of the features listed above, but the majority alter at least one of them and often many of them.

  • In terms of subject matter, wall art might now not depict the paramilitary forces, grievances, culture, or history of either sect but instead topics that are in weakly or in no way sectarian.
    In terms of subject, the main trend in Belfast murals is the move from paramilitary murals (see especially Visual History 04), towards “issues” murals describing the social and political changes that need to be addressed (see especially Visual History 07 and Visual History 09), which, along with historical and cultural murals, carry on the war by other means, and gradually towards non-sectarian murals (see Visual History 10). This movement is a main theme of the Visual Histories. What follows is an abbreviation:1995 can be used as a dividing line between the paramilitary and post-paramilitary eras of muraling on the republican side. The IRA ceasefire 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. (Dissatisfaction with the peace process has meant that the support for “physical force” republicanism has never entirely gone away, and the level of support for armed resistance and (as already noted above) the level of organisation of “dissident” groups can to some extent be measured by the sophistication of its wall-art. It is noticeable that it consisted mostly of graffiti and stencils (as well as printed flyers) until 2015 when murals and boards also began appearing, particularly in Beechmount (and in Creggan, Derry).)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, which was aimed at removing loyalist gunmen from murals. A famous success in this endeavor was the removal of the UFF mural at the bottom of Sandy Row but overall state programmes have had limited success and loyalist paramilitary organisations and their volunteers are still be found, and still being painted, on large-scale and prominent murals. (The gunmen are still hooded rather than being unmasked portraits of past volunteers – though for a notable exception see C. Coy Street).There had always been cultural and historical murals, and murals with a local identity, but these became more common after the peace. For example, Gaelic games appears as a topic of this mural (from the early 90s or late 80s) in Ardoyne, north Belfast …
    … whereas it is only after the peace that the Great Hunger (of the 1840s) begins appearing in murals, as in this New Lodge, north Belfast, mural:

    The Great Hunger is still identifiably republican. Many contemporary murals, however, 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 via a blockbuster 1997 movie with a smash-hit song as its theme. Various murals and boards relating to Titanic were sponsored by Belfast City Council and an organisation called the Titanic Foundation. Titanic – both its construction and sinking – was even the subject of a mural in republican west Belfast, outside an Irish-language school. The ‘lifeboat’ section of the mural is included here:

    Visual History 10 illustrates the gradual inclusion of topics such as daily life (especially in years gone by), global causes (such as migration & racism and the environment), 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 is personal and aesthetic rather than sectarian. Visual History 11 documents the rise of street art.

  • In terms of the relationship between producers and audience, wall art might now not be directed at a community from within, nor represent that community to the outside world, but instead be intended by outsiders to inculcate a value within a community.The advent of peace brought not only new themes into muraling but also new groups wishing to influence people’s thought. A few years after the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the “Good Friday Agreement”), state agencies got into muraling with the aim of promoting peace to communities that had been maintaining strongly sectarian mindsets for three decades. Because they were outsiders to these community, state agencies risked the appearance of interfering in the local communities and so often worked indirectly, dispersing money to NGOs and local heritage and community associations which were not (or at least, less) concerned with sectarian issues and more with social or cultural missions who would then act as intermediaries.
    The following mural, for example, is part of the New Belfast programme. It was painted in the republican Markets area and celebrates the advancement of women, from homemakers in 1904 to university students and computer users in 2004. This view of women is revisionist – not mentioned is the relatively recent role of women as paramilitary volunteers and political activists, which the community itself would have encouraged during the Troubles (see, for example, We Must Grow Tough M00100).
    This mural of IRA killings was produced under the aegis of the East Belfast Historical & Cultural Society:
  • In terms of its sponsorship, wall art might now not be locally sponsored and produced but instead the sponsorship for the production of the piece comes from sources outside the community. An obvious case is the state organisations (and NGOs and heritage groups) already mentioned, either directly (hoping to spread non-sectarian values in the community) but even of the earliest murals questions can be raised about the unity of a community’s support for a mural. Many early murals
    (In rare cases sponsorship might come from local businesses:
    Here, the Beehive pub and McPeake’s shop – both on the Falls Road – sponsor a Michael Conlan mural (X00584). (To be clear, sponsorship by a business is different from a mural depicting a business – see Visual History 11 for examples of commercial wall art.)
  • Wall art might now not be anonymous but instead signed or at least marked by the artist(s) and the sponsorship is acknowledged on the piece or on a plaque next to it.
    As an example of a signed mural, republican painter Lucas Quigley not only signed this mural for Mandela’s 95th birthday but added his phone number (in the bottom right):
  • Sponsorship plaques became common after the peace and the entrance of state agencies into muraling. Johnny Adair’s lower Shankill stronghold was re-imaged after he was driven out of the UDA Here, for example, is the info board for the “I Am Not Resilient” mural in the lower Shankill, showing the previous two murals on this wall (the anti-Sinn Féin one had been replaced by an Andrew Jackson Ulster-Scots one) and listing the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Lower Shankill Community Association as sponsors.
  • Wall art might now not be painted with brushes but sprayed, either free-hand …
    (the remarkable Mussen Cortège by Sam Bates a.k.a. SMUG X00490)
    … or over a stencil, as in this simple example of QEII in Tigers Bay, …
    … or printed, using an image designed on a computer.
    (these two UVF boards are in south Belfast’s Village area X00608)
  • Wall art might now not be applied onto walls but onto boards which are then affixed to walls. The advantages of boards include being able to use computers for designing images and that painting (or other modes of production, but especially painting) can be undertaken indoors, out of reach of the (rainy) Irish weather. Wooden boards tend to have a short life; laminate boards are proving more durable.
    One disadvantage is that the seams and screws are often visible. As an example, compare the long-standing Kieran Nugent (“the first blanketman”) wall-painting …
    … with the 2015 board that replaced it (after the Catalonia vote)(X04706)

‘Classic’ murals are now a minority of the wall-art painted today, even when street art is excluded – most pieces are done on boards, many are printed, and those that are painted often make extensive use of stencils.

It should be clear from the discussion above that murals play an important role in the political life of many people here. Newton Emerson, columnist for the Irish Times (2019-06-20), describes murals as “amateurish images combin[ing] tired grievances with trite sloganeering”. It’s true that almost all murals have been painted by amateurs, but they have not all been “amateurish”, as this page and the Visual History pages make clear: some murals have been done with great skill and attention, and are of images that are highly striking.  But the question of the quality of murals is secondary to their purpose. Thus, even if Emerson’s description were not untrue, it is certainly unkind, as it negates the value of murals as a form of public expression, as a record of the dialogue communities have with themselves and with those around them. For this reason, it is our policy at Extramural Activity not to critique the quality of the drawing or the spelling, as sneering at the artist’s competence or spelling is a license to dismiss the sincerely-felt claims of people who feel marginalised and unheard. Yes, the artists are untrained and their murals imperfect; yes, the wording on murals and even plaques is sometimes contains mis-spellings or lapses in grammar. But what follows from that? That the art should be dismissed? But this is the very attitude that has led to the necessity for murals and other public displays in the first place, namely that the power-that-be have been concerned overwhelming with their own status and place in the world, and ignored the lives of the underclasses. Art critics too have ignored … (usually by omission but expressly so in the case of Lippard 1984 p. 12; Rolston 1996 p. 5 suggests that the dismissal is because muralists lack formal training (which is generally but not universally true); see also Rolston 1991 pp. 51-54 on the absence of the Troubles in Irish and Northern Irish fine art; Loftus 1983 p. 10 cites the term “folk art” but without attributing it to anyone specific) … or derided the efforts of working-class people from both sects to present their experiences and aspirations on the walls of their communities, calling them “propaganda” (e.g. Brian McAvera in Art, Politics And Ireland cited in Saleeby-Mulligan 2006 p. 56) rather than “art”. But they are images and messages designed to get an audience to feel something. What else is art, whether in a gallery or on a gable wall? (Even graffiti has its supporters.)

All of the descriptions and history of the features under discussion on this page are debatable. A list of resources for further reading and viewing can be found in the right sidebar. (See also the Glossary of terms used to categorise posts; for example, the blog’s main categorisation is mural, board, tarp/banner, paste-up/poster, stencil, graffiti, metalwork, plaque, stone.)

This material copyright © 2017-2022 Extramural Activity. Images from ‘Peter Moloney Collection – Murals’ used with permission.