Breaking down Northern Irish barriers with spray cans

Additional reporting: Marissa Mireles Hinds

Graffiti in Northern Ireland is a touchy subject. The history of highly political murals that demarcate areas on either side of the political divide means that any kind of paint on a wall can imply political allegiance or meaning.

Derry/Londonderry-based UV Arts are using paint and colour to make a different point. Their street art workshops and graffiti store encourage creativity and self-expression – especially important at a time of high male suicide in Northern Ireland.

UV Arts sprang to life after founder Karl Porter discovered street art at the age of 14. “As a graffiti artist one of your main objectives is to go ‘all city’, which means having your tag or name up in every borough, every neighbourhood and every community,” he says. This wasn’t easy in a deeply segregated community.

“As scary as it was, I started to paint illegally across the city, which meant going to places I theoretically wasn’t allowed to go. I had to take the chance and cross those physical and psychological barriers to get my name up.” After several years, he eventually met individuals from different communities across the country and began collaborating. This, he says, opened up a host of opportunities, culturally and creatively.

Fast forward and they’re a thriving social enterprise attracting funding and support across borders, most recently from Unltd’s UK-wide Do It For Real programme. They’re also curating an international street art and mural festival, Release the Pressure. “We’re embracing the positive regenerative power of this art form while also supporting and sponsoring other small scale street art and graffiti festivals across Ireland.”

“The large majority of murals can be territorial, politically motivated, politically charged and quite intimidating to the general public,” says Porter before pointing out that these visual records of conflict and politics are a big tourist attraction, and that they put the country on the international visual arts map.

“The association between colour and geographical politics has developed a sense of fear among the people of Northern Ireland. The use of particular colours can encourage segregation, exclusion and restrict individuals from integrating creatively, professionally and socially. This is evident with the use of flags, painted pavements and political graffiti. We want to challenge these perceptions head on… and break down these visual barriers that act as boundaries for highly politicised communities.”

Why is UV Arts needed?

Progress has been very slow [in Northern Ireland]. We sometimes find ourselves in a stagnant process where we take two steps forward then three steps back. The visual landscape of Northern Ireland is still in the past but we are slowly making way for a new generation of young artists who’ll bring Northern Ireland to the forefront of international arts attention in a more positive and vibrant way. Communities throughout Northern Ireland live in fear of retaliation, the fear of speaking up and making a stand. The more we work with local residents and communities the more we realise that the vast majority do not want the old ways and do not like the flags, the painted pavements, or the large scale imagery of gunmen, masked men and intimidation graffiti which normally adorns their communities.

How does graffiti fit in the Northern Ireland landscape?

There’s been a lack of a graffiti subculture for a long time. Cities like London, Paris and New York became outdoor galleries from the late ‘80s onwards while Northern Ireland was very slow on the uptake. In recent years university professors have been researching this with several reports that link back to the associations of colour and political geography. People feel trapped in their retrospective areas, place they “belong” and feel safe and do not venture too far out of their comfort zone.

What inspired the creation of UV Arts?

Growing up in a Nationalist/Republican/Catholic area of Northern Ireland I found that we are culturally segregated from the age of five. We go to school within our “own” areas, we socialise and engage with others from a similar denomination and then study together with the friends and family we have grown with.

How do people experience that?

There is little or no opportunity to integrate with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds. The abundance of politically charged murals, artwork and graffiti surrounding “your” area dictated “safe” zones or “no go” areas which all stemmed from the association of colour and territory. Attending a Catholic school meant you were singled out due to the colour of your uniform and the cultural associations to sport were similar. The colour of the pavements determined your fate from a very young age and the recurrence of visual markings only reiterated this.

What work has UV Arts done recently? Any initiatives or projects we should know about?

We worked with a local community centre in a particularly political area to raise awareness of human rights in collaboration with Amnesty International. We looked at child labour in the fashion industry. Secondly we worked closely with a local community youth organization and a local activist group called S.O.S (Save Our Sperrins) who are trying to halt the development of a large scale gold mining site in a nature reserve and area of natural conservation and heritage. We also work on a series of ongoing projects with at risk youth and young offenders. The project entitled Street Talk tackles issues of policing and crime in a modern Northern Ireland working closely with those at risk of offending, or re-offending in and outwith mainstream education.

Why graffiti?

Graffiti is a revolutionary art form created by youth for youth. On the edge of legality, street art can attract the attention of youth who may never have used paint, brushes or any creative arts practises. It’s a creative movement, you have to move with the paint as the process is so large scale. The creative expression paired with the expressive dance-like movements is a form of therapy in itself. It’s messy, it’s fun and it’s rebellious, who wouldn’t want to try some aerosol art?