Derry is famed for its murals, whether they’re in the Bogside or the Fountain, and they’ve become an important part of our identity and tourist offering.
It’s an art form in which Northern Ireland has been unusually ahead of global trends (albeit in a more normal, non-political format elsewhere).
Since the 1970s, street art - in which individuals or groups use public spaces as the canvas for intricate artwork created using spray cans - has grown slowly from an underground, illegal and anti-establishment part of New York’s hip-hop culture, to become a major and much celebrated global phenomenon.
Originally viewed by authorities as vandalism and an urban scourge, street art is now deeply fashionable - with its highest profile artists flown around the world and treated like rockstars.
Every large democratic city around the world now has its own street art scene, spawning very talented individuals - many of whom have never received formal art training. The most famous name in street art globally is undoubtedly ‘Banksy’ - the anonymous Bristolian who uses stencils to rapidly create satirical and highly valuable statement pieces in the dead of night. He is just one of thousands of street artists around the world earning a living by bringing colour and joy to walls, with many more doing it unpaid. It is undoubtedly the most accessible form of art to both make and admire, created in the open for anyone to see and celebrate.
Despite Derry’s celebrated history of murals, street art is still relatively lacking here. The only people flying the flag for it locally are Karl Turner and Donal O’Doherty from the excellent UV Arts social enterprise. In-between holding taster activities for youth groups and doing commissioned pieces for festivals and events, they have also helped create a few superb pieces of art in locations like Victoria Market and Dale’s Corner. But there is only so much two people can do and we have limited street art for a city of our size and regional status - which contrasts sharply with towns elsewhere on the island.
The honour of being Ireland’s undisputed street art capital is still up for grabs, but there are a few aspiring contenders to the title. Wherever there is street art, there are also tourists keen to see it, with tours springing up to cater for the demand. The art form’s tourism appeal has grown to such an extent that it has even spawned a new word - ‘Spraycation’ - to describe the act of visiting a city to view street art.
I have been fortunate to experience myself the ability that street art has to positively change neighbourhoods. Last year I worked on a project to tackle a problem laneway in south London. Fly-tipping, littering and drug use were rife there, and people didn’t feel safe walking there at night. I persuaded the residents and businesses which backed onto the laneway to volunteer their rear walls as spaces for good quality street art installations. The aim was to make the area a positive destination that attracted visitors, which would then discourage anti-social behaviour and put pressure on the council to improve the laneway. The project, known as ‘Love Lane London’, started ten months ago and, since then, has grown from involving just five walls to now including over fifteen, with more being volunteered all the time. Street art fans can regularly be seen photographing the latest installations there and street art tours have sprung up locally, too.
Most importantly, residents say that the laneway now feels safer and has less fly-tipping and crime.
Derry is undoubtedly missing a trick by having very little street art to offer residents and visitors. We have no shortage of creative people here, some of whom could doubtless become excellent street artists over time. Our city is also full of blank walls that are crying out for the addition of art and colour. And, in UV Arts, we already have experienced individuals capable of leading the way. So what is stopping street art from being put at the heart of our city ?
The number one thing that is needed is spaces to paint on. Every time I drive around Derry, I see numerous walls in highly visible locations which would be perfect for street art images. We just need to create an environment in which people and businesses see the value of street art to Derry and willingly volunteer their walls for this purpose.
Earlier this year, I bought an end-of-terrace house in Rosemount with a large gable wall and next month a superb street artist from London will be adding an installation there. Once completed, my hope is that it will encourage other homeowners in the area to also let their walls be used for future pieces of street art. In that way, a neighbourhood and a city full of fantastic and colourful art will, hopefully, start to grow organically with our own local artists and style also encouraged to emerge.
The second thing that would help make all of this a reality is funding. Even when street artists offer their time and skills for free, the cost of materials to add artwork to an end-of-terrace wall easily runs into hundreds of pounds (e.g. multiple spray cans, hire of a cherry picker). Sponsorship is one route to fund this. Perhaps there is a business in Derry that would like to help create a local street art scene by sponsoring the installations here? Council funding is another route - as in Glasgow, Melbourne and Tenerife, where they help fund street art installations to promote a creative image for their cities. It would be excellent if our own council could help make Derry a genuine destination for street art, particularly as they have the resources to help fast-track that.
Imagine if every gable-end throughout this city contained artwork which had the ability to attract as much visitor interest as Free Derry Corner or the Bogside murals do?
Ordinary people can help kick-start a visual revolution in our city, simply by volunteering their walls to be used for fantastic street art.
So, if you are a homeowner or a business owner with a blank wall which you’d love to see improved through some superb street art, please let me know by email (email@example.com ) or Twitter (@Bradley_Steve).
By working together, we can all help to bring street art into the heart of Derry.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant from Derry.