NI Graffiti the Subject of New Documentary

Filmmakers Eileen Walsh and David Dryden explore the evolution of graffiti art across Northern Ireland

A new 20-minute documentary short, which launched at the Nerve Centre in Derry~Londonderry this week, will address the evolving face of Northern Ireland’s graffitied streets and the efforts being made to transform them.

Commissioned by the Community Relations Council, Together in Pieces will have its Belfast premiere at the Oh Yeah Music Centre on June 19, during Community Relations Week.

Two years in the making, the film – produced and directed by Eileen Walsh alongside co-director David Dryden – seeks to illustrate the changes that are occurring across the country, but in the North-West in particular, as divisive, sectarian murals and slogans give way to the kind of positive street art which harnesses, rather than exploits, the creativity of those living in segregated communities.

In Walsh’s view, her film has an important focus. ‘Sectarian graffiti is everywhere, the more you look for it, the more you see,’ she says. 'That has to effect children. It has to.’

In putting it all together, Walsh's ultimate aim was to try and understand the reasoning behind picking up a spray can to scrawl a negative message on the walls of one’s own neighbourhood, along with the measures being taken to counter such outbreaks. ‘We’re just trying to make things better, to document this changing landscape of Northern Ireland.'

That new direction is best exemplified, observes Walsh, by ‘the graffiti revolution that’s taking place, quietly'. This includes the input by internationally-renowned street artists who have come to Northern Ireland from as far away as Los Angeles to share their knowledge with locals hoping to alter the urban canvas.

In addition, Together in Pieces – which takes its title from the term ‘pieces’, graffitist slang for highly-rated work – ‘raises some very important messages about re-imaging'. This is the practice of amending murals or slogans that have come to hold a great deal of meaning. According to Walsh, the process is a delicate one.

‘People here are very sensitive about their own political past and there’s a danger with the whole re-imaging programme – run by various organisations, with a lot of money being put forward for it – that you are kind of wiping out people’s identities.’

In Walsh's estimation, that is something worth studying further because, as with everything else in Northern Ireland, history plays a significant role in all types of graffiti.

‘What is the past? People are talking about the past, we’ve become fixated on the idea but we forget that it’s not just the last 40 years. Your past goes back hundreds of years. It’s trying to connect not just with the politics, which has been forced on us, but with the whole idea of your history and culture.’

Re-imaging, suggests Walsh, should not be solely driven by a desire for expeditious gentrification. In areas where urban art is, perhaps, less than welcoming, the community must buy into the concept of it being overhauled. As the documentary attempts to bear out, this ‘graffiti revolution’ has a sizeable associated role to play.

That being said, Walsh is keen to emphasis the fact that the Northern Ireland’s peculiar divide is not at the centre of her film. ‘It isn’t a Catholic-Protestant film at all.’ Instead, the relationship between graffiti and communal spirit is what occupies her: ‘If you see it on the walls, does that reflect the views of the people living in that area?’

While the University of Ulster’s Professor Bill Rolston, an expert on murals, was drafted in to provide the production with his knowledge of the region’s long association with politically-tinged al fresco artistry, it is Walsh’s opinion that the Community Relations Council’s attention has been drawn, ultimately, to the underlying theme of generational inheritance and rebirth into a post-conflict society.

‘They probably took a huge gamble on us because this is our first ever film commission. I think they just loved the idea, loved the fact that it was so focused on young people, on telling the new story of Northern Ireland.’

Walsh suggests that there is a great deal of grassroots work ongoing to heal old divisions and, in many respects, Together in Pieces simply captures one aspect of the overall movement to drag us beyond the hobbling disputes of another era.

Redirecting the artistic urges of certain disaffected youths, from petty criminal damage to legacies which are more lasting, was something which the filmmakers found especially fascinating.

‘It was film that needed to be made,’ says Walsh. ‘There is unbelievable work being done on the ground. There are little things you don’t notice, like graffiti going up and being painted out. It is there, all the time.’

The project, however, is definitely not about censorship. Individuals still feel the need to express themselves through the medium of graffiti, regardless of its quality, and, as Walsh points out, there exists a ‘need to engage with them, to see why'.

Such interaction is key, she believes, and the greater the communication, the quicker the progress. As with many other things, understanding urban art and pushing it down a new path requires understanding, consent. Walsh’s conclusion is simply put: ’Often, when you give back to people control of their own communities, that’s when you really get ownership.’

Together in Pieces screens at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Belfast at 7pm on June 19, followed by Q&A session. Attendance is free. Community Relations Week runs in venues across Northern Ireland until June 22.