Art Available to All

Francis Jones on Urban Eyes, the 2006 festival making street art accessible

Art, a small word, but, for many, a rather daunting one. Think of art and invariably the mind conjures images of irrelevant pastoral scenes, of dreary watercolours or, more terrifyingly, of abstract and indecipherable images.

Be they dull or strange, these artefacts populate museums and galleries -discouraging domains policed by sinister curators and frequented by the ‘tweed jacket brigade’.

Well no more. The Urban Eyes festival aims to make art accessible, to return it to the people. Led by Helen McDonnell (Skullduggery Tatu) and Donal Kelly (Belfast City Skinworks) the festival will act as a showcase for urban and street art forms, from tattoo art and puppetry to graffitti and recycled art.

Misunderstood, and often marginalised, art forms will be given centre stage in a wide range of events, including workshops, seminars and public viewings, in venues including the Catalyst Arts Gallery, the Waterfront Hall and, in keeping with the ethos of bringing art to the people, on wall spaces throughout the city.

A truly international roster of artists including the celebrated Mexican tattoo artist Dr Lakra and Italian Street artist Blu will be amongst those taking part. Urban Eyes sounds like the perfect livener, a vibrant, invigorating stimulus, readymade to quell those art inhibitions and encourage everyone to get involved.

It seems that one of the key aims of this festival is to show that art comes in many guises and that it is accessible to everyone.

Kelly: ‘Accessibility is definitely one of the most important factors with Urban Eyes. We want people to feel that this is something they can embrace and be part of.

'That’s why it’s free and why we’re trying to make it as visible around the city as possible.

'You’ll see this festival on the walls and buildings around you and that shows that art isn’t just something that is kept in museums or galleries, looked after by precious curators.’

More snobbish elements in the art world, if they even recognise it as art at all, would view the type of work promoted by Urban Eyes as being, at best, secondary art forms.

McDonnell: ‘It’s unfortunate to encounter such short-sightedness and yes, there are people who view these art forms as somehow less valuable than traditional mediums. Graffitti art, for example, is still viewed by many as mere vandalism.

'I think society is becoming a little more enlightened, especially compared to how it used to be. Graffitti art and tattoo art are definitely more in the public arena than they’ve ever been, you only have to look at the number of books published on them for evidence of that.’

Jane Anderson (Catalyst Arts Gallery): ‘The boundaries are becoming blurred, the differences between say graffitti art and contemporary art are, in many instances, slight.’

Tattoo art particularly has suffered from artistic snobbery.

Kelly: ‘Tattooists have found it difficult to find acceptance, to get their work exhibited in art galleries. Of course, in the main, they haven’t come from a traditional art background. However, that shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss their work.

'Urban Eyes gives them the opportunity to show that they don’t just work on skin, that the medium changes, be it canvas or sculpture. Urban Eyes can provide the environment for them to display the breadth and diversity of their work.’

Urban Eyes was inspired by similar ventures in other parts of the world; Urban Edge in Italy, Mocca Art Festival in Canada and the Beautiful Losers travelling art show. What was it about those that you wanted to capture and replicate with Urban Eyes?

McDonnell: ‘There’s a sense of humour to those projects which makes them so distinctive. Also it’s about the artists being willing to work together and to combine their talents. With Urban Edge their were 45 artists from around the world, working together for about a week.

'There was a really good atmosphere, an environment in which the artists could grow. And it’s about getting rid of the elitism in art, saying that you shouldn’t be intimidated just because you haven’t gone to Art College.’

Do you feel that the resistance to these urban art forms is slowly being eroded? Tattoo and graffitti art seems to be impinging on the mainstream and on wider culture.

Kelly: ‘Well the mainstream has always been able to pick and choose what they want from subcultures and incorporate that into their own view of the world. What we’re doing is taking the mainstream idea of the art gallery as this sanctified arena for art and adopting it as the home of urban arts.’

Is there the possibility that by invading the mainstream you are removing some of the mystique that is so intrinsic to these art forms, that it is the taboo element that makes them so appealing?

Kelly: ‘If the result of bringing these art forms into the mainstream is better art then that has got to be a good thing. It benefits nobody by keeping the type of work we do in the shadows.

In that respect tattoo art, like graffitti art, will always remain alternative or taboo. Whether people like this art or not, what is most important is that they respect the technique and artistry that is involved.’

Will the public be able to watch the actual process of creating this art, the technique involved?

Benjy De Burca (Catalyst Art Gallery): ‘Yes, people will be working in the gallery and so the public will have the opportunity to actually see how things are done. By doing so we hope to dispel a few myths. For example, to show that graffitti art is not vandalism.

'It is a completely valid art form, that takes a lot of knowledge and skill to make. To see the artist in a working environment is not a common thing, you can’t go into a gallery and see that.’

McDonnell: ‘I think that’s one of the reasons that this is such an exciting project for Catalyst Arts to be involved in. Not only is Urban Eyes promoting these art forms, but the fact that you’ll actually be able to see the artists in the gallery working.

Given the nature of the festival, would it be accurate to say that Urban Eyes is focused primarily on young people?

McDonnell: ‘Actually I’d say it’s quite across the board, not only is there graffitti and tattoo art, there is photography and a variety of creative art forms, it’s very varied, so we’d hope to attract a broad cross-section of people.’

Kelly: ‘This festival will be of interest to anyone who feels they’re part of the urban lifestyle. As Belfast and Northern Ireland continue to change and diversify that’s an ever-widening spectrum of individuals.’

Urban Eyes is self-funded, with admission to all events entirely free, clearly profit is not on the agenda. What do you hope to achieve with this project?

De Burca: ‘To see people inspired to go out and do something for themselves. To help them realise that there no barriers to artistic expression, that the only pre-requisite is that you have a true passion for what you want to do.

Do you think that Belfast is ready for a festival of this kind?

De Burca: Certainly, in fact this project couldn’t be timelier. It appeals because of the ongoing change in the image of Belfast as a modern city. Ok, so there may be people now who don’t quite appreciate what we’re doing, but give it five years and you can be sure that they’ll have realised this is a way of selling the new Belfast.

'I think that the perception of a city is intrinsically linked to the images it produces. Urban Eyes is something that might just kick-start a new way of looking at Belfast.’

For further information contact Edwin McFee
Tel:   07759168955