Artists create symbols of hope on Derry's walls

By Owen Thomas

  • Published
Donal O'Doherty teaching a girl how to spraypaint
Image caption,
Donal O'Doherty of UV Arts teaches young people in Derry how to spraypaint

Two talented artists are bringing a new message of hope to Londonderry's walls.

Donal O'Doherty and Karl Porter create eye-catching murals and in the process help young people to cross political divides.

Their group UV Arts lays claim to spaces that might be otherwise be used for sectarian or paramilitary slogans.

Among their work is the Derry Girls painting, which depicts the stars of the hit Channel 4 comedy.

Murals in Northern Ireland are often symbols of dark days, depicting episodes from the Troubles.

Donal and Karl were inspired by Derry's Bogside murals, which chronicled the city's experiences through the conflict.

Image caption,
UV Arts tell "very different stories" with murals, according to Karl Porter

However, their view of the hard-hitting history on the walls has changed as they've grown up.

"Whether graffiti says somebody is going to get shot or a drug dealer has been identified, there's nobody actively standing up and saying: 'I'm going to get rid of political slogans'," says Donal.

"So what we try to do is indirectly take that space back and give it to kids.

"It's a lot harder for those political groups who had originally scrawled on the wall to do it again because it's their sons and daughters."

Media caption,
'We grew up in areas of flags and colour associations'

In the areas where Donal and Karl grew up, even now the colour of flags and kerbstones determines who is welcome where, but they hope their artwork will transcend that.

"Half the kids we work with aren't religious - they just associate with their parents' background and the community around them but we're trying to offer something outside of this," says Karl.

"We need to support them in taking back their own space, rather than allowing young people to become a victim to what is essentially billboards for paramilitary recruitment."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
A message of condolence was added to the Free Derry mural after Lyra McKee's murder

There was a grim reminder of the city's past when 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was murdered in the city last month.

Amid a wave of revulsion, people voiced their outrage by painting peace slogans on walls and altering dissident republican murals.

'Different stories'

Donal and Karl deny that they are taking away from the traditional theme of remembrance in Derry's murals - particularly the legacy left by the Bogside artists.

Karl says: "For the Bogside artists, it was a significant point in the past because they were there during those dark days and wanted to recreate the story of what happened, so of course that's inspired me.

"I thought it was class having these big giant pieces of artwork in town but the subject matter itself is different.

He says time has "moved on" and "we tell very different stories".

"We're a new wave of artists with a different upbringing and we understand our privilege of being able to be more adventurous."

Image caption,
The 12 Bogside murals are located in Rossville Street in Derry

Donal and Karl believe that seeing Troubles art on gable walls still carries subliminal messages.

Karl says: "It desensitises you of the subject matter because it's still there and people see it every day."

Showing Derry in a different light

UV Arts was known locally but now has a worldwide following after that Derry Girls mural which went viral.

According to Karl, that was a chance to "change people's mindsets about murals".

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"Locals think about what relationship they've had with them in the past and how a piece like this, in contrast, can create new opportunities."

The art echoed a surge in positivity for Derry off the back of the TV programme and raised hopes of an increase in tourism.

Charlene McCrossan, who runs City Tours in Derry, has already seen the positive impact of the mural.

"When visitors see the mural it's instantly recognisable," she says.

"It's something that's put Derry on the map - finally for a good reason."

Looking ahead

UV Arts is hoping to attract funding to help create a street art festival and arts hub.

Image caption,
UV Arts and young people from Derry recently completed a mural in St Columb's Park

Donal says: "The support from the people of Derry is amazing but it would be nice to have financial support too.

"We have a unique tradition of mural arts in Northern Ireland - one of the oldest in the world - and we need to keep it.

"But it can't remain territorial.

"We're constantly looking back and we can get dragged down by the past, so we'll continue to try and bring this tradition into what is now a warm and welcoming modern society."