Paint the town: exploring the new arts scene in Derry

For years, Derry’s art scene was defined by the Bogside murals, famous for their depictions of The Troubles. But now a new, creative vibe is sweeping the city, ushering in a fresh array of murals, festivals and attractions.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 27 Mar 2020, 09:30 GMT, Updated 7 Apr 2021, 21:03 BST
Mural of the hit Channel 4 series Derry Girls, painted on the wall of Badger’s Bar, ...

Mural of the hit Channel 4 series Derry Girls, painted on the wall of Badger’s Bar, Orchard Street, by artists Ray Bonner, Dave O'Hara and Karl Porter. 

Photograph by Tourism Ireland

I’m staring at a giant mural of a boy in a gas mask holding a petrol bomb. He appears to stare back. Painted onto the gable end of a house on Rossville Street, The Petrol Bomber is one of a dozen murals in what’s known as ‘the People’s Gallery’ in Derry’s Bogside. Around me, local residents go about their lives as tourists photograph their homes. 

I’m torn. The murals bring visitors, but they feel divisive in 21st-century Derry. The Bogside Artists — the men who created the gallery — don’t align themselves with any political group, but their portrayals of events like Bloody Sunday are jolting. Do they keep community history alive, or old wounds open? Should Derry have new poster boys? 

One thing’s for sure: while the murals remain, the city around them is changing. In the past decade, it has had a stint as UK Capital of Culture; welcomed the new Peace Bridge; and seen carnivals like Derry Halloween go from strength to strength. Walking around, you’ll see recent arrivals like Bishop’s Gate Hotel, the Walled City Brewery and a new mural — a joyful, cheeky celebration of Derry Girls on Orchard Street.

“That’s the most photographed thing in the whole city!” laughs Karl Porter, one of the artists behind the mural. Karl is the managing director of UV Arts, a street art social enterprise in the city. The piece is testament to the Channel 4 comedy that transformed perceptions of a place locals call Stroke City (as in, Derry-stroke-Londonderry).

“We’re not taking away from political art,” Karl tells me. “We want to remember the past, but we also want to move on.” UV Arts does that by helping young people and disenfranchised groups to cross political divides by painting in places that feel mired in political or social baggage. “It’s about changing perceptions of space, educating people about the use of space and showing how a bit of colour can go a long way to revitalising something,” he says.

“There’s a lot going on that tourists don’t tend to see,” says Mary Cremin, director of contemporary art space Void. She describes Derry as a place people are moving back to, somewhere smaller and more affordable than Dublin or Belfast. “It’s kind of coming into its own now,” she says. “We’re very interested in making new histories around contemporary Derry — what is it now, rather than constantly looking to the past.”

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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