The ‘troubles’ – as they are so quaintly called – may be officially
over, but sectarian violence and apartheid still seeps into day-to-day
life in Belfast. My hotel had 2 bouncers on the door as dusk fell,
and when I asked them why they were there, they told me that ‘shit rolls down hill’ and nodded up the road to the outskirts of town. Basically like most soldiers, they were a there as a deterrent, and to make the place look safer, as the city-centre of Belfast is dead after dark as a result of a curfew that was only lifted a few years ago. There is evidence of much regeneration money being channelled into the city, and there is already a new shopping mall and ‘entertainment’ complex,
but this isn’t what Belfast needs. What the place needs are projects like Asbestos Boxing Club. I had travelled up from Dublin with the Irish street artist Asbestos, who was in town to create an exhibition of portraits of the amateur boxers of the Ligoniel Boxing Club. The project struck me as breath of originality in the increasingly stale world of street art and Asbestos has his own technique – no one out there does what he does and this is another thing that attracted me. When he rocks up you know that it’s gonna be more than the usual bullshit… I had been asked along as a witness to a unique event, one that could only come out of original thinking.
The guy who runs the gallery was our driver and guide and he
took us to all the ‘hot spots’ – the Falls road; the Shankhill road –
where we looked at the legendary murals of Bobby Sands and the Queen Mother and read the words UFF and RIRA daubed on the walls. The sectarian violence has turned into organized crime, as money is now the new religion. The new gods are powerful indeed…
So I hung out with Asbestos as he took photos of the boxers, as we went looking for stuff on which to create the art (in skips, on the street) and then he began to create the art. You can see watch the film I shot for more action or details and peep the pictures of his work on his site, but one thing is clear: Asbestos’ art is fresh-to-death and it was a wonderful community-minded project that will be talked about for a long time to come. This is what street art needs – substance and heart. And I am proud, for once, to be a part of it.
What was the idea behind the Belfast project?
I’ve always been facinated by boxing and the people around the sport.
So when the gallery in Belfast said they knew a boxing club in
Ligoniel, I jumped at the chance to go and meet the boxers. I went up
to meet them before the show to take portraits of the boxers and their
trainers. The club is situated in a pretty rough area of Belfast
that’s seen its fair share of violence over the last 30 years.
The locals set up the club to give the kids in the area something to do
and to teach them a bit of discipline and respect. A boxing club can
be an intimidating place at the best of times, but walking into one in
Belfast has that extra element of tension. I shouldn’t have worried as
the character and the banter in the club was refreshingly welcome and
each of the boxers were more than hapy to pose. Boxers are, by their
nature, performers and as much as it’s about pulverising your
opponent, it’s also about broadcasting the fact that you can. One of
the trainers, Sean, who’s incharge of the whole affair, let me in on
mentality of a good boxer. He summised that it’s got as much to do
with heart as brawn and that if you’ve not got that dogged self
belief, you’re finished before you get in the ring. After leaving the
club we scouted around belfast for old wood and metal that I could
paint on, flotsam that we could find in the skips, that was discarded
but not useless.
What was the city like?
Belfast is a pretty grey place that has a very strange vibe, they’re a battle harden population after 30 years of tearing 70 shades of shit out of each other, and they have quite a hard and unforgiving sense of humour. But from the day we arrived everyone helped the three of us big time. Adz, Jor and myself were ensconsed in the gallery for the week preceeding the show, only venturing out to find the odd bit of fast food and sleep. The people who were helping us from the gallery and the boxing club were really eager to be uber positive about Belfast and were very proud of where they came from. They seem relieved that they’ve survied the last 30 years and wanted to show all the positive things that are surviving and prospering like the young boxers of Ligoniel.
What did you discover about the residents of Belfast?
That they’re determined to get over their past, but not to forget it.
There may not be the same level of violence, but there’s still an air
of menace when you go into different religious enclaves. That said
they’re up for haiving a laugh and are determined to make the city
more than a tourist attraction around the troubles.
How did your work benefit form the project?
The intesity of the process was really rewarding. Having to turn the
show around in a short time was great fun, all the late nights and
early mornings were wonderful as I was living and breathing the show
and I couldn’t get enough of it. The opening night was great fun
because all the boxers were so pleased to see their portraits. It was
very humbling to paint their portraits and to show their personalities and the humanity behind the gloves.These guys give so much of their time for free that it was great to put them as the focus and the stars of the project. It made me realise that my art is about connection and creating a bond between me and the subject of the painting.Wtihout these great characters my work would lack depth and getting to know them in some small way made the resulting works better in my mind.
Adam ‘King Adz’ Stone