It would be hard not to have seen the work of Glen Molloy cropping up over the city recently, with a range of paintings including a portrait of Carl Frampton and a much talked about homage to the late George Michael. Bringing more than just a fresh lick of paint to deprived areas, Glen is on a mission to bring to the surface the under-represented communities of Belfast. Glen speaks to CultureHUB Magazine about what inspires and motivates him and of course, about just how he feels about being branded the ‘Belfast Banksy’.
When did your interest in graffiti art begin?
The area I grew up in, Bloomfield, East Belfast, didn’t have any political paintings on the walls and from what I can remember it was a series of super hero paintings on the lower Ormeau Road that had really inspired me as a child. I had seen them on the news and my parents took me over late one Friday evening to drive by them and it totally just blew my mind – gable walls top to bottom in full colour! Something positive in the midst of such negative times, this really was something special for me. It wasn’t until my later teens when I started to travel across the city that I really started noticing the political paintings. To be completely honest, it was always the notoriously bad standard of the Loyalist paintings that drew my attention to them. Therefore, I never focused on the message; it was always just the standard of the artwork, which gained my interest; mostly as it used to annoy me.
How would you describe conceptually what you do? Where do you get the ideas for your pieces?
It really just depends on what is going on around me at the time. It can be the beauty and pain of everyday life. They are essentially paintings to do with struggle, pain and neglect and are intentionally thought-provoking images. I spend a lot of time researching with endless hours spent trawling through, what sometimes seems like, thousands of images looking for that special something that will make a good painting. The locations play a big part in the idea process and what I feel will stand out and make an impact, so it’s usually the location that starts the ball rolling with regards to the thought process. I would never just turn up to a wall without an exact plan.
There’s a fine line to what I am doing; which is waking people up. The flip side of things are that I’m trying to paint things on the wall that are positive or should be addressed; I don’t want to paint controversial stuff. My art is to hopefully be enjoyed; I’m not trying to make a statement about myself with the art. It’s almost as if there are different communities on the street. You have the people during the day, then you have the revellers and you have the people that live on the street, then you have me who is painting on the street. So, I could take what I am doing and just glorify it all for myself and be pretentious, obnoxious even; but it’s not about that. At the end of the day I want to paint on the street. I want to paint in loyalist areas, in nationalist, republican, city centre, wherever; I just want to continue what I’m doing.
What is it like to be changing the image of Belfast towards one of positivity?
For me, I am truly blessed to be part of this new wave of street art that some parts of the city are now embracing with open arms. That said; the reality is it still has a long way to go. The city centre, where most of the paintings are now appearing never had political murals in the first place. I honestly feel that the art has more value and potential for impact if it is taken out of the back streets and car parks, and painted in the actual areas that will benefit the most from positive images on the walls.
I travel across the city daily, looking for new sites to paint and from what I see in the housing estates nothing has changed. In fact, in some places it has become much worse, with fresh political murals appearing regularly. This is what needs to change, and I hope that with my paintings I can help. We (graffiti artists) have the great gift of freedom of not having to fit into the mainframe of what is going on around us,we just find a wall and paint it.
The media branded you the ‘Belfast Banksy’ – how do you feel about that?
At the start – I was unemployed, so it was good to have something positive like that. I was trying to better myself; but the reaction wasn’t good. For a lot of people, it really got on their nerves; at the same time, if it had of been any of them, they’d literally have been walking round with a ‘I’m the Belfast Banksy’ T-shirt on…, but you know Banksy isn’t doing anything that nobody else has ever done; as in graffiti and street art. He’s prolific and has parallelism; but that’s the way that the culture is. Street artists are trying to create the best quality or the most thought provoking work of art that they can; that’s what I was trying to do. Although I’ve been dogged that name, there were elements of Banksy I suppose; as in I was doing these anonymous artworks and nobody knew who I was.
How do you deal with negative reactions to your work? For example, your George Michael piece?
The negative reaction to the painting wasn’t directly regarding George’s sexuality and my work was definitely not a political statement. The negative reaction was more of an attack on my own personal Christian beliefs and why I was painting a gay icon. At the time when George died a lot of people were truly gutted, including myself, and so the work was to show love in its purest form; a tribute from the heart to one of the most talented, kind and charitable individuals whose music had touched so many people’s lives. It was painted without prejudice with the aim of being received that way.
It’s clear that not all the street artists are working together on initiative projects here.
I would have liked to have met other people that were painting; but at the end of the day, it seems that most of the people have given me the cold shoulder. Street art is essentially made up of people that are coming from deprived or marginalised social backgrounds. They are coming from council estates, or they are coming from a history of illegal graffiti; hip-hop inspired, painting trains, and tags etc. So, in essence I have what you would personify as a traditional street artist, coming from obscurity, working under anonymity and basically being non-funded. Most of the prolific street artists were graffiti artists first and foremost. I paint mostly at night-time. All these elements running concurrently: very poor quality lighting, in the middle of the night, by myself and people manage to criticise this.
Is modern day graffiti losing some of it’s authenticity?
Graffiti – street art in its purist form is done under the cover of darkness, not funded by community or the arts council or anything like that. There is a difference; climbing over a fence, trespassing and criminal damage – I’ve done all those things. When I started doing this, it was illegal, but it has now turned into a career. Ten years ago, people were calling this vandalism. Fifteen to twenty years ago – people just didn’t understand it at all. Those people that are now thinking it’s ‘cool’, were saying ten years ago that it was vandalism; they are now there sitting – thinking they are critics on it. Unless you have stood in the middle of the night, negotiating with the above-mentioned factors that could result in you being arrested, you don’t have the right to comment on what I’m doing. It’s not just about the art, there is an amount of organisation that goes into it. Regardless of where you are working, you’ve got to make sure the area is safe – like who is there to protect you? Belfast can be a very dangerous city, no matter where you are. You could be in a very affluent area and it’s still dangerous. There are many factors that I have to take into consideration; the last thing on my mind is essentially what I’m going to be painting.
You do a crap piece of street art and it can be something controversial, it can be gory, and something that is in really bad taste. And then it’s all this, ‘oh that’s fantastic… I can see what you are doing’. The reality of it is, that someone can do the most finely executed, freshest, technical and imaginative piece of graffiti, it can be absolutely fantastic, but it can be deemed as vandalism because it goes into libel, just because of its context. With graffiti, you have to adapt to your own alias, because if you write your own name, you are going to get into trouble. You have to develop an alias, it’s a stamp, it’s a brand and it’s an identity. My identity doesn’t have to be eligible to 99.9% of the public; I’m not writing for the general public – I’m writing for other graffiti artists; I’m writing for the opposition. It is saying ‘my stuff is more technical than yours. I can put them in higher risk places. I can do it bigger. I can do it bolder’.
So you can’t just go and spray over the top of someone else’s artwork? Is graffiti somewhat a war of egos?
It’s quite aggressive, because it is graffiti in its purist form and it’s illegal. Once something becomes illegal, it then falls into its own subculture, and then falls into its own codes. These people try to claim these codes but they don’t respect them. There are rules, there are basic steps; you know ‘this goes over the top of this’.
In this publication we have a report addressing a very serious topic regarding heroin addiction in Belfast, would you find by working on the streets that you identify with this issue?
It influenced me enough, to paint a heroin mural depicting a half human half skull. It was my response to my negative perception to somebody’s addiction.
I’m on the streets and they know me, I could name you five or six of them. They would come and speak to me, tell me what their story is; I know what they are from and what they are experiencing. I know that the homeless situation is now intertwined with the heroin epidemic. My art is on the street, and these people are on the street. I could sit back and ignore them, the way everybody else does or I can raise awareness.
There are projects getting pushed in the city centre that are nowhere near as important as the people that are on the street, the people with nowhere to live, people with heroin addiction. So, the reality is, if people are shooting up around Belfast in broad daylight, in the city centre, that’s more important. It’s more important than any other issue that people seem to get their bee in a bonnet about. Addiction/heroin doesn’t discriminate, it’s been here for years; it’s just the addicts weren’t allowed to come onto the streets. You couldn’t get it on the streets – you had to go off the street to get it and it’s not like that now. The point also being, that some of these people on the streets aren’t actually homeless, they have a home but they just can’t function in that home.
FINAL CONCLUSION: CURRENT WORK (IE DUBLIN…), FUTURE PLANS
I’m just going with the flow. Much of my work really has taken its own direction. I am very fortunate with the amount of coverage my artwork has been receiving. I am very humbled and truly thankful. So, in terms of the future, the sky is the limit really. It’s about making your mark. People say, ‘make your mark in society’; graffiti is about ‘making your mark on society’.