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The Removal of Teenage Kicks Tribute Graffiti in Northern Ireland Highlights Cultural Ignorance

22/06/2013 20:52 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 10:12 BST

The faded words 'Teenage dreams, so hard to beat' will soon be gone completely. The tribute to John Peel that was spray-painted onto a busy motorway flyover in Belfast City Centre after his death nine years ago has recently been whitewashed as part of a "£300,000 public realm improvement scheme". The lyric - taken from the famous Undertones song 'Teenage Kicks' - was a particular favourite of Peels, and indeed they are the lyrics he chose to have engrained onto his tombstone. You don't need to be a poet, writer or a musician to understand the romanticism behind the mural, and the significance that it holds (well, held) to many within Northern Ireland that do not wish to be part of the simplistic 'community divides' of Protestant vs Catholic. The message behind a tribute of this nature was nothing more than the remembrance of a man that helped promote the music scene in Northern Ireland, while also promoting the fact that music, arts and culture has always been present, even when hidden behind peace walls.

The decision to re-paint over the slogan has been met with outrage from a number of local figures, including Terri Hooley (who recorded Teenage Kicks) and Michael Bradley (bass player from The Undertones) as well as musician Duke Special who expressed his disappointment in the decision by stating "the one slogan that makes you smile as you are entering East Belfast and they paint over it".

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland is in a state of change, but it is what it is transforming into that we should be concerned about. The tectonic plates are shifting, but we do not yet know if they will go left or right. While words such as 'progress' and 'regeneration' are usually positive, we should retain the ability to criticise decisions made under the radar, such as this one to remove what some perceived to be a cultural landmark. Others seen the scrawled words as mere graffiti, devoid of purpose or meaning. However, many have since commented that this piece of graffiti was non sectarian, and especially tame when compared to some of the more famous Northern Ireland murals on public display.

Let me provide some examples of other Belfast murals and you, dear reader, can judge for yourself which are deemed in need of 'regeneration'. Walk down a street in Belfast and you may be greeted with the words 'Prepared for Peace, Ready For War' accompanied by some lovely men brandishing guns and with their faces covered by black balaclavas. Walk down another street and you can read the slogan 'Ulster Freedom Fighters', painted alongside a man with a skull for a face holding an assault rifle. Take a stroll around the corner and see a slogan that is worthy of Orwellian status: 'Oppression Breeds Resistance, Resistance Brings Freedom'.

These days however, these are less political statement and more tourist attraction, a fact seemingly known and endorsed by some high ranking politicians. You can now organise bus tours to show off these relics from the past, and I suppose it's all good business. However, it raises the point that what is good for tourism may not necessarily be good for the people of Northern Ireland. When the government (the Department of Social Development to be exact) chose to paint over the slogan 'Teenage Dreams, so hard to beat' but leave the tourist friendly images of men with guns alone, questions need to be raised about the actual direction we are willing to take the country.

It may seem melodramatic to place so much significance onto a piece of graffiti. As I type the words, I am well aware of the hypocrisy that will be placed on anyone that condemns the removal of the John Peel tribute on cultural grounds. The term 'cultural erosion' is fresh in the minds of the Northern Irish population as it is the main reason that was provided as justification for the recent violent protests by a large percentage of loyalists, after the Union Flag was removed from its permanent position at Belfast City Hall. I would like to take the opportunity to change the term, if I can be granted that wish. The removal of the Teenage Kicks lyrics does not highlight an agenda of the Northern Irish government to erode the culture of its people, instead, it shows a staggering display of cultural ignorance.

In a post G8 haze, from the mist of conflict, Northern Ireland is born again. The country now less resembles a war zone and more an idealistic retreat. If you are to believe the endorsements from David Cameron and President Obama we are a nation that has become a "blueprint for peace". Indeed, it was Prime Minister Cameron that stated Northern Ireland had "put on its best face" for the recent G8 Summit in Fermanagh, which can be perceived as a strange, backhanded complement of sorts. I'll take it, it's more than we got from Putin anyway.

It is only in light of the removal of harmless - but good natured - tribute graffiti that we can reflect on the significance of the lyrics. Teenage dreams may be hard to beat, but they are not hard to cover up. All it takes is two coats of white paint and the promise of progress.

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