Ali Rafei’s message and street aesthetic

BEIRUT: The arteries of Lebanon are filled with graffiti and street art. Before it earned the respect and international recognition conferred by the art market, this art form was – and in many circles still is – considered to be vandalism. Street art, in the words of Lebanese street artist Ali Rafei, “invaded private and public property.”

Like Yazan, Phat2, Zepha or Ashekman, Rafei is a recognized member of the country’s street art scene. Most of his work can be seen in the Ras Beirut neighborhood, and in the northern city of Tripoli.

He first began leaving his mark on urban fabric in 2010. Then in 2012 Rafei decided to enroll in the University of Leeds’s MA program in advertising. He performed many maneuvers to stay in the U.K. but that didn’t work out. He’s been back in Lebanon since the beginning of the year.

Rafei’s street art veers from freehand portraiture to Arabic calligraphy to stencil work.

His most-recent stencil art can be seen off Hamra, on Abdel Aziz Street. It portrays a man in a suit holding a balloon on which is written “Ana” (“Me” in Arabic). Next to the adult a child is straining to pop his balloon.

As Rafei explained, this work is a reflection on egoism. “I did it in a risky place,” he said. “There is a message and I wanted it to be exposed. I didn’t want it to be hidden.”

This piece captured the attention of a nearby security guard, who kept asking Rafei and his friend what the point of the gesture was and why they were doing it. He even asked, Rafei laughed in recollection, whether they were running in the elections.

One of his great sources of inspiration, Rafei further explained, is the mysterious U.K. street artist Banksy – whose own stencil work has become so prized that art merchants are buying up slabs of concrete walls, his media, and put them up on auction.

Banksy’s works, he said, were a “positive shock.”

Many of Rafei’s text-based works have the quality of calligraphy. The artist has pushed the calligraphic concept a bit further by creating proper fonts for his work. He acknowledges the influence of kufi and diwani fonts, but says, overall “the things [he] actually writes are his own fonts,” the content usually being quotes from books he’s read and philosophers he likes.

Rafei expects his works will see an evolution, as he has in mind to use the calligraphy as tattoos on his figures’ skins. He wants to add even more perspective to his art.

He collaborated with several local street artists, including Zepha, whose work can be seen under the bridge leading to Ashrafieh’s ABC Mall.

Those meandering through Hamra may fall upon an anthropomorphized walrus, wearing a bright yellow vest and green trousers, and flip-flops. Elsewhere, they might encounter his rendering of a woman, whose legs are opened to reveal the logo of the Tourism Ministry concealed in her genital parts.

Once upon a time, on Hamra Street proper, a piece depicted a police officer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Love Corruption.” It has since been erased, suggesting that – though street art, and audience appreciation of it, has evolved somewhat – it retains a fondness for criticizing society.

Rafei tries to integrate his works as much as possible in the urban landscape. Depictions of eyes covering a set of shop shutters, or an old man’s face merging with another shop’s windows, demonstrate how Rafei makes formal use of what the streets offer him. The walls are his canvases.

Like Yazan – who had several of his works erased or damaged – Rafei’s works have also fallen victim to the narrow-mindedness of some persons.

Rafei is not alone in the street art community in feeling that popular opinion on the form has changed over the past few years. What used to be considered simple tags, made by vandals, are now perceived to be “a form of art that is delivering messages,” the artist observed. “If people see a beautiful drawing on the street, why wouldn’t they respect it?

“Michelangelo drew in the Sistine Chapel and it was on a wall. If you can respect that why can’t you respect a drawing that has equal beauty?”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2014, on page 16.




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