BEIRUT: As the graffiti scene in Lebanon grows and diversifies it is becoming gradually more mainstream and commercialized. Last autumn’s widely publicized “White Wall” exhibition at the Beirut Art Center brought street art off the streets and into a gallery setting, while the third edition of the Beirut Art Fair last summer included live graffiti performances on a four-meter wall set up in front of the BIEL venue.
Artists are also starting to sustain their street art by making it pay its own way. Yazan Halwani’s exhibition “Republic of Bananas” – on show at 392Rmeil939 until the end of the month – provides interested collectors with the chance to purchase a slice of graffiti on canvas, while an increasing number of restaurants, bars and clubs – and even private homeowners – have begun commissioning artists to spray their walls with gritty, “urban” works of art.
Getting in on the act, The G?rten – überhaus’ summer pop-up nightclub situated in BIEL – has organized a series of live performances by the best-known local talents, inviting one graffiti artist each Saturday night to create a piece of artwork live in front of a sea of partygoers.
“Graffiti is usually associated with hip hop,” explains überhaus ambassador Dima Alami, who came up with the idea, “but it’s also an urban element and a street culture, and what we do as a club is quite underground, we’re not very commercial. These kids work on the streets and no one really knows who they are ... so we wanted to kind of give them a space to express themselves and to interact with a different kind of crowd and to be exposed to a different kind of crowd.
“At the end of a day graffiti is art but so is music,” she adds. “A DJ putting a set together is also art and the whole überhaus crew is really into the arts. We’re all kind of artsy ... so I think that’s why everyone pretty much agreed ‘We all love graffiti, let’s do it.’”
Alami selected the artists herself, after familiarizing herself with the local scene.
“The concept didn’t really develop until I started meeting with them,” she says. “I had seen a lot of their work around town for a long time, and some names I recognized from 10 years ago, so I started researching online – Facebook and so on. I did quite extensive research and I found who are the top artists, the best known. ... You can tell from the quality of their work.
“Personally I am an artist,” she continues, “so I can tell the difference in what’s good or bad and what’s clear or not, so that’s how we found them. ... I had a list of 15 names and any time I’d meet or speak to anyone I’d ask them ‘Who do you think I should bring in?’ and they’ve give me the same names.”
The artists are given space to work by the garden section of the outdoor club, a lawn scattered with comfortable bean bag chairs.
“Usually the area where the beanbags are is packed,” says Alami. “You can never find a seat. People are just sitting watching the artists [and] a lot of people are going up to talk to them, maybe ask about their painting techniques. ... A lot of these people have seen graffiti on the streets, but they’ve never seen it being made or painted. So I think it’s somehow a bit educational, and the artists are enjoying it.”
In exchange for agreeing to appear at The G?rten, the artists are rewarded with the opportunity to exhibit work for sale, keeping any profits they make. The überhaus team provides them with free materials and encourages them to relax and let their creative juices flow.
“They’re free to do whatever they want,’ Alami says. “Sometimes we see some of the artists are dancing as they work, some of them are working barefoot, so it’s cute.”
To date seven artists have made an appearance, including the prolific Phat 2 and Physh, and before the club relocates to its Hamra location for winter it has scheduled six more, among them Yazan Halwani and the three-man P+G Crew, who will perform in two sets, Zed working on a solo piece one weekend, followed by Oras and Horek working in tandem the weekend after.
Although the nature of street art, often classed as vandalism by the state, means that artists are used to working quickly and inconspicuously, hiding their true identity behind a tagged pseudonym, Alami says that the artists she approached had no qualms about appearing in such a public venue.
“I was surprised,” she admits, “because I thought that some of them might mind. ... Here in Lebanon you do have the law but it’s not enforced – this is why it’s a kind of heaven for graffiti artists here. ... I don’t think they care, because the cops, the government, is not going to come after them. They’re actually beautifying the city in my opinion. They’re doing a really good job, because it’s concrete – it’s gray, it’s ugly, and they’re making it colorful and beautiful.”
The live graffiti sessions will continue at The G?rten every Saturday until mid-October. For more information see www.facebook.com/uberhausclub.