BEIRUT: Deciding that Lebanese people rarely pay attention to the lyrics of hip-hop songs, Yazan Halwani decided to use another medium to spread the message.
At only 19, Halwani is one of the most prolific graffiti artists in town, having picked up his first spray can five years ago, after getting into the music when he was 10.
He soon realized that “people here did not react well to messages they listen to,” but when he started transferring his messages to walls, he received a lot of positive responses. “So bit by bit I switched from Lebanese hip-hop and rap to graffiti.”
With no real graffiti community here, Halwani drew inspiration from international artists and magazines. “I used to do a lot of Western-style graffiti: big letters and tagging. But later on I noticed that it lacked identity. I had a Lebanese identity, I was not some kid who grew up in New York, I was not a gangster or a school dropout.
“So I wanted to appropriate the media, so I started first doing Arabic graffiti and then Arabic calligraphy.”
His designs using Arabic calligraphy are so subtle and elegant that you can imagine they would win over even the harshest critic of street art – one simply reads “Beirut,” over and over again, adorning a door in Ashrafieh.
“I really like to write ‘Beirut’ because it’s the city that gave us everything, it gave me walls to write on, so I like to try to pay tribute to that,” Halwani, who is also a full-time engineering student at the American University of Beirut, says.
He always paints during the day, so as to arouse less suspicion from the authorities, and never paints on private property. Generally, he says, he can win over police by talking to them, and explaining what he is doing.
“When they come and ask questions, you don’t have to look like a gangster. You show them that you’re pretty educated, that you’re not vandalizing and that you’re actually removing old posters, cleaning the wall and then painting over bullet riddled walls, which are dirty, and out of your own money.”
Once he even persuaded some police to join in with him, when he was painting a message requested by an NGO that works for children’s rights. He has a photo of the cops, filling in a pink section, and Halwani says, “What I really like about the picture is it’s really symbolic: He’s putting his M16 on his side and not using it, and instead using a paintbrush.”
As the paint he uses is not cheap – one Samir Kassir portrait and a quote, “Desperation is not a fate” cost him $300 in materials and took 14 hours to complete – Halwani has begun undertaking commercial commissions, for restaurants, private houses and companies such as Zain Telecom, for whom he painted an entire bus.
However, he would draw the line at painting for a politician. “Even when I do advertisements, I have principles about aesthetics and style and messages, so it’s not complete prostitution,” he jokes.
Currently Halwani paints on the weekends, and for the entirety of his summer holidays from university. After graduation he wants to balance his passion for public art with a career related to his degree.
“You can’t make it a full-time thing, but what I would like is not to just be a graffiti artist by myself.”
Lamenting the lack of a national art gallery in Lebanon, Halwani hopes to one day work toward creating such a space. Somewhere housing “not just stuff rich people buy to increase their social status, but real art, authentic art.”