BEIRUT: The shadows of four urban artists loomed long against a huge blank canvas Saturday night at the Garten. A host of young creative types and general revelers filed into the venue as the artists anxiously paced the Astroturf carpet waiting for the Secret Walls art battle to begin.
Billed as a Fight Club for urban arts, Secret Walls brings together top graphic artists and graffiti virtuosos in cities around the world for live art battles. Armed with just black permanent pens and black acrylic paint, teams of street-savvy artists have 90 minutes to turn a blank canvas into a piece of provocative street art.
Born in a humble London pub six years ago, the event has since been held in cities all over the world, from New York to Berlin, Tokyo to Amsterdam.
Saturday, however, was the event’s first foray into the Lebanese scene.
As guests poured in, drinks and conversation began to flow freely. One of the performing artists, Lina Semaan aka Sugar Wheel flipped through a sketchbook for inspiration. “Usually I draw digitally,” she said.
A graphic designer by training, Semaan said today’s artists draw by hand less and less. “With something that is made with your hands, you can’t really use it unless you have it digitally rendered,” she said.
In an increasingly digitalized industry, Secret Walls offered her the chance to get back to her sketching roots. It was to be her first live art production, however, a tight-lipped, half-smile betrayed her anxiety.
Meanwhile Chad Abousleiman, alias Chad the Mad, was in his element. “A big inspiration is the graffiti in New York,” he said, adding that spray cans tend to be his preferred medium.
Growing up between New Jersey in the U.S and Beirut, Abousleiman’s style draws heavily on his diverse upbringing. “It’s mixed multicultural art. I’m doing a lot of pattern work and a lot of psychedelic stuff.”
With the sun fully set and the amber flames of cigarettes flickering across the audience, the competition began.
Abousleiman and Semaan worked the right side of the canvas, while an opposing team comprised of professional illustrator Tania Khazzaka and digital designer Mohammad Moneimne i.e. Müd Monéi working on the left.
Within a few minutes, broad strokes became coherent shapes: an alien with dripping fangs; a smiling octopus; a gremlin brandishing his middle finger; and a mushroom.
Guests looked on in awe.
“Yaani, look at the details!” one attendee marveled.
Within half an hour the white canvas had been transformed into a strange menagerie of sketched creatures, from a tentacled caricature of an army captain grasping a foreign bill to a grisly Pac-Man inspired creature flicking a monstrous tongue.
The designs were impish and dark, characteristic of street style. The lack of color gave the scene a sketchbook look, while the quality of the disparate motifs reflected the artists’ professional training.
After 90 minutes, the DJ called time. Energized and enthused by the feat of creativity they had just watched, the crowd voted for their preferred team with a “cheer-o-meter” iPhone app. Abousleiman and Semaan were declared the winners.
Moneimne, however, was not disappointed. He praised his partner, Tania. “We’re good together. We knew where to contrast.” Despite the 90-minute marathon effort, Moneimne said he was far from tired. “Actually digital work exhausts more because you have to sit. This is exciting!” he said cheerfully.
Aside from drawing attention to the street art scene in Beirut, the Secret Walls event highlighted a new generation of professional urban designers who are a far cry from their highly political, often anonymous, guerilla art predecessors.
With graphic design skills and coding abilities, these young artists are crossing the once intractable boundary between office work and urban art. Today, street artists have officially trademarked street aliases, “My name is registered,” boasted Semaan, and LinkedIn profiles, bringing the formerly shadowed street art industry into the mainstream.
Still, traces of street art’s anti-establishment roots were visible in the final Secret Walls Beirut product. In the right-hand corner, Semaan had written in standout block letters “Punish Society.”
“I didn’t prepare the idea,” Semaan said . “It came from my subconscious.”