More than mere doodles on a wall

BEIRUT: Usually associated with hip hop and rap culture, graffiti is widely perceived to be a form of vandalism rather than art. Lately it seems the walls of Beirut, already laden, have been ever-more occupied by the work of local and international artists. At its most basic, graffiti appears to be produced in haste, as though the graffitist were afraid of being caught by the cops. At times the only trace is the “tag,” the name of the person who left it. Yet the city’s graffiti landscape has become more elaborate in recent years, with more artworks deemed worthy of a gallery, indeed sale.

In this, Beirut’s walls are akin to those of cities around the world. Witness the work of Banksy. The anonymous U.K. artist’s subversive and satirical stencil works have earned him international fame. While some clearly disapprove of his work (or perhaps his celebrity) – as witnessed recently when residents of Park City, Utah, complained that two of the city’s Banksy works had been vandalized – others value his work enough to remove his concrete canvases from the urban fabric and put them up for auction.

An echo of this new respectability was heard in Lebanon in the fall of 2012 when the Beirut Art Center collaborated with several arts organizations to host “White Wall,” a graffiti and street art exhibition that spilled out of the Jisr al-Wati gallery space to occupy the faces of several structures around town.

Many talented artists, local and international, have shared their talent with Beirut. Lebanese brothers Omar and Mohamed Kabbani (aka ASHEKMAN), countrymen Phat2 and Yazan Halwani, Spain’s Btoyglitch, Germany’s Tasso, and French artist Zepha are among the many prominent street artists whose work enlivens the city’s walls.

Halwani has amazed many people with his work. The late Ali Abdallah was a homeless man who could often be seen wandering the Bliss Street area. When he passed away, Halwani paid tribute to the man with a mural entitled “Ghadan Yawman Afdal” (Tomorrow is a Better Day).

Halwani told The Daily Star that the piece was way of triggering people’s awareness.

“Each graffiti tries to highlight a certain issue in our society,” he said.

Halwani confided that he started making graffiti because he “wanted to be cool.” The artist soon realized, however, that his art might have lacked identity.

“A few years after that, I picked up Arabic calligraphy, “ he recalled. “I tried to make my graffiti as Oriental as possible, reviving our culture through the visuals used and through the style.”

Halwani’s street art pays tribute to well-known Lebanese cultural figures like Khalil Gibran and Fairouz. In the Sodeco area, the acclaimed bilingual poet has been rendered in the artist’s version of a LL100,000 note.

In his written description of the graffito, Halwani has said that perhaps figures like Gibran should be depicted on Lebanese currency, “to show tourists coming from abroad the genius of our citizens instead of bragging about the weather.”

Halwani’s celebration of Lebanese music legend Fairouz is entitled “Jdoudna ikhtara’ou al-Sofor, wa ah’fadhom sarou sfoura” (Our grandfathers invented the zero, and their grandchildren became zeroes). He said it was inspired by the lyrics of Palestinian rapper Tammer Naffar. On his Facebook page, the artist explained that creative people such as Fairouz should be set up as role models for children.

Halwani is among the many artists who’ve chosen graffiti as an artistic tool, with the aim of making it accessible by everyone and seen by anyone.

“My murals are for Beirut and its people,” Halwani said.

“The themes are inspired by them, so I think this is why it might be more accessible.”

Halwani collaborated with graffiti artist Tasso to create a work that mingles Halwani’s style with Tasso’s photorealism. The graffito, which resides on Abdel-Wahab Street in Ashrafieh, represents Halwani painting Tasso. The blending of Arabic calligraphy and figurative art gives an interesting insight to both artists’ talents.

“I already knew his very original and typical work,” German Tasso said of Halwani.

Tasso, a pseudonym, began creating graffiti when living in the, now-extinct, German Democratic Republic. “I first heard of graffiti in a television report,” Tasso recalled. “It was colorful like my comic books. It had big characters, [like] the logos of pop groups.”

His work was challenged in the late 1980s when the state banned spray paint, which was associated with opposition groups “attaching political messages” to their art.

Tasso came to Beirut in summer of 2013 for the opening of The O1Ne, a nightclub with a wall meant to act as a medium for graffiti. Tasso’s work can be found here and, like many international graffiti artists, he works to include a local element in his pieces.

“Usually,” Tasso said, “I try not to paint indiscriminate pictures on the walls.”

Graffiti, he explained, proliferates in hard times, “where it makes sense, with slogans to propagate messages as an optical mouthpiece.”

“We started graffiti before the Arab Spring,” said Omar, one-half of ASHEKMAN.

Known for their line of urban wear and hip hop music, Omar and Mohamed specialize in Arabic graffiti, and in the early 2000s, they say they created “calligraffiti.”

“We are always studying Arabic calligraphy, so we can keep on evolving and creating new graffiti,” Omar said.

“Our primary objective is to portray Arabic heritage in a positive and creative way,” he continued, “especially in art where all our designs are developed from the traditional Kuffi, Nasski, Diwani, Ruqua Arabic calligraphy fonts.”

ASHEKMAN’s graffiti mainly express political or social messages. One of their most recent works, in Tabaris, is a tribute to Wadih al-Safi.

“We started ASHEKMAN because we wanted a platform for the freedom of speech in a region full of dictatorships,” Omar said, “a platform with no censorship.”

The duo believes graffiti can be the best way for the youth to express themselves, since it is isolated from political parties and militias.

Spanish graffiti artist Andrea Michaelsson (aka Btoyglitch) uses mainly stencil art in her works – which can be seen around the Mar Mikhael neighborhood.

Btoyglitch believes in censorship when it comes to graffiti, but she feels that everything regarding graffiti becomes public art. In Europe and America, she notes, graffiti is still perceived as vandalism, whereas in the Middle East “graffiti is more used as means to express social and/or political views.”

A massive graffiti work facing the parking lot of Ashrafieh’s ABC Mall was created by Vincent Abadie Hafez (aka Zepha), who says he fell into graffiti when he was a little boy. Mingling French and Arabic characters, his work focuses on the notion of unity.

“As far back as I can remember, I see myself with a pen or pencil in my hand, expressing myself on any surface available,” he said.

“One of my favorite activities, and also my first success, was faithfully copying banknotes. The 100 franc note with ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugene Delacroix was my favorite.”

Zepha hasn’t looked back since. Several of his graffiti works can be seen around Beirut. One of them, created in September 2012, has been erased, but another – which he made in collaboration with Halwani and Ali Rafei – can still be seen on Charles Helou Avenue.

Zepha has a unique approach to graffiti. He says it is a constant battle to “seek validation and self-affirmation. It is a graphic struggle using the known codes of advertising, especially its visual violence.”

For Zepha, however, it seems that the Middle East has more to offer artists than any other region.

“There is a huge potential in the Middle East,” he said, “the distances between cultural and traditional are getting thinner, to the benefit of new forms of expression.”

Phat2 is an artist-entrepreneur who owns a graffiti shop in Geitawi.

“My background is music,” he said. “It came with a relation to hard rock, metal music and pop rock.”

He opened his shop in the beginning of December as means to help the local graffiti scene. “A lot of problems we face today are related to budget issues,” he said. He sells a brand of spray paint called Ironlak, which he says is more affordable than others in Beirut.

Phat2 calls himself a graffiti writer, not a street artist.

“Street artists have a message to spread,” he opined. “Graffiti writers are all about writing, the word or the letter, and the science of typography. It’s just the tag. Street artists are more about sending messages and propaganda.”

If he has a message to send, he said, it will be hidden in a more discreet way in his art: “In almost all of my works there is always some kind of small message behind it, even if it only deals with the choice of color.”

Some of Phat2’s works can be seen in Sin al-Fil, Ashrafieh (where he collaborated with REK crew, BROS and Barok), in Saloumi Roundabout and Mirna Shalouhi Highway. In each of his works, he used a specific type of spray paint.

Like all the other graffiti artists, he says that graffiti is playing a more important role in society today.

“Now is the time to make the scene shine,” he said.

“We have a good opportunity to take advantage of it.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2014, on page 16.




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