BEIRUT: “Oras” Opac is not what most people would expect a graffiti artist to look like. A buttoned-up and slightly stiff young man, he sits behind a desk in his neatly organized office in Jel-El-Dib and speaks carefully in a voice heavily accented with French.
Also a visual and graphic designer, Opac says he knows that he doesn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, pierced vandal, but claims that’s because the environment in Lebanon isn’t conducive to that kind of subversive graffiti scene.
“It’s not like Europe or America,” says Opac. “There, graffiti is a rebellion. Here, there’s nothing to rebel against. I don’t like the Lebanese artists who try to mimic what’s happening in Europe and the States. It’s different here. Okay, you can go tag and ‘bomb,’ but there’s no one against you ... there’s no authority to challenge right now.”
Although technically illegal in Lebanon, graffiti is mostly tolerated by authorities. Artists such as Opac rarely run into trouble when they’re working. In fact, many major corporations have begun to hire graffiti artists, or “writers,” to advertise their products.
Opac says graffiti writers are becoming a hot commodity for many companies that want to advertise.
“All the guys are getting commissioned work; interviews, documentaries,” he says. “People are getting interested in us. We hope that it will be a positive thing, that we won’t go the route of Europe or the States. We hope that we will always be free to work in the streets without restrictions.”
Rami Mouallem is a product of graffiti’s recent commercialization. Mouallem has done ads for Coca-Cola, Stolichnaya, Nokia, Adidas, Quiksilver, Porsche, Vespa, Heineken, and Nescafe, among other companies. Mouallem says that graffiti is a very effective way of advertising a product.
“Companies are interested in using graffiti to advertise their products because they can get their message across in a fast way,” he says. “It’s eye-catching and attractive and new. It’s a new scene here in Beirut. People haven’t become immune to it the way they have in Europe or the States. They’re not used to seeing graffiti everywhere. It’s funky and cool.”
Although Mouallem began his career doing graffiti on the streets, he has almost completely shifted to the commercial sphere.
“My concept in the beginning was to increase social awareness,” he says. “I picked slogans in Arabic and people were interested. But I guess people are getting fed up with all the political and social messages now. They are like, ‘We want to see some cool graffiti, not a newspaper on the wall.’”
Alfred Bader, or “EPS,”a member of the ACK graffiti crew, says he too isn’t an anarchist.
“Does it necessarily have to be about rebellion?” asks Bader. “When graffiti started out, it was just about getting your name out there and showing people that this was your area. Then more and more people started doing graffiti, and it made the cities a mess, so you started to get repressive laws against it.”
According to Bader, the Lebanese government will begin cracking down on graffiti before long.
“Maybe in four or five years, we’ll regret that everybody knows who we are and knows our names. The more time passes, the more repression is going to come,” Bader added.
In contrast to Opac and Mouallem, Sari Saade, or “Physh,” is more like what one would expect of someone who basically defaces property in their spare time. Dressed in a “Rancid” t-shirt and baggy pants with a few piercings and tattoos visible, Saade is passionate about his idea of graffiti. Although he belongs to the same “crew” as Mouallem, the REK or Red-Eyed Kamikazes, Saade has quite a different philosophy.
“Our crew is called the Red-Eyed Kamikazes, because we started it when we were young and we used to be kind of stoners,” he laughs. “Also we’d go out in the streets and spray stuff, so we’d call ourselves kamikazes. Some of us still have that in our crew; we’re proper ‘bombers.’ We just go bomb any kind of wall anywhere, try to be quick and get out of there without getting caught.”
Saade says he’s not a fan of the recent commercialization of graffiti. “I don’t usually do advertisements,” he says. “I studied advertising, and I don’t like it. They’re slaves of the corporations, and they’re turning us into ... sheep.”
In this, Saade has found a like-minded compatriot in Phat 2, a relatively new graffiti writer on the Beirut scene whose ubiquitous tags can be seen all over town. Phat 2 prefers not to use his real name, and sits slouched in a Starbucks in a t-shirt that reads, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; what happens in Lebanon ends up on Facebook.”
I’m not a fan of the commercialization of graffiti,” says Phat 2. “The most important thing for a graffiti writer is to be true to his culture, and graffiti as a culture began in a rebellious way, not in a tame way. Commercializing it is basically taming it, and you can’t tame a wild animal.”
According to Phat 2, his tagging spree is a response to the political graffiti that has dominated Beirut for years.
“They all have their stencils, Hezbollah, Amal, the Lebanese Forces,” he says. “Everyone brands their own part of town for themselves, as if they own it. But what they don’t realize is that Lebanon is supposed to be a free country. It’s for everyone. It’s my country, and I’m not Phat 2. Phat 2 is not a person. It’s just a representation of every free citizen in Lebanon trying to take back what is theirs. This sectarianism must end.”
Opac says that at the moment, all the established graffiti writers in Lebanon respect each other’s work for the most part. “There is a game of who is going to be seen more, who is going to tag more, who is going to do the most beautiful graffiti,” he says. “It’s not a competition, it’s a game. In a competition, there’s a winner at the end. There is no winner here, because there is no end.”