Be­yond the streets

Le­banese artist Yazan Hal­wani has at­tained global fame paint­ing the streets of Beirut. He talks brand­ing, branch­ing out and his fear of turn­ing Beirut into a bill­board with Eleanor Dickinson

Campaign Middle East - - FRONT PAGE -

Cel­e­brated Le­banese graf­fiti artist Yazan Hal­wani dis­cusses his di­ver­si­fy­ing art, work­ing with brands and his fears of turn­ing Beirut into a bill­board.

Like many street artists, Yazan Hal­wani be­gan paint­ing walls be­cause he wanted to be a bit of a teenage rebel; a David de­fac­ing the streets of Beirut in de­fi­ance of the au­thor­i­ties’ Go­liath. Tak­ing the lead from his peers, Hal­wani be­gan ‘tag­ging’ graf­fiti on the walls of the city, hop­ing to be ar­rested for van­dal­ism. But as he soon learnt, to be a van­dal in Beirut you need to work a lot harder.

“I have this re­ally dis­tinct mem­ory of paint­ing and hear­ing po­lice sirens,” he says. “It was on a high­way near my house. I re­ally wanted the get­ting ar­rested ex­pe­ri­ence (I was an idiot, to be hon­est). So then the po­lice passed by, and the of­fi­cer was look­ing at me from the win­dow, but then the car just flew by.”

Though seven years later it has be­come a hu­mor­ous anec­dote, the ex­pe­ri­ence nev­er­the­less taught him a se­ri­ous les­son.

“In Beirut, the civil war was the big­gest act of van­dal­ism that the city has ever seen,” he says. “It’s an act of van­dal­ism when you have po­lit­i­cal par­ties who con­trol the streets with an op­pres­sive pres­ence. In cer­tain ar­eas, they ask peo­ple where they’re go­ing; they’re on posters – they ex­ist in the ur­ban space. So sud­denly paint­ing a wall be­comes the weak­est form of van­dal­ism ever. If van­dal­ism is your aim, then in Beirut you should not be a graf­fiti artist. You should be a po­lit­i­cal party gang­ster.”

Though Hal­wani’s fail­ure to get ar­rested may have de­flated his an­ar­chic as­pi­ra­tions, it gave him some­thing of an epiphany. Hop­ing to do some­thing “con­struc­tive” for Beirut, he stopped tag­ging the walls with an in­dis­tinc­tive graf­fiti scrawl and be­gan cre­at­ing his now-fa­mous cal­lig­ra­phy-in­fused mu­rals in the hope of re­mind­ing Le­banon of its cul­tural past. By paint­ing peo­ple “rel­e­vant” to Le­banese so­ci­ety and cul­ture such as the mur­dered jour­nal­ist Samir Kas­sir and mu­si­cal icons Fairuz and Sabah, Hal­wani hoped to re­claim some of the city’s streets from the op­pres­sive po­lit­i­cal pres­ence.

These por­traits have since be­come cul­tural land­marks in Beirut’s bat­tered land­scape, earn­ing Hal­wani in­ter­na­tional ac­claim – and in­ter­est from com­mer­cial back­ers. Though the 23-year-old stresses that “be­com­ing a mil­lion­aire” is not his aim, he is not im­mune to the al­lure of com­mer­cial work.

His most re­cent ven­ture saw him de­sign an Ara­bic watch face for the luxury brand Tag Heuer. The watch was re­vealed at a glitzy Dubai bash just last month, seem­ingly worlds away from try­ing to get ar­rested on a Beirut high­way.

Has Hal­wani, to use the term loathed by artists and mu­si­cians alike, sold out?

It’s an un­com­fort­able ques­tion and one that he con­sid­ers for mo­ment. He then says: “In terms of how I see things, if you are do­ing an ad­ver­tise­ment, it’s not pa­tron­age. If a cer­tain en­tity is giv­ing you a plat­form or com­mis­sion­ing a work that’s your own work, but just on a plat­form, that’s com­pletely fine.

“Typ­i­cally, the way that Pepsi comes in and tells you that you have to paint Pepsi, some artists do it and they will do it like any work. If it’s part of your con­cept, then it’s com­pletely fine, so I don’t con­sider it as sell­ing out. But with the iden­tity of my work, it has noth­ing to do with Pepsi, but I do cal­lig­ra­phy and I do por­traits, so there is a thought process be­hind it. When Tag Heuer ap­proached me – and I think this is the rea­son the col­lab­o­ra­tion worked out – they said, ‘We have the watch face, you do what you want with it.’ So the con­cept was mine; I wrote a mes­sage on it, which was com­pletely mine. It wasn’t part of a brief. I don’t see it as pa­tron­age, I see it as a col­lab­o­ra­tion. But, if they had said ‘write Tag Heuer in a slightly Ara­bic form’, then I would have been like…” He trails off but his fa­cial ex­pres­sion makes his feel­ings ev­i­dent enough.

When it comes to street art, Hal­wani is even more cau­tious. Un­sur­pris­ingly his fame has put his brand of mu­rals and cal­lig­ra­phy in high de­mand, forc­ing him to be­come “very se­lec­tive” about who he works with, es­pe­cially in Beirut. “I do not take pub­lic street projects as com­mis­sions at all,” he says. “Be­cause when you start do­ing that, the walls of the city be­come bill­boards and not mu­rals, and that’s some­thing I feel re­ally strongly about.

“But what keeps typ­i­cally hap­pen­ing in Beirut these days is that ev­ery ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany has a project loosely re­lated to cal­lig­ra­phy or street art. I re­ceive an email and it gives me this brief, but I say, ‘Look guys, I’m not go­ing to use Beirut as a bill­board. Ab­so­lutely no way.’ If I started do­ing that, then other brands would, and it would just ruin Beirut.”

He adds: “Also, do­ing that would make my mu­rals ad­ver­tis­ing for my ser­vices as a con­cept. So peo­ple would start say­ing, ‘It’s a busi­ness. He has two prod­ucts: one is the fliers, which are the artis­tic mu­rals, and then you have another seg­ment, the com­mis­sions, which is where he makes the money.’ So this sub­sidises this. It be­comes a busi­ness model not an ex­pres­sion. I al­ways say no. And usu­ally the project doesn’t hap­pen in the end or I see it done by some­one else, some­times in a sim­i­lar style. So I see some cal­lig­ra­phy on a wall and I say, ‘They got some­one to do it, but at least it wasn’t me.’”

These days Hal­wani spends as much of his time in Dubai as he does in Beirut. Af­ter our meet­ing, he will be trav­el­ling to Shar­jah, a place with a “good or­ganic art scene”, for a meet­ing re­gard­ing an up­com­ing project. Fu­ture projects are in the pipe­line in Bahrain and Kuwait, per­haps an in­di­ca­tion of where the de­mand for street art now lies.

But Hal­wani’s geo­graph­i­cal reach is not the only area he’s ex­pand­ing on. Delv­ing be­yond walls and onto can­vas prints, plus more re­cently sculp­ture, Hal­wani now sees him­self as a ‘con­cep­tual’ artist rather than just one of the street.

“Right now I’m much more in­ter­ested in the thought process and the con­cepts and search­ing the history of cer­tain art forms,” he ex­plains. “In­creas­ingly con­cep­tual art, which I think is im­por­tant but should be more ac­ces­si­ble, is be­com­ing all about ideas. It’s in­vent­ing some­thing that was not made be­fore and I think this is the ultimate goal of con­cep­tual art. I think I do this in street art be­cause I do not care what it looks like, but I care about the idea, the con­cept and what it does for the city.”

He adds: “Other graf­fiti artists don’t con­sider me as a graf­fiti artist. It’s sad but it’s true. They think what I do is more mu­rals, which is cool. I’m fine with that. I don’t care about the la­bel. I care about do­ing some­thing for the city.”

“In Beirut, the civil war was the big­gest act of van­dal­ism that the city has ever seen.”

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