TAKING BACK THE STREETS
The artist ghting political factions in Beirut with a spray can
There is an alternative voice rising,” says Yazan Halwani, a young Lebanese street artist. “I’m not going to say that what I do is going to free Lebanon or change the sectarian political system, or x any regional problem. But it tells people that you don’t have to accept what’s already there.”
Halwani has just nished university for the day when we catch up, his English carrying more than the hint of a French accent. On occasion he talks 19 to the dozen, such is his passion for graf ti, calligraphy and the reclamation of Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myriad political parties.
Following a brief misunderstanding in February this year, the possibility that much of his work – and that of other graf ti artists – would be removed by Beirut Municipality has receded, leaving him free to plan a summer offensive on the city’s battered and bruised urban landscape. He’s also free to continue to replace the imagery of political propaganda that plagues Beirut with more inspirational cultural icons.
“My main objective is to try and loosen the political grip,” he says. “That is why I paint Fairuz or Mahmoud Darwish or Ali Abdullah, the homeless man who used to live on Bliss Street. These are the true faces of Beirut. The true gures of our society should not be political, but rather cultural or artistic.
“For Fairuz, I always knew people living around the mural identi ed with it and protected it from posters or from being painted over. But if you grow up in this city, as a kid you might see these political parties and their leaders and think they’re heroes. They’re everywhere. The real people that control the city are not – if you want – cultured, or the biggest icons are not cultured. They’re mainly political. That’s because of how well they diffuse their messages in the street. So the idea is to – not myself reclaim the city – but try to replace them with more positive gures.” Is it working? “They have weapons and political parties are territorial, so if you do something they feel is loosening their control they can get angry, and they have the upper hand. You have to tell them what you’re doing is not there to replace them, although that’s what I’m trying to do.
“There has been, if you like, a rise in the street artist’s opinion. It’s not only artistic, it’s about culture, but the work has a political voice too without actually supporting political factions.
“It’s about culture, but the work has a political voice too without actually supporting political factions”
“There should be an appropriation of mural painting or street art as something that solidifies the link between the people and their culture” Halwani is a street artist trying to rescue Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myriad political parties
It’s about being engaged in the community and not just saying, this is a pretty wall’ and that’s it. It’s about taking control.”
Originally a traditional tagger, Halwani has embraced calligraf ti, merging Arabic calligraphy with graf ti art, and has sought to create murals that solidify the link between the people of Beirut, their culture and the Arabic language. His style incorporates Ku an angular script that is made up of short s uare and horizontal strokes , Diwani a complex cursive style of Arabic calligraphy and Thuluth a cursive script designed with curved and obli ue lines , while his process of creation utilises numerous techni ues. These include stencilling, the use of string and chalk for certain geometric patterns, brushes and acrylic paint for calligraphy, and spray paint for the portraits themselves. He also incorporates calligraphy into faces as a means of shading, with the words relaying messages. The Darwish mural included the uote “On this land, there’s what’s worth living for.”
“I’m trying to invent a style that’s culturally appropriate to the region and is different,” says Halwani, who studies computer and communication engineering at the American University Of Beirut. “There should be, if you want, an appropriation of mural painting or street art as something that solidi es the link between the people and their culture, especially that in Lebanon, and even the Arabic language itself, which is currently passing through a cultural crisis. This is why I picked up a calligraphy book. This is why I’m moving towards an Arabes ue, Oriental appropriation of the space. It’s far from the street art feel of going against the system, because we don’t really have a strong system. It’s more about making graf ti for the people of the city. It’s about landmarks or pieces that the people identify with because graf ti is not about the artist, it’s about the people that live around it.”
It is easy to detect a sense of responsibility towards public spaces when talking to Halwani. No doubt other Beirut street artists feel the same way, including Ali Rafei and twins Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, who go under the name Ashekman. He often removes posters before doing his work, and one of the successes of the Fairuz mural was its integration into the buildings around it. It sits well not only with the colours of the streets, but with the architecture of the building itself. Interestingly, Halwani sometimes views himself as politically incorrect, inasmuch that he attempts to beautify the city without taking permission, whereas everybody else destroys the city without permission.
“There is this kind of mentality sometimes in Beirut where you feel that public spaces are there for citizens to abuse. The streets are not yours so you can abuse them. This is something I’ve felt when someone sees me painting and they ask me, ‘Why are you wasting your money on a wall that is not yours?’”
In a sense, those who believe he is wasting his money have a point. raf ti is not cheap for an artist to produce. As such, Halwani has delved into the commercial world, creating work for galleries and art fairs, as well as individual commissioned pieces for private collectors. His mixed media work on canvas of the iconic Syrian singer Asmahan, produced for the 2013 Beirut Art Fair, is an example of the kind of sought-after work he produces, although it is possible to level criticism at a street artist who has moved to galleries.
“Working on canvas is not like working on a wall,” he says. “It’s a different media, but it’s also a challenge. The type of graf ti that I do, in Lebanon especially, and in the cultural context, is no longer a kind of anti-system thing, it’s more about graf ti for the people. Street art has an ephemeral nature, so I see canvases as several things. The rst one is the concept of creating work that is not going to disappear. It’s like taking a picture to save my work, because in the street it might get destroyed, it might get painted over, it might fade away. Canvases are snapshots of the graf ti I do.
“The second – to be very pragmatic about things – is that the canvases are also a source of nancing for the murals in the absence of cultural infrastructure in the region. In Lebanon especially, you cannot nance your work in the street unless you do work for advertising companies and brands. I do not like to associate my style with a certain brand. I won’t promote something I do not believe in. It’s not about making a product and selling it. It’s about a concept, a message and a strong belief. This is why the only way to continue creating artistic murals in the street in the absence of cultural infrastructure is to actually do some gallery work.”
The third reason cited by Halwani is the challenge of creating work that will be critiqued. “If you want to develop and make sure what you’re giving to the streets is the best you can do, you have to go to a gallery and be criticised,” he says.
Either way, his work has moved far beyond the early days of tagging. He sketches, reads Arabic poetry, listens to the news, uses public transport wherever possible, and walks. Walks a lot. Mainly to identify potential walls for future work.
“I have a collection of locations, calligraphy, patterns, quotes, poetry, and of portraits most of all, and I collect them without anything in mind. Then, whenever I nd a location, I group them on a sketch, but the most important thing is to be contextually relevant.”
And there’s no trouble with the local law? “No.” So what happened with Beirut Municipality back in February?
“There was a bit of distortion of the actual story,” he replies. “They were removing political emblems and signs and ags because political parties in Beirut have a somewhat aggressive presence on the street. By accident the municipality removed some graf ti and rumours spread that the municipality was going to remove my work speci cally, or the works of a few other people. But the governor of Beirut said there was no decision to actually remove the graf ti. He then invited artists to apply for permission to get their graf ti done and said he would re-issue the permits for the graf ti that was erased.” So Beirut tolerates graf ti? “We have always been lucky in that sense,” he says. “It’s easier to do than in other countries and there is no formal penalty even if you do it illegally. I guess we are kind of a graf ti heaven.”
“I’m not trying to replicate, I’m trying to invent a style that’s culturally appropriate to the region and is different”