“Marking Beirut: A City Revealed Through Its Graffiti,” is a derivative of the Project de Diplôme of Tala Saleh, a Saudi graphic design student at the American University of Beirut. As she describes it, her book is, “a visual reading of the city of Beirut through the stencils on her walls, an outsider’s view of an internal struggle.”
Arab News sat down with the insightful Tala Saleh while on her book signing tour in Saudi Arabia. Excerpts from the interview:
What specific narrative does the graffiti in Beirut tell?
If you take it by year, starting in 2006, Beirut’s graffiti narrative speaks of a fading struggle, of a country once torn apart by fighting factions, or divided streets and strict “No Trespassing” neighborhoods. It speaks of a city where there is an unspoken respect for territory all made evident to passers-by through the spraying of a political party logo. As we move down further in time, and the political situation becomes more intense and unstable in 2008; you see the division wear away, you realize that the process of marking by political logos has lessened and many of these logos have been erased and a new form of graffiti has emerged. Unity rather than division appears on the walls of Beirut, protest and pleas for “Unity, Togetherness, and One Lebanon.” The graffiti of Beirut moves from struggle to hope; it talks of a city divided in the past, only now asking to live peacefully as one.
Why do you think the people of Beirut have utilized the streets as a mode of communication? Why graffiti and not another medium?
For the majority, those of whom are within certain political factions and parties, I think graffiti was the most economic way for them to spread their loyalty and mark the territory. And in any country that is under civil strife (people) will take to the streets to protest, whether in big masses, vocally, or, as in Beirut, by the means of graffiti. Graffiti is cheap — you need a spray can for slogans and to make a stencil just some old cardboard and a cutter and you are set. With stencils, you can be discreet and anonymous and I think anonymity is one of the biggest reasons why the people of Beirut choose graffiti. Whatever any person was afraid to say or could not say within the public arena, he or she sprayed (what they wanted to say) on the walls of the city.
Would you tell us more about the graffiti artist Arofish and why his work in particular spoke to you?
When I first went back to Beirut after the 2006 war and began searching for graffiti in Beirut, Arofish was the only artist whose work was abundant, accessible and all over central Beirut and the southern suburbs of Dhahiya. He used stencil graffiti; the exact medium that I was researching and that I found the most of within the city. And so I used his work as a comparison to what I found in terms of content, style, message and medium.
Would you please elaborate on a 2008 mandate to remove all graffiti in the city?
In May 2008, the opposition and Hezbollah took over the streets of Beirut, armed and loaded. It was like a flashback of the civil war when armed fighters took over and fought each other. There were snipers and shooters and hand grenades. And the Lebanese Army had to take over the streets and fight the Hezbollah Army. As tensions began to arise, the leaders of Lebanon needed to find a away to break this tension fast, and so they all decided to remove any sign of political division in the city that could push someone back into the violent mind set of the civil war 30 years ago. And thus all posters and political graffiti were removed and painted over.
Do you believe that the graffiti in Lebanon instigates further divisions? Does it possess a positive or negative influence?
I don’t think it instigates further divides, but rather just makes evident the existing political divisions between east and west Beirut, as well as in its inner neighborhoods. The graffiti now, is positive, the street art asks for unity and peace. The political graffiti was neither positive nor negative-it was used as just a sign, territory maker, or proof of existence.
You spoke about respect between artists in your presentation. How so?
The respect between the artists I spoke of was in reference to the emerging street art and youth street artists. These artists have specific territories they spray in. Every artist or group or “crew” has their own territory that they spray in, and if they were to go into another group’s territory they would need to ask them for permission or collaborate on projects together. The Ashekman crew, twin brothers, for example sprays in the Hamra area where they work and went to university. The Rek crew, and Kabrit on the other hand only spray in the Karanteenah area or near the Beirut River. It’s an unspoken understanding between the graffiti artists I guess.
How is graffiti part of a “silent war”?
The silent war refers to the political logos that were sprayed on the walls during Beirut’s turbulent times. By silent I mean unspoken, there was no death in this war, nor loss nor noise nothing, just the act of spraying on a wall in order to cover more territory than your opposing faction or make sure that no one from another party trespasses on your territory. By marking the walls and signs with the party logo, those within the area and surrounding areas know who and what party belongs here.
What is the law in Beirut regarding graffiti? Are the artists persecuted?
Not really sure to tell you the truth, it all depends on the mood of whoever catches you doing it. If they like it and like you, they’ll let you go, if not, perhaps take you to the nearest station and harass you for a bit and let you go. Not that big of a punishment.
When did the emergence of street art appear? Why did this separation of politics suddenly occur? Does it correlate with more peaceful times or the political tone of the country?
I don’t know the exact date, but I come across it in 2008-2009, as I was finishing up my research, and so I added a new section to my book. The artists who do this street art are young, in their teens and early twenties; a lot of them grew up politically devoid of the current situation, perhaps even sick and tired of all the fighting and instability of their city and country. Also, they are part of the hip-hop generation, the youth generation. They call out for peace and unity, for a country where they know they’ll be safe going out and coming home at night. The sudden appearance of street art came after the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 and the taking over of Beirut by Hezbollah fighters in 2008. People grew fed up with the situation, and these young artists took the their streets to express it.
Everything sprayed in Lebanon has to do with politics, either directly or indirectly. If the graffiti doesn’t specifically speak or show the logo of a party, it talks about the situation and mocks it or records it. The street art talks of the effect that Lebanese politics has had on the youth, they don’t want it, all they want is one country, one Lebanon, unity, freedom, and peace. They want to be able to know they’ll be there tomorrow to live their life normally.
As a graphic designer, what have you noticed in terms of artistic form? And how could you further elaborate and compare the political stencils against the street art in terms of design?
The political stencils are all one color, they are difficult to perfect, but artists have done the logos themselves, which the party has simplified into a stencil. Every logo is detailed in a way to express the ideology and/or religion and affiliation of the party. They are simplified and made into stencils that are painted in one or two colors maximum. Street art on the other hand is pure art. Started from a sketch on paper, the artists sketch out the design in pen and or a marker, and continue to add the colors, shadings, spray paint, markers and images to the mural. It’s a long and intricate process that consists of specific letterforms and an art that not everyone is blessed with. Personally, I think it is one of the purest most aesthetic and difficult forms of art because it emerged from pure talent.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just hope that this book takes everyone on a journey as interesting as mine and that it is as mind opening as it was for me. I learnt a lot on this journey — throughout the making and research of my book, and I hope that what I have gained in knowledge is portrayed in the book.