Graffiti in Lebanon: an emerging culture
Marie-José Daoud - 13/09/2010
Their names are Ashekman, R.E .K. crew, P+G crew, Ph@2, Mou3llem, Kabrit and Kimewé (in Tripoli). They are between 15 and 30 years old and mark the city’s wall with their colourful drawings according to their inspiration. The eldest – and the most enterprising! – Among them have launched themselves bashfully in the 1990’s but the movement actually began to develop in the years 2000 to experience a new blossoming after the July 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel. “After the war, we had nothing to do and loads of things to say” sums up Saro, alias oras, co-founder of the P+G Crew.
But the graffiti world is vast; and there a few common things except the city’s wall between a quick tag of a young man who pour his thoughts on a wall and an elaborate drawing of another, which is a real work of art.
“Since the beginning, there have been a lot of political tags and logos on the walls of Beirut, reports Joseph Brachya, editor of a book on graffiti in Beirut (Marking Beirut- A city revealed through its graffiti, http://markingbeirut.com /, written by Tania Saleh), but there were few artistic graffiti so to speak”. In fact, all the war militia have marked their territories with their party’s logos and their slogans, the majority being stencilled. This territory marking is the basis of the graffiti culture as we know them today, born in New York in the 1970’s during the gangs’ war. “But unlike American gangs who conquered territories with tags and graffiti, the Lebanese militia have been confined to their districts”, affirms Brachya. The events of May 2008 when the Sunni and Shiite militias clashed right in Beirut’s centre, led to an agreement ordering the removal of all political signs visible in the street. Other forms of graffiti, more artistic ones, have spread throughout the city.
“Free style” is still in its beginnings
“Unfortunately, we have few good artists in Lebanon. Those who are able to do without stencils and work in “free style” i.e. drawing with painting sprays” deplores Tarek Chemaly, creator of the BeirutNTSC blog and editor of two electronic books on the walls of Beirut (Archewallogy, Les murs murs de la ville : http://beirutntsc.blogspot.com/2009/10/tarek ). The most known among them are: Ashekman, R.E.K crew and P+G crew.
Ashekman ( http://www.ashekman.com/ ) is made up of the Kabbani twin brothers, Omar and Mohammad, and specializes in graffiti in Arabic with koufi (angular and geometric) and diwani letters (decorative and stretched out). “We work in Arabic because it’s our culture,” they explain. Known for their social and political graffiti -“al share3ilna”, the street is ours or “Ghaza fi qalbi” Gaza is in my heart-, the two brothers have created a trade mark out of their stage name, “that means escape in slang Arabic”. A trade mark for the rap group and a range of T-shirts.
R.E.K. (Red Eyes Kamikaze, www.facebook.com/?ts ) has started his career impelled by Sari, alias Fish, as from the 1990’s.
It is the largest group today made up of 15 members. The youngest member is 15 years old. “We write both in Latin and Arabic letters”, precises Fish. A lot of graffiti painted by the group represent cartoon characters: Bucks Bunny, Popeye, the Simpson, etc. This is due to the young age of the majority of the group. Some of their more “social” graffiti (“Beirut ma bit mout”, Beirut does not die; “Beirut in hakat”, If Beirut could talk) have been reproduced on bags and postcards.
P+G (for Parko + Graffiti, http://thepgcrew.com /) has been created by Saro aka Oras and his friend Hagop. The group’s evolution depends on its members’ availability and on those who join it.
Today, the two important members are Oras and Horek, a young Russian student who moved to Lebanon a few years ago and who “has influenced me a lot”, states Oras. In fact, Horek, who already used to draw graffiti in Russia, has opened new artistic and technical horizons. The group draws mostly in Latin letters, “I tried Arabic but it does not sit well with me”, precises Oras who prefers gay and colourful graffiti.
The street might seem to be a place with no law but certain rules exist and all those who draw respect them, at least the most professional among them: no private space deterioration, preferably draw on ugly walls and above all, no graffiti or tag on another person’s graffiti. “According to the graffiti international law, one should never draw on another artist’s drawing unless it’s to do better,” explains Michèle Paulikevitch, who organises hip-hop, rap and graffiti workshops.
And what about policemen? “For Horek, it’s heaven here because policemen don’t bother you”, states Oras.
In fact, policemen are generally apathetic and sometimes even encouraging and rarely severe. “Sometimes it happens that a policeman is in a bad mood,” says Fish. “Officially, it is prohibited by law since it’s considered as an act that deteriorates public space” explains Paulikevitch. “But we only draw on ugly walls full of holes or covered with damaged drawings, explain the Kabbani. We embellish the city!”
Professionalisation of graffiti?
This is an opinion that Marc Darmit, architect of a building in Beirut seems to share. He employed Oras to draw graffiti in the main entrance and in certain lofts. “The drawings are very big, says Oras enthusiastically, I decided to use the sprays of a professional Spanish brand.” Because until today, these young street artists elaborate their works with painting sprays used for cars: “It runs, the nozzles are not good and there are only eight colours, explains Oras; while with professional equipment you can change nozzles according to the effect you want to obtain (bold, fine) and the range of colours is quite large”.
Will the arrival of new more adapted equipment and the demand for quality work give a new dynamism to the graffiti culture in Lebanon? This is quite possible. Since encouraging signs are increasing: in the universities, the art of graffiti is starting to be taught; workshops are being organised everywhere; international artists come to share their knowledge and culture and the younger generation which is taking over is quite talented, enthusiastic, prone to travel and to be inspired by its experiences abroad. Because “Lebanon is small and the Internet remains one of the main sources of inspiration and improvement, explains Fish. However, this is not enough, one must see the works for real and discuss them with others”. He himself goes to Athens where he has spent part of his life every year. “Today, the rap and hip-hop artistic scene, be it musical or pictorial should develop, concludes Michèle Paulikevitch. These youngsters should define the message they want to deliver and the way in which they want to deliver it. Only then, we could experience a real street art evolution, be it wall drawings or music”.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech