“There is an alternative voice rising,” says Yazan Halwani, the 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 fix any regional problem, it’s far from that. But it tells people that you don’t have to accept what’s already there.”
Halwani has just finished 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 graffiti, calligraphy and the reclamation of Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myriad political parties. For an alternative voice, he is both endearing and charismatic.
Following a brief misunderstanding in February this year, the possibility that much of his work – and that of other graffiti artists – would be removed by Beirut Municipality has receded, leaving him free to plan a spring and 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.
“This is the main objective behind my work. 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. Because for me these are the true faces of Beirut and with whom Beirutis should identify. The true figures of our society should not be political, but rather cultural or artistic.
“For Fairuz, I always knew that the people living around the mural really identified 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 figures.”
Is it working?
“Well, they have weapons and political parties are particularly 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 know how to navigate by just talking to them; tell them that what you’re doing is not there to replace them, although for me personally that is 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 has a larger impact. It’s about culture, but the work has a political voice too without actually supporting political factions. It’s about being engaged in the community actively and not just saying that ‘oh yes, this is a pretty wall’ and that’s it. It’s more about taking control.”
Originally a traditional tagger, Halwani has embraced calligraffiti, merging Arabic calligraphy with graffiti 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 Kufi (an angular script that is made up of short square and horizontal strokes), Diwani (a complex cursive style of Arabic calligraphy) and Thuluth (a cursive script designed with curved and oblique lines), while his process of creation utilises numerous techniques. 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. For example, the Darwish mural included the quote ‘On this Land, there’s what’s worth living for’.
“I’m not trying to replicate or just push a bit what graffiti is, 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. “It’s not just taking something and slapping it on the city. There should be, if you want, an appropriation of mural painting or street art as something that solidifies 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 Arabesque, 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 graffiti for the people of the city. It could be Beirut, it could be Tunis, it could be any city in the Arab world. It’s about landmarks or pieces that the people identify with because graffiti is not about the artist, it’s more 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 taking permission.
“There is this kind of mentality sometimes in Beirut where you feel that public spaces are there for citizens to abuse. This is the general thing that is accepted in Beirut – the streets are not yours so you can abuse them. This is something that I’ve always felt when I’m in the street and someone sees me painting and they ask me ‘why are you doing this? Why are you wasting your money on a wall that is not yours? Go spend it on yourself’. There is some kind of individualism that gets questioned by the act of painting a public wall in the street out of your own money.”
In a sense, those who believe he is wasting his money have a point. Graffiti 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 graffiti artist who moves from the street to the gallery.
“When you work on canvas it’s not like working on a wall,” he says. “It’s a different media, it’s a different challenge, but it’s also a challenge and this is the most important aspect. For me it makes sense for several reasons. The type of graffiti that I do, in Lebanon especially, and in the cultural context, is no longer a kind of anti-system thing, it’s more about graffiti for the people. Street art has an ephemeral nature, so I see canvases as several things. The first 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 graffiti I do.
“The second – to be very pragmatic about things – is that the canvases are also a source of financing for the murals in the absence of cultural infrastructure in the region. In Lebanon especially, you cannot finance your work in the street unless you do work for advertising companies and brands. Although some people do it, I do not like to associate my style with a certain brand. I do not want to promote something that I do not believe in. This is the most important thing. An artist has a concept, an idea. It’s not about making a product and selling it. It’s about a concept, a message and a belief, 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 your style as an artist and be criticised and make sure that what you’re giving to the streets is the best thing 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. His creative process is hectic. 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 this collection of locations, of calligraphy, of patterns, of quotes, of poetry, and of portraits most of all, and I just collect them without anything in mind. Then, whenever I find a good location and it’s contextually relevant, I try to group these elements. I group them on a sketch, but the most important thing is for it to be contextually relevant.”
And there’s no trouble with the law?
So what happened with Beirut Municipality back in February?
“There was a bit of distortion of the actual story,” he replies. “The actual story is that they were removing political emblems and signs and flags because political parties in Beirut have a somewhat aggressive presence on the street. By accident the municipality removed some graffiti and rumours spread that the municipality was going to remove my work specifically, or the works of a few other people. But then I went to a talk show with the governor of Beirut and what he actually said was that there was no decision to actually remove the graffiti and that this was a mistake. He then invited graffiti artists to apply for permission to get their graffiti done and said he would re-issue the permits for the graffiti that was erased.”
So Beirut largely tolerates graffiti?
“It’s true, 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 graffiti heaven.”
* Published in Emirates Man, June 2015
Top photograph: Yazan Halwani’s ‘Fairuz’ in Gemmayze