It’s not everyday you hear Beirut referred to as “paradise”, but today’s local street artists indeed see it as just that: a paradise for street art. In fact, the whole country is full of empty concrete spaces and barren, unpainted buildings calling out for color, plus authorities don’t usually seem to mind (with some known to have even joined in on the painting), so artists can work in broad daylight in populated areas where their work can be seen by large crowds. Local artists say their foreign counterparts are impressed with Lebanon’s potential, and many of them have left their beautiful marks on the country’s concrete.
Street art today is continuously evolving and moving into new creative directions, far from the inner-city vandals of the 70s and 80s in New York who tagged names on as many walls as possible to mark territory. As street art increasingly becomes a legitimate artform, graffiti artists are shifting their styles, mediums and platforms to change the environment around them.
Like in any artform, individual artists develop styles and signatures, but overall patterns emerge among artists from one part of the world. Lebanon’s street art scene didn’t start to get attention until the early 2000s, a few decades after the US and Europe, so its style isn’t that distinct just yet. George Khoury, whose graffiti you’ve probably seen signed around town as Phat2, points out one thing that distinguishes Lebanon’s collective street art style is the tendency to do daylight painting, as opposed to artists in other countries who often paint at night to avoid getting caught. Working under the bright light of day is easier and results in some truly creative masterpieces.
Another local distinction is the use of Arabic, which has also evolved into the widespread use of calligraffiti. The Ashekman twins Omar and Mohammed Kabbani say their signature is to always use Arabic. They began as a rap duo in the early 2000s, so graffiti was a natural next step to spread their name around town. With time, they evolved and integrated social and political messages into their work but the one constant has always been Arabic.
Meanwhile, Yazan Halwani (fun fact: he’s the Kabbanis’ cousin) is a self-taught Arabic calligrapher. Very philosophical in his approach to his art, he realized early on that Western-style graffiti was “at a complete disconnect with the history of Lebanon and the art history of the region.” Researching the visual elements of local culture brought him to calligraphy, though his style is a strong shift from the dogmatic rules of the traditional practice. He stopped using words in his art years ago, and today uses Arabic letters as pixels – something inspired by his degree in computer engineering. “You can express meaning without writing anything, just with the letters,” he says, which is why when you look at the face of Sabah in his mural on Hamra street, it looks like there are musical notes floating around her.
Painting portraits of famous Arab figures is another local trend. Yazan says his reason for doing this is a counter-reaction to political posters splattered all over Beirut, especially around elections. But famous humans aren’t the only portraits on Beirut streets. Many artists around the world chose to paint characters that become part of their signature style. For Ashekman this has been the action hero Grendizer as well as The Muppets characters – including the famous Kermit that greets you at the entrance of Achrafieh. Alfred Badr signs his work as EpS, but he’s probably even more recognized for his crowned monkey character, which he’s now taken onto canvases too.
One such canvas was exhibited at the recent Urban Dawn street art exhibition in Beirut along with the works of Ashekman, Yazan, Phat2 and other locals, alongside international stars like Shepard Fairey and Retna. The exhibition was brought to Beirut by a big believer in street art and in Lebanon, property developer Ayad Nasser. He says the mere existence of art in any society promotes a sense of community, and street art specifically is a more dynamic art form that lets artists communicate with the public. The second edition of Urban Dawn in Beirut was held through October and November 2016 at the dark and futuristic construction site of Factory Lofts. Nasser explains, “Street artists are often motivated by a cause or a conviction, which is why they sometimes present socially relevant content infused with esthetic value to attract attention to a cause or as a form of ‘art provocation’,” adding, “We can make Beirut a beautiful city through art instead of destroying it and [polluting]it with garbage.”
As part of the exhibition, several artists from various countries including Russia’s Ntook, the US’s Andrew Schoultz and Brazil’s Finok and Ethos created masterpiece murals in Beirut. Nasser says he wanted to paint the city in the hopes of unifying and beautifying different parts of town, noting that Lebanon’s public has been increasingly appreciative of all forms of art over the past decade. “Beirut’s street art scene, although still in its early days, has witnessed a growth in popularity through social media and the fame acquired by a couple of very talented Lebanese graffiti artists,” he says.
Such initiatives encourage the art further, and teach locals new practices. In 2012, as part of the White Wall event organized by the Beirut Art Center, Elie Zaarour, known in the steet art world as Zed, worked with Chile’s Inti on the giant mural of a strange creature with a goat at the end of Hamra Street. EpS says international artists love to work here because they enjoy the relative freedom and virgin territory, with plenty of unique touches like the blue street signs on Beirut buildings. He and other Lebanese artists sometimes also travel to various cities to pick up local styles and leave their mark on foreign lands.
But according to Curator 19.90, the organizer behind Urban Dawn, it’s better to develop a local style of one’s own and not follow the ideas of others. The curator warns, “Don’t do what other cities have already done. A lot of Lebanese artists are inspired by big American and Brazilian street art stars, and automatically you can see similar motifs in their murals. [Instead], concentrate on the traditional culture and try to express it on the streets.”
There’s a wide variety of street artists in Lebanon today, partly because the term encompasses quite a lot of artforms and a series of recent events and initiatives suggest our urban culture is blooming in new ways. In an effort to disrupt Beirut’s monotony, the popular Dihzahyners group has injected a much-needed pop of color to large inner-city stairways in the city. Similarly, The Chain Effect organization uses bike stencils, bright colors and inspirational quotes to encourage Beirut’s cycling culture.
But as in any creative field, there is bound to be criticism. To veteran artist Benoit Debbane, who says he began doing graffiti shortly after the civil war as a teenager, tagging is downright visual pollution. “It’s a responsibility when you draw on the street because it’s not about you. It should be making things more beautiful for people,” he explains. He is also disappointed by some of the art he’s seen recently and advises, “Start thinking about the messages you want to convey. We have to be poets, real artists.”
Part of the reason he moved his art from street walls to canvases is the disrespect he saw for other people’s work. Though street art is expected to be temporary, there’s generally a certain code of ethics among street artists not to destroy each other’s pieces. Of course this still happens – crooked words and an occasional body part get sprayed on beautiful pieces. While artists agree it’s aggravating, most take it in stride. EpS explains, “I have no permission to paint on the street and I still paint. So when I finish it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s their right as much as it is mine.” Zed echos the same sentiment: “I don’t mind because it belongs to the streets.”
But Zed is a professional artist who says he hasn’t been very active on the streets lately, though he has plans for upcoming murals. “I haven’t stopped sketching. I have a lot of ideas waiting to be executed. When I find the time, I’ll work in the street again,” he says. Zed adds that a lot of people have moved away from doing traditional graffiti: “You could do things that are more qualified to enter the market – there’s a business around street art – and now artists aren’t just doing pieces in the street, it’s quality work.”
In fact, many of these Lebanese artists live off their craft. They are often commissioned to work in Lebanon and around the world, in private residences, restaurants and clubs, for events or other initiatives. Today, the Ashekman twins are still musicians and street artists, adding to that a design studio and their own line of streetwear and merchandise. EpS is a full time artist but also likes to take it to the streets, sometimes partnering with other local celebrities like Exist, Fish and Maalim.
“We’re blessed because we’re in the right place at the right time. There are opportunities for street art in Lebanon and the region to open up to the world, and we are in the most active country in the Middle East,” says EpS, adding, “because we have no rules.”
This is a three part article on street art in Lebanon. Read More: