“Beirut Law Hakat” (“If Beirut Spoke”), what would it say? What stories would the distressed city tell? Some possible answers to these questions can be found in the street art and graffiti found throughout the city. The artists behind these works offer a deep insight into the current social upheaval and chaos afflicting Lebanon today. Their distinct works and bold pieces of art give voice to a young culture in Beirut that is beginning to speak. With the help of social media, design, and artistic tools; Lebanon has come alive with graffiti art. Even though there is great tension between citizens and the government, graffiti has found its way onto the decrepit streets, bridges and buildings of Beirut. The complex social situation and civil war in the region have shaped the street and visual iconography of Beirut today.
According to Arabic Typography there are three major teams that contribute to this movement: Parkour + Graffiti (P+G), Red Eye Kamikazes (REK), and Ashekman. Parkour + Graffiti (P+G) started in 2006. Their works, based on current culture, carry strong political connotations. This group does not focus on words but rather gravitates to characters that highlight color and positive energy. Red Eye Kamikazes (REK) is more well-known outside of Lebanon. Their logotypes and sayings have appeared on handbags and posters, with such sayings as “Beirut Law Hakat” (“If Beirut Spoke”). Unlike P+G, REK veers away from the political message and focuses on the core of Beirut, its people, “the shaab” and reflects their positive notions. Unlike the groups Parkour + Graffiti and the Red Eyed Kamikazes, Ashekman’s work is based on political writings.
“Militias in Beirut used to tag walls with their emblem during the war, marking their territories and today various political leaders have tagged their figures stencils all over the city. Ashekman’s politically influenced messages take certain innuendos and turn them to the group’s benefits.” (Abdulmalak)
Ashekman claims to use their art as their weapons. They incorporate a blend of urban graphics, Arabic hip-hop, Lebanese proverbs, Latin type and Arabic type (like Tarek Atrissi).
In Lebanon, graffiti is not illegal but recently there have been crackdowns on graffiti art in Beirut. The first prominent arrest was of a Lebanese painter, Semaan Khawan. In early February of this year, he was caught spray-painting an image of a faceless soldier with a gun. He was charged with disrupting public order, even though his work is in support of citizens. In another incident, two activists (Ali Fakhry and Khodr Salemeh) were arrested for spray-painting an image of a recycling sign with a caption reading “Syria: The Revolution Continues”. Semaan addressed the government’s concern over graffiti art in the following statement:
“The reason this graffiti is bothering the authorities more than the graffiti I’ve done in the past is because I’m not only taking on the touchy subject of the civil war, but I’m also talking about the army, which is a major taboo in our society. Before me, a graffiti artist named Ali had depicted police officers and written, “I love corruption” next to them. His graffiti art was quickly covered up with paint. Depicting soldiers, however, draws even stronger censure from the authorities.”
In the United States graffiti art is illegal, except in areas that are designated graffiti sites. For example, there is an area in Queens, New York called 5Points, where it is legal to spray paint images over the walls. Graffiti art in America began as protest and has since developed into a craft in its own right. True graffiti artists do not partake in vandalism but attempt to add to their urban surrounds with their art work. Like contemporary graffiti artists in the United States, the artists of Lebanon do not deprecate private property, or paint on a clean wall. Samaam argued in court that “we understand that theoretically we cannot destroy public property, but we know that the walls of Beirut are quite ugly, so having nice drawings and graffiti on them is not something that’s degrading public property, it’s adding value to public property.” The link below shows the viewpoint of one Lebanese graffiti artist.
The arrest of graffiti artists in Beirut is cause for concern. Street art including graffiti is a means for ordinary citizens without much influence or voice to express themselves and their viewpoints. When a government is disturbed about art portraying social, economic or political issues; it indicates a deep level of mistrust between authorities and a country’s citizens. This can lead to further break downs in already strained relations. What is it about this work that makes critics like the government apprehensive? There are often moral principles behind the messages spray paint artists illustrate and the regime in control may not be comfortable having those particular views aired publicly. Semaan made a comment after his arrest saying that he will continue to create graffiti art because it is his “civil right”. Graffiti is an expression of one person’s view of the world. This art allows the ordinary citizens of Beirut to have a voice. The recent crack downs on graffiti art make obvious that the government of Lebanon does not, in fact, want to hear what its people have to say.
Abdulmalak, Hala. “Graffiti Brings Beirut Alive.” ArabiTypography.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Sep 2012. <http://www.arabictypography.com/pages/posts/graffiti-brings-beirut-alive-2.php?searchresult=1&sstring=lebanon>.
Atrissi, Tarek. “Tarek Atrissi Design.” . Tarek Atrissi Design, 2012. Web. 5 Sept 2012. <http://www.atrissi.com>.