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When Graffiti Matters the Most : Middle East Graffiti

  • When Graffiti Matters the Most: Middle East arabic
November 15, 2014

It is not about the already created and warped discourses, it is about the people who can change how stories about them are being told. This is not a story of a complex political and cultural region but, rather, a story on people who are working in an effort to change their reality. These people do not use smuggled weapons or thread on the fragility of human life with no concern for its value whatsoever. No, these are the people whose rapport with beauty extends beyond simple aesthetics. They create in order to resist, rather than resist in order to destroy…

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From the Zoo Project in Tunisia, by Mohamed Hanchi

Art Versus Conflict

If one of the main characteristics of street art resides in the notions of embedding a certain message, of socio-cultural and even political nature, into the aesthetics of an art piece, then we can safely assume that the context of the artwork itself becomes a very important aspect of the work (read more in our article Why is Urban Art Inherently Postmodern?). The nature of certain affairs in a community becomes simultaneously the source and final purpose of street art creation. In this instance, street art can be a crucial way of expressing the need to fight against a dominant ideology. Through the power of symbolic resistance, art becomes more than a message of social commentary, more than an object of beauty, it becomes a certain way of communicating within a society (read more on this in our article Urban Art’s Symbols of Resistance). This is the activity which presents itself as an important instance within a context of social conflict. Although it is a grand generalization to mark the entirety of the cultural space of Middle East as a space of conflict, and thus characterize it through extreme eurocentrism, we shall try to look at the activities of those artists who create when faced with state oppression and burdens of social injustice…

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Banksy, Ballon Wall, West Bank
  • When Graffiti Matters the Most: Middle East

When People Matter

When it comes to the urge to create, a street artist is faced with one particular instance. In that moment when the artist starts to create in an urban context, he or she becomes part of a solitary situation. Afterwards, the artist disappears, without being able to see or feel the first and direct reaction to the piece. This is especially true for those artists who create in a context where the illegality of graffiti borders with oppression. One man has felt this since the beginning of his journey as a street artist. A1one was one of the first people to start writing graffiti in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The artist had been arrested and held imprisoned on various occasions, and had even been in conflict with his peers, the very people who should have supported him. Despite all of this, the artist stayed focused on creating street art, articulating Persian calligraphy and Western graffiti style, with an effort to present his critique of the Iranian society. Fortunately, A1one is no longer alone…

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A1one, street artwork, Tehran

To Have Hope

One artist who is deeply connected to the cultural space of Middle East is certainly the Los Angeles-born and Tel Aviv-raised Know Hope. Interestingly, Know Hope has repeatedly said that he was not a political artist and that the intentions of his art do not lie in political activism. However, the artist’s goodhearted activities have shown that the messages of his puppet characters echo deeply in the minds of the public. With the inclusion in projects of social activism, such as WOW (read more in our article Wide Open Walls of Gambia), Know Hope sends an inherently political message of peace and fight against injustice.

When Graffiti Matters the Most: Middle East
Know Hope, artwork

To Resist

Many a times, we were deliberating that one of the most important elements residing in the nature of street art can be identified as a strong need to influence the hegemonic nature of a context where an urban art piece resides (read more in Defining Street Art?). If street art defines itself through resisting the dominant or suppressive aspects of its surroundings, how does this battle look like in a society where some of the basic human rights are not respected? The Tehran artist Black Hand has tried to oppose some of the dominant discourses of the Iranian society through the only power a street artist has – subversive artwork. There have been many reactions, not even to mention the ones within the digital world, to the Black Hand’s street artwork depicting a woman in a football jersey of the Iranian team holding up, instead of a trophy, a bottle of dishwashing liquid. In the month of July, during the World Cup, this was a powerful message concerning the issue of forbidding women to enter football stadiums (read more about the artist in the article Black Hand of Tehran). As for the image depicting the auction of human organs, this is an art piece powerful enough to bring one of the most important issues of a society to the surface of public discourse.

When Graffiti Matters the Most: Middle East
Black Hand, street artwork depicting kidney sale auction

Freedom of Expression

There are numerous aspects to be considered when talking about issues such as the impact of bloody wars or, more recently, the Arab Spring, which took a part of the cultural space of Middle East by storm three or so years ago. These aspects are a complex mixture of cultural, social and political influences and should never be generalized through orientalistic notions of otherness. This is where the role of an artist must be crucial. A role which takes into consideration the cultural instance of a certain space (for an interesting view of paradigmatic activities by artists, read our article Walls of Freedom). When it comes to the role of art, and especially that which is created in public space, there is, perhaps, only one fight which is important – a fight for the freedom of expression. This is the only way to achieve a position to resist the oppressive forces of society. In the words of a great philosopher of our time, Edward Said: “Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”

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When Graffiti Matters the Most: Middle East
Anonymous Pharao by Marwan Shahin, Alexandria, detail