Yasmina Hatem

Yazan Halwani is painting our city

NOW speaks to the Graffiti artist who has made Beirut his canvas

Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani

Armed with his messages, his ideas, his talent, and a can of spray paint - Montana 94 - Yazan Halwani is painting our city. He is making it his own. “Our own,” he corrects, “not just mine. Reclaiming it.” As Beirut’s graffiti scene is visibly growing, Halwani’s work is instantly recognizable -- and definitely unique. 


It all started when he was just a boy, listening to French rap “to be cool,” he heard the French rappers sing about graffiti. He started tagging his name around Beirut (called “getting up” in the Graffiti world,) in the mainstream graffiti style of large letters and funky colors. But soon enough, he felt like it wasn’t right for him. “It was too western, it had no identity,” he explains. “In Europe or the States, it makes sense to tag your name because there is a challenge to it: police squads hunt graffiti artists, they have to be quick, develop a technique, a style. But it Beirut, you can paint during the day, in plain sight, and most of the time no one will say anything. So where is the challenge?”


At 16 years-old, he picked up an Arab calligraphy book from his uncle, and started teaching himself. He also dove into Oriental geometry and architecture, finding his inspiration in Arab artistry and ultimately, finding his identity as a graffiti artist.


In December 2010, Halwani participated in a graffiti competition on Bliss street, where he used calligraphy in a tag for the first time. He won first place, but some artists criticized him, claiming calligraphy wasn’t really tagging. “Whenever you do something new, someone is going to criticize you,” he says. “You shouldn’t copy. You should innovate.” And then it evolved, from using calligraphy, to integrating faces, for a specific message.


“I thought, we don’t have a proper infrastructure to promote culture in our country, yet we have all these talented people. I wanted to give them a platform, promote the faces of our role models, of people who inspire us.” He wanted to remove the faces of politicians plastered all over the walls, and replace them with the faces of people we can look up to. 


He started with the face of Samir Kassir: a tribute to the murdered journalist. He painted the face, then painted his signature calligraphy around it, and a message, written by Kassir himself: “Desperation is not a fate.”


And it went on from there… Fairuz on a wall in Gemmayzeh; Ali Abdallah, the Bliss street iconic homeless man who died a few months ago, in Verdun; and most recently, the face of Mahmoud Darwish, in which for the first time Halwani actually integrated calligraphy inside the face, using it as shading. Again, he used words by Darwish as a message: "On this Land, there’s what’s worth living for."


There is maturity and depth in his art, and yet, Yazan Halwani is just 20 years-old. 


He studies Computer Communication Engineering at AUB (“because you need a strong base”) and finances his art by taking on commissioned work. He is also showcasing his work at a 392RMEIL393 Gallery in Gemmayzeh, in what is the first graffiti solo exhibition in Lebanon. 


Halwani also collaborates with different graffiti artist, most recently with Tasso from Germany, with who he painted a mural on Abdel Wahab el Inglizi street. “It’s always great to collaborate,” he says, “because we all have different techniques and processes, and it’s interesting to learn from each other, and come up with a way to merge together and make a good piece.”


So what is it about graffiti art that he loves so much? “I think it’s a very democratic art,” he explains. “You don’t need to be an art history buff to understand or appreciate it. It’s for everyone!” When he was painting the face of Ali Abdallah on the wall of the Concorde parking in Verdun, a service driver stopped to tell him how much he was touched by his painting. “He told me, ‘I almost cried when I saw this’ and then he told me he wanted to help me if he could, that he would drive me anywhere I want in Lebanon so I can paint. And it was amazing to hear.” Halwani doesn’t like what he calls “elitist art” because he finds it inaccessible. “We can’t all be Malevich and paint a square and call it art,” he says laughing. 


And so he paints wherever he feels he wants to paint, without really being able to explain how he chooses his walls. His process is simple: he uses a stencil just to pinpoint the right proportions, the eyes, the nose the mouth. Then he paints directly with the spray-paint, from a photograph. 


“I know I’m not changing the world, but I hope I’m changing the city a little. Making it my own. Our own, not just mine. Reclaiming it.”

Mahmoud Darwish (image courtesy of Yazan Halwani)

“I know I’m not changing the world, but I hope I’m changing the city a little."