Crime or art?

The writing on the walls: Beirut’s graffiti mixes Arabic, English, colors and pictures to make vibrant street art.

In a city still struggling to recover from a decade and a half of destruction and defacement on epic scale , the idea that drawing on a wall is a crime isn't particularly persuasive. In Beirut graffiti almost functions as an antidote to the vandalism the war years wrought and the haphazard reconstruction in the years since.

Mohammad Hamdar is one of the organizers of Soundbomb, a week-long hip-hop festival that will include workshops on music and graffiti, followed by a concert with Palestinian and Lebanese rappers on November 7. Hamdar remembers what happened to some friends who had a run-in with the law while spray-painting a wall. “Each time they saw a police car they hid.” But the cops eventually caught up with them, only instead of reprimanding or arresting them, the police, “helped them and put the light of the car on the wall because they saw the guys were doing something beautiful.”

Michele Paulikeviteh, another organizer, says, “the mentality here is different because you have a lot of walls and buildings destroyed or not renovated because there are no funds…The state can’t do it with everything they’re handling right now, so when someone takes the personal initiative to do a drawing on the wall and tries to make it look better it is appreciated.”

Paulikeviteh added that when her organization, In Concert, which cultivates local talent through workshops, jam sessions and concerts, first sought authorization for a space where young graffiti ‘writers,’ as many prefer to be called, could practice their skills, she was nervous that the proposal would be rejected out of hand. But the response was so enthusiastic that the officials were even suggesting other walls to paint.

Street skills workshop

Following up on that first effort, Soundbomb aims to develop the skills of local ‘writers’ by exposing them to ideas and influences from the outside world. They have enlisted German graffiti writer Roland Karl, whose tag is Stone, to lead a workshop that will begin with a discussion of graffiti history and end with the participants painting a stretch of wall along Corniche al-Nahr.

Karl has been involved in the graffiti “movement” in Europe for about as long as it has existed. He’s been painting since 1983, and was one of the first in Germany to adopt the signature feature of the New York City scene — where the graffiti phenomenon was born —  spray painting trains. Karl says that “graffiti has never been a bigger movement than it is today. Out of the US it grew into Europe and it’s now a worldwide phenomenon.” He has been an active participant in the globalization of graffiti. As the curator and driving force behind a group called Cubabrasil he coordinated an innovative cross-cultural graffiti project that brought Cuban, Brazilian and German artists to the streets of Havana in an effort to “bring colors into grey and dirty places.” The project had official backing, despite, as Karl noted, the inherently subversive underpinnings of the art form. He said Cubabrasil succeeded in its overarching goal which was to spark a graffiti culture on the communist island.

In Beirut graffiti is already well aflame and Karl says he is particularly impressed by how quickly the art form has evolved here. “The only thing lacking is the proper materials and I’m sure that will come soon,” he says.  In the meantime, the artists must make do with what they have, and one of the focuses of the workshop will be on how best to use the available supplies.

He said he was particularly interested in the local scene, “because they use Arabic letters and graffiti is all about letters, it’s about writing your name and writing things beautifully, so I want to see what they are doing with Arabic letters and show them what we are doing with Roman letters.”

Drawn by the burgeoning graffiti culture, Karl said he wanted to get a sense of how Beiruti artists were approaching the medium, “to see how far they are and bring them knowledge about things they haven’t yet been exposed to.”

He says the city is well suited for graffiti, given the abundance of open spaces, walls and structures in need of beautification.

Hamdar sees the workshop as a chance for artists to focus their visions and hone their skill.   “What they are doing is expressing themselves, but they need more to illustrate the situation in Lebanon, because they are talking about the situation, about the problems, about everything Beirut faces but they have too many ideas and they need to know the basics of graffiti how to concentrate and coordinate between the move and the idea.”

The graffiti workshop will run November 4-6. Visit www.inconcertleb.org for more information.