Scrawling Beauty (Syrian Graffiti)

A series of workshops are helping to bolster graffiti in Syria as an art form with a distinctly Arab flair.


Photos Fadi al-Hamwi

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Abeer Boukhari said. “I don’t like graffiti.”

This statement was particularly remarkable because Boukhari is the founder of All Art Now, the first and only art gallery in Syria to promote graffiti among other alternative and new media arts. The reason for her dislike, she said, is because graffiti in Syria usually imitates Western style, using Roman characters and rarely incorporating Arabic elements into it.

“The essence of graffiti is expressing yourself, your feelings and your political or social views in your own words,” she explained. “You can’t copy that.”

To combat what she considers this encroaching foreign influence, Boukhari has organised three graffiti-painting workshops during the past three years, the most recent of which ended in August. Through them she hoped to encourage local artists to create graffiti in Arabic script. However, while the most recent workshop resulted in 20 graffiti works, only two were in Arabic.

For workshop trainer Fadi al-Hamwi, this comes as no surprise.

“For a start, it’s natural that artists would do graffiti paintings in English, because that’s what they’ve seen so far,” Hamwi said. “We don’t have a history of graffiti painting after all. It takes time to develop our own style, but obviously artists want to tackle their own problems and will sooner or later do that in their own language.”

Graffiti as expression

While graffiti is often thought of as colourful, elaborate aerosol paintings in public spaces, the loosest definition of it is anything scrawled outdoors, such as ‘tags’ – spray-painted initials and gang signs – and monochrome business signs and advertisements. Most ‘graffiti’ in Syria is the latter, simple written words that promote commercial products or shops. This vandalism offers no aesthetic or artistic benefits to Syrian culture, Boukhari said.

“Graffiti reflects the street’s pulse and Syrians have always been traders who use all possible tools to promote their goods,” Boukhari said. “You see countless graffiti signs written by hairdressers, plumbers and taxi drivers offering their services. They often even include phone numbers.”

In Syria, Boukhari said, graffiti then becomes synonymous with either vandalism or commercialism, rather than with art. She hopes to change that.

“Syrian graffiti is as different from Western [graffiti] as the two cultures are,” Boukhari said. “While old Syrian architecture used to be beautiful, elaborate and comfortable… today no one considers aesthetics in Syria, not in architecture or in graffiti or anything else. Thus, graffiti is deforming the city.”

Occasionally, however, graffiti is used as a tool for expression, and tackles the three major taboos in Syria: politics, religion and sex. Like Boukhari, 25-year-old graffiti artist Samer al-Barzawi considers artless words written on public property to be pure vandalism. He wants to substitute it with the elaborate wall paintings that he began creating nine years ago. He also suggested creating murals that replace public-ordinance signs.

“Instead of writing ‘don’t throw rubbish in the street’, why not paint a man throwing a piece of paper next to a rubbish bin in the street?” Barzawi asked. “That’s a more effective and beautiful way to do it.” Eventually, he hopes to paint elaborate works in public spaces, such as on the walls of primary schools.

A tool for change

Boukhari believes that graffiti can also be a tool for positive social change. That is why, apart from one training for local artists that focused solely on graffiti techniques, the three workshops Boukhari organised mainly revolved around using graffiti as a tool to achieve change.

The first workshop she organised, with the Roman Orthodox Patriarchy and the Syrian Family Planning Association in 2008, raised awareness about the importance of sexual education in Syria. Participants were invited to attend lectures about sexual health, then learned how to use graffiti to raise awareness about the issue. The most recent workshop tackled communication between parents and children. In both courses, the gallery invited young Syrians, between the ages of 16 and 25, to participate. Few were professional artists.

“Graffiti is not for artists,” Boukhari said. “It’s for the people in the street who have something to say. The Germans used it to revolt against the Berlin Wall and young people use it to express their views.”

Artists like 16-year-old Munther Dureid are using graffiti to express their points of view. Dureid said his goal is to help preserve Arab identity, which he feels is threatened by “the Westernisation of youth”. Instead of painting in public venues, however, Dureid draws Arabic graffiti on paper and posts images of his creations to a ‘virtual’ wall on the social-networking site Facebook. In Arabic script, his pieces say things such as “Proud to be Arab” and “Be Yourself”.

Sarah Nouri said she wants to use graffiti to raise awareness about women’s rights through symbolic paintings rather than words. The 18-year-old model is planning to showcase her works in solo exhibitions around Syria.

Urban art

Good graffiti is not the same as vandalism and does not have to be done in secret, Mohammad Ali, a workshop trainer, said.

“Just because the encyclopedia says that graffiti was originally part of a subculture that rebels against authority doesn’t mean it has to remain that way,” he explained. “There are no limits to art and I see graffiti as part of street art and urban art.”

To prove his point, Ali pointed out that cities in many countries have begun to value graffiti so much that they now encourage it. Some city councils even invite graffiti artists to decorate public venues or provide approved areas where graffiti artists are free to showcase their talents in such places as underpasses, car parks and even museums. Sydney University in Australia, for example, has a ‘Graffiti Tunnel’ where painting on the walls is encouraged. According to Boukhari, similar projects are being implemented in Jordan and Egypt. In Syria, graffiti painting is illegal, though it is not strictly monitored.

“We’ve witnessed the history of graffiti in the West so why repeat it?” Ali asked. “Instead of playing hide-and-seek with the authorities, graffiti artists should work hand-in-hand with the governorates to decorate their cities.”

With that in mind, Boukhari is organising a project to allow graffiti artists to decorate run-down areas in Damascus. Currently she is waiting for approval from the governorate of Damascus and the Ministry of Culture for a project to decorate the bus terminal and the concrete columns under the Presidential Bridge in central Damascus. Her design for the space includes murals of green landscapes beside grey cityscapes.

“The location of the bridge is unique because it’s right in the centre and next to the dying Barada River,” Boukhari said. “All Art Now’s main aim is to incorporate art into the daily lives of Syrians. And what better way to do it than this?”

For more information about All Art Now workshops and projects log on to www.allartnow.com.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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Contemporary art as a tool for social change

I attended last week a unique artist talk at All Art Now gallery in Damascus by a real cosmopolitan figure. Born in Algeria, raised in Cameroon and educated in Brussels and Tokyo, artist Eric Van Hove with his Belgian nationality and Dutch surname is anything but ordinary.


Eric Van Hove

His art touches upon this very same intercultural context he comes from. He has toured the world using several art forms from installation to performance, video, photography and writing to discuss sociological, political and ecological issues.

I’m “interested in bringing contemporary art not only to the public space outside of the institutional confines of the contemporary galleries and museums (as is already done since the 1950s) but outside of the Western context itself.” Thus, “questioning the limits and ‘moral competence’ of contemporary art as a western institution once brought outside of its context,” writes Van Hove.

Equally unique is his story telling technique. Similarly to the Kamishibai of Japan who used to tell from the back of his bike different stories based on a number of picture cards, Van Hove introduced in his talk at All Art Now several artworks using photos of his exhibitions in different parts of the world. Van Hove told stories of birds droppings in Senegal, cockfight in Madagascar and X-CUBE lockers in Japan. One of his most striking stories however was that of a neglected little vegetable market in Okinawa Island.

Worms, World War II and the Japanese constitution


The artwrok

While on his tours, Van Hove visited the Noren vegetable market in the city of Naha in Okinawa Island. The result was a unique contemporary art work mixing worms with the Japanese constitution and bonfires. To better understand this hotchpotch of an artwork, a short history lesson is inescapable.

Although Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879, when taken over by the US forces during World War II (1939-1945) its people desperately defended their “Homeland” Japan.

The Island was returned to Japan in 1972 yet its people felt that the Japanese constitution, which was written by US lawyers during the time Okinawa was under US control, didn’t do justice to the Island. As laws governing Japan negatively differed from those governing Okinawa, the Islanders who lost thousands of their people in their fight to reunite with Japan felt discriminated against. It was this sense of inequity and the poverty the sellers in the Noren vegetable market suffered from that Van Hove wanted to address in his artwork.
The sellers, mostly elderly widowers, had the habit of burning at the end of the day the vegetables they couldn’t sell. In an attempt to make money out of the bio waste, Van Hove created a worm farm in the vegetable market to recycle the vegetables into valuable fertilizer that the women could sell to farmers and make additional profit.


The worms digesting the Japanese constitiution

But what does that have to do with the US, WWII and the Japanese constitution?

Van Hove used this very same worm farm to organize a symbolic bonfire of the constitution. He fed photocopies of the Japanese constitution to the worms and broadcasted live the sound of the worms’ digestion of the controversial constitution, which resembled the popping sound of a fire, on the local radio.


An old woman listining to the sound of the worms’ digestion
of the controversial constitution on the local radio.

“The sellers were too poor to have TVs but they all had radios and enjoyed the sound of the worms digesting the hated constitution,” said Van Hove in his artist talk. In fact, some people even wrote down some bad experiences they went through, dropped it in the worm farm and then hugged their little radios and enjoyed listening to the worms eat their pain away.

To read more about Eric Van Hove’s works log on to transcri.be