Graffiti: Beirut’s creative pulse
Beirut - Wandering around the streets of Beirut, the city’s history is unveiled, splashed on walls amid the influx of burgeoning construction projects and towering skyscrapers.
Posters of martyrs, political flags, logos and pock-marked buildings are a reminder of Beirut’s turbulent war-riddled past. But in a landscape that remains politically polarised, artists have taken to the streets to beautify and reclaim the walls with imaginative forms of graffiti and street art.
At the forefront of this movement are twin brothers Omar and Mohamed Kabbani, who operate under the pseudonym Ashekman.
Part hip-hop duo, urban street wear brand and graffiti artists, the locally and internationally established pair, who are in their early 30s, first marked the walls of Beirut with their distinct blend of graffiti and Arabic calligraphy in 2001.
On a stormy afternoon from his snug studio, Omar Kabbani recounted their unconventional introduction to the craft: “[We] lived the aftermath of the war as we used to walk from our house to school and [would] see the militias stencilling their logos.”
These encounters propelled them in a more positive direction, he said. “Our aim was to beautify the city after the war,” Omar Kabbani said. “We wanted Beirut to become an art museum that is open [to the public]. The walls are for free, you can walk around and see everything.”
Along with the Rek Crew and P+G crew, the graffiti artists set out to cover bullet-pierced walls and political posters with vibrant visual displays.
Ashekman’s works tackle many of Lebanese society’s inherent conflicts in playful ways. Apart from adorning walls with the faces of iconic Lebanese figures, including the likes of singers Sabah to Fairuz and Wadih El Safi, Grendizer, a Japanese cartoon war robot, is a prevalent character in their work and is used to mock what they see as unreasoning allegiance to oppressive religious and political factions.
Comprised of countless Arabic letters, the robot’s head can be seen under a bridge, in Ashrafieh, one of the city’s oldest districts, with text in Arabic that reads: “The people’s champ”.
“I believe in him [Grendizer] more than any politician, president or leader,” Kabbani sarcastically asserts.
The city’s graffiti scene has flourished with the emergence of a new wave of artists.
At only 22, Lebanese graffiti and calligraphy artist Yazan Halwani has been leaving elaborate murals across the city.
“It’s kind of an over-arching message,” he said of his work. “At the end of the day, this city should be ours, not somebody else’s. I’m just telling people you can do something to reclaim the streets. I’m not superman, just a guy that paints a wall and acts on the city in a positive manner.”
“I wanted to create murals that kind of defined being Lebanese or Arab, by painting the people who are not necessarily celebrities like most people think, but just people,” Halwani said, adding that these renditions reflect “the diary of the street itself”.
Some of Halwani’s portraits of familiar locals have included a respected homeless man named Ali Abdallah, who died due to exposure to the cold one winter night. More recently, on the side of a four-storey building in Dortmund, Germany, he commemorated a 12-year-old Syrian flower seller by the name of Fares al-Khodor, who was killed in an air strike upon returning to Syria.
“At the end of the day I feel that when I paint a mural it is more or less of a conversation [that I have)] with where I am actually painting the wall. Whenever I find a place that has a nice context where a conversation can emerge, this is where I choose,” he added.
Perhaps one of Halwani’s more recognisable murals occupies a prime spot on Beirut’s famous Hamra Street on a landmark building that used to house the celebrated Horseshoe café, an epicentre for intellectuals and creative people. A stylised mural of the revered Lebanese singer Sabah can be seen casting a wide smile at the entrance of Hamra as tiny Arabic letters appear to seamlessly float around her.
Ameera Kawash, the artistic director of Artspace Hamra, a gallery and multidisciplinary space inside the building, explained: “We were very happy because we had just moved in and several artists also have their studios in the Horseshoe building. We knew it was going to have a lot of visual impact and really highlight the Horseshoe building as a landmark building with art.
“I think that graffiti at its roots is all about transforming neighbourhoods and making cultures seem more accessible and open to the public. “When you have Sabah, who is such a positive and iconic figure smiling down on Hamra, it definitely helps [represent] Hamra as a hub for arts and culture in Beirut.”