Separation wall showcases graffiti
BEIRUT - To exist is to resist, Freedom for Palestine and I am not a terrorist read some of the slogans of Palestinian graffiti, which cover walls, doors and war-broken houses across Gaza and the West Bank.
But the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank remains the main platform for the subculture that is viewed as a global expression of resistance against societal injustice.
Just like the Berlin Wall was an irrefutable monument of injustice in Europe, the separation wall, a physical barrier segregating two peoples, has come under global scrutiny as a testament to modern apartheid.
The abundance of graffiti that can be found on the Israel-West Bank partition has drawn graffiti artists from around the world to also make their mark.
Palestinian graffiti has been present since long before the wall was erected and not long after the Israeli occupation began.
London-based visual and graffiti artist Hafez Omar, a native of Ramallah, underlined that resistance against the occupation was the catalyst for the emergence of graffiti in the territories.
“It didn’t come as an art practice or a practice for self expression, it was part of confronting the obstacles that the Israeli occupation put in front of the Palestinian people,” Omar said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“The kind of graffiti that existed in Palestine was part of a political communication process. It was used as an alternative to not having any regular media outlets to deliver messages… It really helped people to know what the collective stances on events were, and what the next step against the occupation was,” Omar said.
“I remember, I used to know all the news through the walls. My political education as a Palestinian born in ’83 was through messages on the walls.”
Graffiti culture in the Palestinian territories has evolved and took up some of the values that existed in the West but it was not taken away from the core of the art form — resistance against an unjust system.
Just as Che Guevara became the face of revolutionary sentiment, global graffiti culture has become intertwined with the Palestinian cause. Slogans and tags such as Free Palestine and Palestina Libre have become symbols of resistance and peace worldwide.
Hugh Lovatt, of the European Council on Foreign Relations and who has conducted extensive fieldwork on Palestinian graffiti and hip-hop culture in Israel and the Occupied Territories, disputed the idea that modern graffiti was born as a means of subverting a dominant system, whether it is political, cultural or artistic.
“Graffiti is part of a broader hip-hop culture that also includes rap music. The fact that hip-hop culture has been adopted by marginalised youth communities in urban centres all over the world as one of their main mediums of popular expression attests to that,” Lovatt told The Arab Weekly.
It is difficult to dissociate graffiti from hip-hop culture, encompassing a genre of music, a type of dance and a particular visual art — all reflecting perceived communal injustice. Modern Palestinian graffiti is no exception to this rule, according to Lovatt.
For those living in the Gaza Strip, artwork illustrating Palestinian resistance has become part of the landscape but hip-hop culture was a big player in its growth.
Ahmad Seedawi, a Gazan graffiti artist studying at Palestine University, told The Arab Weekly that his interest developed through breakdancing, which he began very young. His knowledge of graffiti grew at a later stage and he learnt the art form through visiting foreign artists and through the internet.
“It started with five original guys who would tag walls in their local neighbourhoods. We learnt at first from a group of Italian artists who came to visit, then a group of Americans also taught us,” Seedawi explained. “I am giving lessons now, every other day, to all sorts of people, guys and girls, young and old. Everyone is interested.”
Attention towards the art form is growing, as graffiti has become increasingly tolerated and encouraged in the Gaza Strip. Following the destruction of the Shujaiyeh refugee camp during Israeli bombardments of Gaza in summer 2014, slogans and drawings appeared on damaged building blocks as a symbol of unconditional perseverance.
“We want the world to know what happens in Gaza and will continue to show it through our graffiti,” Omar said.
The separation wall has also become a hotspot for international talent. Artists from around the world visit the wall to showcase their work on a platform with a global audience. High-profile artists such as photographer JR and graffiti artist Banksy have created large-scale projects that propelled the Palestinian cause.
However, it remains that the origins of Palestinian graffiti, the increase in global attention and the ever-prominent representation of Palestinian solidarity through the visual medium has taken away from the importance of the aesthetics of the work and the artists behind the work.
“Palestinian graffiti is nevertheless becoming increasingly refined and aesthetically complex, most especially in Gaza,” Lovatt commented.
He said, “The way in which the global art form of graffiti has been localised by Palestinian artists, such as the inclusion and adaptation of Arabic calligraphy, has resulted in an increasingly rich and unique art form.”
But Palestinian graffiti is seen first and foremost as an expression of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.
“Focusing on its didactic or political value can detract from appreciating Palestinian graffiti on the merits of its aesthetics alone. Sometimes a square is just a square and nothing more,” Lovatt said.
But Seedawi emphasises how important it is for Gazan graffiti artists to relay messages on the Israeli siege and destruction in the Gaza Strip.
He said, they will “continue to colour” the walls of destruction, and “continue to hope” that Palestinian graffiti is not only used as a symbol of suffering and protest, but as an art movement towards collective justice.