Street art revitalising Beirut with colours and shapes

"Street artists want to help Lebanon and Beirut become a better and brighter place to live," said Jubran Elias, co-founder of the Paint Up initiative.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Street art in Beirut. (Courtesy of Dihzahyners)
Street art in Beirut. (Courtesy of Dihzahyners)

BEIRUT - The giant “eternal mural” of Lebanese diva Sabah that decorates a once-bland building in Beirut’s crowded Hamra neighbourhood is among many expressions of street art that has developed in recent years from being tagging by militias during Lebanon’s civil war to a recognised and appreciated art.

Graffiti related to war and politics filled public spaces as militias scribbled slogans on walls to mark their territory during the 1975-90 civil war. With urban culture spreading in post-war Lebanon, graffiti evolved into widely accepted public art.

“Street art in Lebanon is almost the same as anywhere else. Street artists want to help Lebanon and Beirut become a better and brighter place to live. They are being increasingly acknowledged and praised for their great forms of expressions and for giving the city a fresh and colourful look,” said Jubran Elias, co-founder of the Paint Up initiative.

Elias and Lana Chukri formed Dihzahyners, a team of 10-12 passionate artists set on creating initiatives such as Paint Up to make Beirut brighter through colour.

“We all graduated together from LAU (Lebanese American University) in 2011 and, since then, Paint Up has kept us together. Beirut is a vibrant city regardless of events, and the youth want to make it a better a place, a place that we all can love,” Elias said.

He said the goal is to rejuvenate Beirut through urban and street art projects. They painted walls, buildings, staircases and park benches in broken and gloomy spaces of the city that needed uplifting.

“We started with painting the very steps and streets that we walk down every day. Neighbours in the areas we have painted thanked us, joined us and rejoiced in the colour we spread in their streets,” Elias said.

The staircase in Mar Mikael, one of Paint Up’s most successful projects, drew world-wide interest and was selected in a 2015 article for Vogue magazine as one of nine amazing staircases around the world.

“We want our initiatives to help reshape the locations we paint visually so people who walk on those steps every day and who live in Beirut may also feel they are making the communities brighter and refreshed,” Elias said.

Lebanese street art has been tackling social, psychological and political concerns.

Elias said the millennials’ art has affected social perspectives by creating awareness and proposing solutions. Street art became a form of activism conveying messages of peace and reconciliation with the country’s collective past, marked by a painful civil war.

“We want to sway people’s minds away from politics, from the traffic and congestion of Beirut and offer them something different, something they can feel will provide some relief from all that and also open their minds to wanting to help out their city in the best way they know how,” Elias said.

“We want to, not just stimulate people and help them feel more at peace with their surroundings, but we also want them to feel they are motivated to take the initiative and feel driven to do something for their communities and cities, too.”

Lebanese artists address the country’s turmoil by using popular cultural figures, Arab images, personal reflections, poems and imagination.

Elias said the inspiration to create Dihzahyners came after he and Chukri researched ways to connect with their country through urban design.

“After looking at visuals from around the world of street art, graffiti, outdoor and urban design, we found that painting particular places that needed upgrading would be an ideal medium and that designers could contribute to this powerful use of communication and expression,” Elias said.

Other initiatives to support the Lebanese street art scene have taken place over the last few years, such as Beirut Colours and the Ouzville project, which brought together 25 local and foreign graffiti artists to paint the walls of the poor Ouzai district. The project revitalised the neighbourhood and positively influenced the social atmosphere.

In Lebanon, as elsewhere, street artists need permission before executing large murals. Street art that dealt with politics, sex or religion was censored and artists have been arrested if their work was considered offensive.

Whether it is on stairs, walls or the streets, engaging in their surroundings and the urban fabric of their city allows street artists to understand the importance of how much their touch on public spaces can affect their community, their emotions and moods and their atmosphere.

“Let them love where they live first, in order to love where they’re from as a whole,” Elias said.

More than ten staircases, parks and park benches in addition to walls have been rejuvenated under the Paint Up initiative.

“We have many projects in the pipelines, some independent ones and other collaborative ones with NGO’s or festivals. So stay tuned to see what we have coming up,” Elias said.