More specifically, 19 examples from on and around Armenia Street in the Lebanese capital’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood, as a very abbreviated introduction to the burgeoning Beirut street art scene.
I didn’t have the opportunity to wander the city’s streets nearly as much I wanted to, so I’m sure that this limited selection, mostly stencils, is not wholly representative of what is being produced. But it does provide a good springboard for further exploration with a large handful of very recent additions the the city’s urban canvas.
I was mostly struck by how similar the designs are to some that I’ve seen in cities half a world away –minus of course the Arabic script which is art in and of itself. The calligraphy is especially appealing when viewed through the window of a slowly moving car as the colorful characters and brush strokes seemingly rain through the scene as you pass, a temporary but nonetheless welcome moment of respite from the chaos that is the city. Unfortunately, I don’t have any images, still or moving, of that, just a fleeting mental image that I hope will linger for a very long time.
According to this 2013 intro in StreetArtNews, artists began taking to the streets with spray cans in the mid 1970s when the Lebanese Civil War, which wouldn’t end officially until 1990, largely divided the city in half. Out of political necessity, much of the early work was propagandistic in nature –much of that still remains– but has also taken on a more aesthetic richness in an attempt to move away from the division that marked the city’s recent history.
Halwani had grown up with the “feeling that there was not much place for culture” in the city. After the war, “the politicians did not want to reinforce the cultural infrastructure – the public museums, theatres and cinemas; places to push non-sectarian, secular culture through.”
Halwani wanted to create street art that was different from the logos of the political parties: “the people that were doing the vandalism were politicians and they were destroying the city, trying to benefit from it. I wanted to do something different – I wanted to do something constructive for the city.”
And so he resolved to populate the city’s walls with figures that “counteract the sectarian identity” that the politicians seek to reinforce, “with a more national one to try and redefine the culture in terms of these people, instead of the people that feed on dividing Lebanese culture.”
It’s important to Halwani that he listen to the communities around the walls before painting, to “make sure the graffiti is growing with the city and not against it.” He’s not, he’s keen to stress, “trying to force myself on the city, on the walls. You have to ask questions about the geographic area, the context, to paint something that reflects the city in a positive way.”
At first I was doing Western-style graffiti with its flashy colours, the wild styles, the tagging – stuff like that. At some point, around [the age of] 18, I noticed that I needed something that had more identity. In order to do that, I started looking at calligraphy. My uncle had a calligraphy book and he showed it to me, and I’ve been borrowing it for a few years now. I don’t think I’m going to return it.
Halwani notes that he’s encountered few problems from the police who have sometimes even asked if they could join him.
For more, check this September 2013 post from Beirut.com that features “Our 20 Favorite Graffiti Pieces in Beirut Right Now”, which also includes links for further exploration.
If anyone knows who the artists are, let me know and I’ll add credit. If they agree, of course.
All images made on 10 November 2015.
And for the record, the lead photo serves as today’s Pic du Jour, the blog’s 700th (!!) straight.