In the past decade Street Art, (a.k.a the art formerly known as graffiti) has developed not only to lose its stigma as mere vandalism, but to become a practice that has been celebrated the world over. Street artists such as Banksy have helped raise the stakes and with the advent of social media, we have been able to observe thought-provoking work from cities across the US and Europe to Africa and the Far East.
Beirut has not been immune to this trend. Pieces of street art have been appearing across the city for years – mostly in styles inspired from other global artists. However, in the past few years, we have seen an emergence of street artists that have embraced their own style, bringing in a cultural flair to their work that makes their pieces not only unique to them as artists, but to Lebanon as well.
Yazan Halwani is one of these artists. Known as one of the youngest street artists in the Middle East, he is known for his portraits of Fairuz, Ali Abdallah and Mahmoud Darwish, and his work has truly added a cultural and meaningful twist to the definition of the art. His distinguished calligraphy skills are to thank for making the walls of Beirut that much more irresistible. We sat down with Yazan to find out what inspires him, what moves him and what makes him take to Beirut’s streets.
AlRifai: What first triggered your attraction to street art or even art in general?
Yazan: Before street art, I wasn’t really involved in art. What influenced my attraction to street art actually surfaced in an immature way. At the age of 14, rap songs and movies had a lot of graffiti, and I thought it was the next cool thing. I started off copying the style of graffiti I saw in the West, such as in New York or even Europe. But after time I started realizing that my graffiti drawings were too western and it was ignoring our own culture. That’s when I changed two things: usually graffiti artists write their own name on their work, I stopped writing mine and instead I started writing messages. And then I stopped using styles from the west and started using Arabic calligraphy.
AlRifai: In basis to your art, what or whom is your inspiration or muse?
Y: I don’t have a specific muse, but I have several inspirations. One of them is Arabic calligraphy style, however, I don’t use the traditional ones. I try to come up with several of my own styles to modernize this old script. My second inspiration would have to be all the different styles of graffiti around the world, just observing different artists’ work. Another not so obvious inspiration would be the oriental form of art such as the geometric patterns and Islamic architecture. The most important inspiration especially when I’m drawing in Lebanon is the city itself and the messages of the city. The one thing that motivates me to actually get up and paint these walls is to make the city prettier in actual hopes of my messages inviting change into the city.
AlRifai: Do you have a certain style or theme that is incorporated in your work? Or do you just draw whatever comes to mind?
Y: In the past couple of years I was able to create my own style, which is a combination of Arabic calligraphy and portraits. After a while, when people started noticing this combination they started saying “this is Yazan’s work.” Other than that I also like to do some calligraphy improvisations, which is actually adapting my calligraphy to the environment of the city.
AlRifai: When you’re ready to start working on a piece, how exactly does the process work? Are you a planner or its more of a pick up and go?
Y: Because you are drawing on the walls of the streets you can’t pick up your can and just go. It needs somewhat of a plan because you have to finish in a day or two. Especially if you are spraying a large surface, you cannot do it more than once. What I do is, everyday I draw sketches related to calligraphy or collect photos. I do bits of a mural; I never draw a full mural on paper and then take it to the streets. If I have certain styles that I like, I save them as well as the locations. And even sometimes when I see that certain calligraphies match certain pictures and even the location due to the colors, or even social context, I keep all of these in mind and all of these bits and pieces come together on the wall itself. So basically it is improvising with a bit of planning.
AlRifai: Now that your art has been noticed and admired, a lot of artists have been inspired by your work and tend to have similar looks. What is your signature touch that people will automatically know it’s your work above the other similar ones out there?
Y: It’s true, some artists have been inspired by my work and honestly it’s not always a pleasant experience especially when it looks a lot like the original work. I don’t mind if the artist gets inspired but adds his own taste, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. One of the things that distinguish my piece to others is actually the cleanliness of the piece. Arabic calligraphy is supposed to be very clean and have some sort of standards. Just by approaching the piece you can see if the calligraphy is clean or not. I also tend to pay attention to how the piece fits in the environment. For example some artists only paint part of the wall. So when they take a picture of only the piece it might look good, but when you take a picture of the whole street the piece might look unaligned with the street. I pay attention to such detail because I see a successful graffiti piece as part of the city, not just and ad to advertise your work. This is something I truly believe; your work shouldn’t be a billboard but a landmark.
AlRifai: Have you ever drawn outside of the walls of Lebanon?
Y: Yes I have. A few months ago I was in an island in Tunisia called Djerba where 150 artists were invited from 30 countries. I don’t know if you know how the houses are in Djerba, but they’re very small white houses with domes. So they invited these 150 artists and let us loose, so to say, and gave us spray cans. Some of the artists that were there are some of the best in the street art scene in the world. I was very proud to participate in this project and the exchange and interaction amongst other artists was truly amazing. Also it felt great to represent Lebanon myself, I was the only artist from Lebanon. There’s always a difference when you draw outside of your comfort zone. In other places graffiti is looked at as vandalism but in Lebanon since the walls are already so dirty, the piece of graffiti is an improvement to the city not a bad thing.
AlRifai: Which leads me to my next question, have you ever gotten in trouble with the cops?
Y: The cops are very nice actually. One time I was working and they came and said hello and asked me if I have a permit to do this. I told them, I honestly don’t but I’m just here painting the walls making it better, not worse. They said yeah it looks nice but it’s illegal. So I started telling them that I’m not related to politics or anything of that sort, I’m just here making it better. They told me “ya3tik el 3afye.” And one of them actually started painting with me. I have a picture where one of the cops put his M 16 on the side in order to use the spray can, symbolically I really like this picture. But other times I do get in a bit more trouble where cops stop me for hours asking me questions. But I learned that they are honestly just doing their job and the key is to be polite. Once they see you’re a positive person they will let you go without any problems.
AlRifai: Has your work ever affected anyone on a deeper level other than admiration?
Y: Yes, there was one incident that happened that I thought was really nice. I was painting my favorite piece, which was the Ali Abdallah portrait located in Verdun right after he passed away. Once I finished the portrait I still had to work on the background. So a taxi driver stops when he sees me, and his car is barely running; it’s literally about to fall to pieces. He stops and looks at us for about 10 minutes and doesn’t say a word. I continue to work without stopping and after 30 minutes he asks my friend to call me over. He tells me, “Look I don’t have a lot to offer, as you can see my car is about to collapse but when I saw that you’re painting Ali Abdallah, it really touched me profoundly and I feel like I’m going to cry…I just wanted to thank you, and if you need a ride to paint anywhere in Lebanon I will take you and all your stuf; I don’t care if the paint ruins my car, I will take you just so you are able to do what your doing.” Honestly this touched me a lot because this guy didn’t have much to offer. But the one thing he was able to offer, he was willing to spare it to support my paintings.
AlRifai: Is the decision of your locations spontaneous? Or is there a meaning behind every location?
Y: This is actually one of the things that aren’t very rational in the whole process. I have a lot of locations that I take pictures of and save. I basically know all the walls in the city and sometimes it’s the color of the wall or the environment itself. It has something that’s not purely rational. For example, I’ll pick a wall and tell my friends this is a nice wall and they laugh at me and tell me it’s just a wall. Some of them are very attractive to me, sometimes they aren’t as exposed. I’m not sure but sometimes there are certain walls that stand out to me more than others, not all walls are created equally.
AlRifai: Do you usually ask permission to draw on some walls? Or do you just do it until someone says something to you.
Y: I used to do highway walls, and those are public property therefore I never asked for permission. But later on, I moved my pieces into the city in order to have more interaction with people and I also would do it on some people’s houses. So when I started doing that, I had to ask permission not from the government but from the homeowners themselves. I usually tell the homeowners that I spray the walls of the street, free of charge…here is the sketch. If they like it then most of the time they give me permission. And if it’s not on houses, they’re usually on dirty walls that already have ripped posters or scribbles on it.
“I kind of see it as a Robin Hood situation. I sell my pieces to the people who can afford them and then I give the money to the poor wall in the streets.”
AlRifai: You’ve mentioned before that you have a studio; do you also paint on smaller canvases to sell to people?
Y: I only stick to street art, but to be honest it needs a source of financing to be able to survive. So what I do is I produce canvases of smaller versions of my street art for other media outlets. So I actually paint my art and sell it. I kind of see it as a Robin Hood situation. I sell my pieces to the people who can afford them and then I give the money to the poor wall in the streets. I also do a few gallery shows as well.
AlRifai: How do you feel about people defacing your work after you put your heart into them?
Y: It’s annoying to be honest, I’m not going to lie to you. Especially now that people are defacing the faces on the portrait. It’s not very pleasant because the portrait takes the most time out of the whole mural due to the detail and the time it takes to get it right. Every time there’s a portrait, the face takes the most time. Fixing it and making sure the details and the shadows are right. But at the end of the day it’s street art, and whenever you put art on the walls it’s like parking your bike on the street without a chain. You’re going to expect someone to steal it. So that’s how I view it in terms to my art; it’s all part of the game.
AlRifai: Which techniques and tools do you use to perfect your paintings?
Y: I use a lot of tools. I mostly use brushes and acrylics for the calligraphy, spray paint for the portraits and sometimes for the details I use stencils. It’s a mixture of different techniques between freehand, stenciling, and calligraphy. However, the calligraphy is purely done freehand without stenciling, and the portraits sometimes I use some stencils.
AlRifai: Do you see your talent turning into a full time professional career? Or do you have other career plans.
Y: I actually have other career plans. If I actually were to take graffiti as my career I would be more concerned with making it profitable rather than worried about doing a good job, because these two aspects might not be going in the same direction. I’m actually at AUB completing my computer and communication engineering degree, which is not related to art directly. Even though my career paths don’t match, at the end of the day I’m going to continue painting every chance I get. I’ll leverage my other career with art in general, in hopes of creating some infrastructure in the Middle East because that’s something we really need.
AlRifai: Where do you see yourself and your work in the next 10 years?
Y: That’s actually a really tough question. I really don’t know to be honest. Things change, I hope my plan is to keep on painting and hopefully do bigger and better pieces along with the ones I have. Also that my pieces become a part of the face of Beirut. That is the ultimate plan but I don’t know how close I can get to it.
To view Yazan’s artwork, just walk the streets of Beirut – namely in the areas of Gemmayze, Verdun and Bliss.