The Message Street Art of Beruit

In recent years, the street art scene in Lebanon has seen a rise in the number of artists and variety of graffiti styles and techniques. Artists such as Zepha, Yazan Halwani, Ali Rafei, Ashekman, Phat2, Kabreet and Fish have been spreading their art and graffiti across the country and particularly its capital Beirut. While some of them have strong messages to communicate, others focus on aesthetics or are inspired by old-school American-style graffiti. Using street art as means of expression, however, has become a characteristic trait for local street artists.

We take you to Beirut to explore the evolution of street art, introducing some of the main figures in the city’s current artistic movement.

Street art in Lebanon saw its rise from graffiti and stencil art during the 15-year Civil War that struck the country in 1975. During this time, graffiti was used as a tool for propaganda by militia and political groups in the multi-sectarian country. Even after the war ended, tensions remained between the multiple political and religious groups in Lebanon. Today the media has taken charge as the dominant means of communication for the constant quarrel between the sect-based parties. The street landscape seems to be changing for the better.

A new generation of street artists in Lebanon’s capital Beirut has taken it upon themselves to change the mood of the city and pull it out of its political depression. Posters of politicians and martyrs are being ripped off the walls to oppose the persisting sectarian divides within Lebanon, which the images reinforce. In their place a more unifying form of street art is spreading in an attempt to heal the country.

Although much street art is still politically driven, most of the art today has turned its focus to aesthetics. This evolution includes a range of new styles and techniques including wheat paste and calligraffiti, a combination of calligraphy and graffiti used by famous artists such as eL Seed.

One of Beirut’s most well-known street artists, and probably its youngest, Yazan Halwani, creates many of his large-scale pieces with the intention of representing unifying iconic figures from Lebanese culture and history. Paying tribute to these legends, his murals function as a contrast to the polarising political characters that preoccupy Beirut’s spaces and media. Although his art as such does carry a political message, it seeks to rise above politics and inspire a better future in Lebanon. Among his most famous pieces is one that depicts Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran on a Lebanese bank note. Another portrays Fairuz one of the most celebrated Lebanese singers through history. In a different category one of Halwani’s works honours Ali, a homeless man known as The Legend of Bliss Street, who passed away a few years ago. This piece intends to bring light to the problem of the displaced people in Beirut and encourage residents to make a difference.

Another recognised member of the street art scene in Beirut is Ali Rafei whose work can be seen in the Ras Beirut area. Rafei’s style varies between freehand portraiture, stencil work and wheat pastes to Arabic calligraphy. Like Halwani, many of Rafei’s pieces carry a strong message, picking up on current issues in society painting them out in an ironic, criticising manner. Among his most recent pieces is a portrait of a man in a suit holding a balloon with the word Me written on it in Arabic. Next to the man is a child straining to pop the balloon. Once, Hamra Street in Beirut had a piece by the artist depicting a police officer wearing a t-shirt with the slogan I Love Corruption. This piece, as well as others from Rafei as well as Halwani, have since been erased, pointing to the fact that although acceptance and appreciation of street art is rising in the city, reluctance still exists towards this form of expression.

Identical twins Mohamed and Omar Kabbani are the creatives behind Ashekman. The versatile street art duo have been main figures of the Lebanese art scene for many years, first starting as a hip-hop group, before moving into graffiti and into the creation of their own urban streetwear brand. Ashekman’s art combines graffiti with urban graphics and calligraphy. The multi-skilled duo use their music and art to express themselves and communicate messages about the injustices and political issues in Lebanon. Despite their frequent sarcasm and mocking of political leaders, the duo keeps a positive tone and a hint of hope for the city and country they love. Their style merges pop culture with history and maintains a persistent focus on Arabic as the language, heritage and identity that Lebanese people should be proud of. The name, Ashekman, is the Lebanese word for exhaust pipe and symbol that has been adopted by the duo. Just as all the dirt of a car comes out through the car’s exhaust pipe, so do the problems in society, metaphorically being released through the work of Ashekman.

Much has changed since the propagandist graffiti emerged in the Civil War, and the current street art scene in Lebanon seems to be blossoming in styles and variety. Although much of the art still expresses political messages these have taken a twist to inspire a better future rather than promote conflicting political and sectoral divides. In building this future these new artists support the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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