Culture

Beirut street art in a protest cauldron

BEIRUT: Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets nationwide since Oct. 17, demanding the government’s resignation, an end to political corruption and an overhaul of sectarian politics.

Droves of protesters have poured into Beirut central district daily. The axis connecting Riad al-Solh Square and Martyrs’ Square - ordinarily a scene of sparse foot traffic - has transformed into a raucous carnival site, echoing with demonstrators’ chants and speeches, soon accompanied by lectures and teach-ins in spaces like The Egg (the disused City Center Cinema) and Samir Kassir Garden, as well as popular street commerce unheard of in the postreconstruction downtown.

The photogenic spectacle of mass demonstrations echoing with chants and songs have made the civil disobedience campaign a strongly performative one that, naturally, has had a graphic side as well.

Once the demos began, graffiti appeared on the hitherto pristine walls of downtown buildings, adorning reclaimed spaces with words and paintings of revolution and hope.

Standing in Martyrs’ Square this week, the Lebanese graffiti artist known as Exist gestured to a wall where he said the graphic side of the revolution began. Located in a parking lot facing Mohammad al-Amin Mosque, the wall is covered with two-weeks-worth of messages words and images from the uprising.

“Thawra” [revolution] was painted over and over again. Many were scribbled in a hurry, while others were large and detailed. One part of the wall bore the slogan “Our weapon is our words.”

“It started when we painted this wall,” Exist told The Daily Star, “and then we saw an insane amount of people spraying quotes for the revolution and then it spread and covered everything you see.”

One of the first motifs to emerge on the wall was a pig in a suit, by Lebanese graffiti artist Spaz, who is known for painting caricatures and cartoons. “It represents every corrupt politician or capitalist that thinks he owns this place,” Spaz said.

Once protesters removed the construction hoardings and other barriers from the BCD’s quarantined landmarks, like “The Egg” and the Grand Theatre, graffiti and street art quickly covered those surfaces as well.

Pierre, 31, a Beirut-based French graffiti artist who goes by “Meuh” (the sound made by French cows), believes Beirut holds a unique place in the world of graffiti.

The form surfaced relatively late in Lebanon (late-1990s, early 2000s), he said, but it’s flourished because, while writing slogans for or against specific political or religious groups is illegal, Lebanese law is silent on other forms of graffiti.

Meuh says this allows Lebanon’s graffiti artists to focus on “quality over quantity.”

“In Lebanon we can take our time,” he reflected. “People are often surprised at the scale and detail of some of the graffiti. In other places you’ll see something scribbled with two colors that was done in the middle of the night before running away from the police.”

Before the uprising, the three artists agree, taggers and urban artists focused on the technical side of the form.

“Classic graffiti writers write their name all the time,” Meuh explained. “This has nothing to do with ego. It’s about focusing on a bunch of letters and working on their composition, lines, technique and making them look beautiful visually.”

When the revolution started, taggers stopped writing their names, focusing instead on conveying the social and political messages of the revolution. The situation felt more urgent and rushed, the three artists explained, as though they needed to get a message out as quickly as possible. They chose instead to cover the town with words like “hope,” “thawra,” and “freedom.”

“In this situation we were focusing on throwing out messages in the most direct way,” Spaz said, explaining that he kept painting pictures of his graffiti characters but with much less detail, more directly focused on the revolution.

Exist agreed. “The graffiti culture that emerged during the uprising was fast,” he said. “There was rage. It was sharp and obvious. We just wanted to get it out there.”

A major difference that the artists noted was the number of people who came out to participate in the form.

“It didn’t matter whether it was a kid who would write ‘revolution’ with a two-dollar spray can or a local artist that spends five hours doing the best detailed character,” Meuh said. “It’s still way to re-appropriate these spaces.”

The most surprising aspect of the work thrown up, Spaz said, is that “we barely see any political party names being mentioned or [giving] creditability to any party, which is phenomenal for graffiti in Lebanon.” Messages, he noted, have mostly been directed against banks, capitalism and politicians.

The three artists said they were most disappointed by the vandalism that emerged on the religious buildings including Al-Amin Mosque and Saint George Cathedral. “That’s just not what this is about,” Spaz said, “whether you believe in God or you don’t. We’re going to try to organize a cleanup of the graffiti on the religious buildings.”

Another revolutionary canvas has been the Ring Bridge (aka Jisr Fouad Chehab flyover), which connects east and west Beirut. Since the uprising the bridge has been a major site of contention for protesters blocking traffic, security forces and supporters of Hezbollah and Amal who’ve come out against the read closures.

Art for Change, an organization that seeks to redefine street art in Lebanon, invited artists to paint on a wall on the bridge with images spanning from detailed faces to Arabic calligraphy. Art for Change also invited 25 artists to paint what is now known as the “Revolution Wall” beside Parliament.

Following violent clashes between protesters and Amal and Hezbollah supporters at Riad al-Solh, Selim Mawad returned to work on a mural he’d started before the violence. The piece he’d started, ironically, was a statement against sectarianism. Next to it was another, already completed mural, declaring the uprising is a “session of collective psychological therapy for the first time after the Civil War.”

“I’m trying to send a message to even the peaceful demonstrators, that we need to be calm and think about our revolution in the long term and keep the revolt now,” he told The Daily Star. “It’s therapy, and we’re all expressing ourselves, but we need to think ahead, because otherwise we lose the revolt and we don’t get to social revolution.” - Additional reporting by Abby Sewell

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 01, 2019, on page 8.

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