‘Beirut Never Dies’

March 15th, 2007 | Posted in Culture

    The writing on the wall says ‘Beirut Never Dies’


    By Nichole Sobecki. The Daily Star. Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BEIRUT: “We have the bombs,” jokes hip-hop MC and occasional graffiti artist RGB, aka Rajab Abdul Rahman (RGB refers to the root letters of his first name). He shakes the plastic bag he is holding in his hands so the spray cans inside clang and echo hollowly in an otherwise empty parking lot. RGB and his colleagues – 6K, Fish and Rat – empty the contents of the bag on the ground, distribute the cans, pull their scarves up to mask their faces and begin. Bands of silver and black paint spread across a bullet-scarred wall. Hours later, they step back to survey the night’s labor. Boldly emblazoned across the wall are graffiti letters taller than their creators, proclaiming in capital letters: “Beirut Never Dies.”

“The thing about the words we use is that they are meant to touch everyone, not one specific group of Lebanese people. Everyone reads it, everyone knows Beirut and everyone loves Beirut,” says Sari Saabed, the graffiti artist known as Fish. Working in and around Beirut, Fish and his friends RGB, 6K (Eli Alexander Habib) and Rat (Ramzi Tyan) represent a major part of Beirut’s emerging graffiti culture.

The exterior walls and vertical surfaces of the Lebanese capital have long hosted the scrawled messages, names, errant curses and pointed protest statements of prototypical graffiti. Since the 1970s and even earlier, political campaign posters and the stencils of various parties and militias have made their mark on Beirut’s urban fabric. Sites such as the so-called “lovers’ stairs” next to the American University of Beirut have provided space for an increasingly sophisticated visual language, as simple spray-painted lines have developed into fatter, more stylized letters.

But the watershed event in the proliferation of Beirut-based graffiti came two years ago today, as the rolling demonstrations that followed the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri hit their high point. Taboos about giving public expression to such issues as the Syrian presence in Lebanon fell hard when slogans like “Syria out” appeared scrawled over construction walls in Downtown Beirut, a neighborhood that had been completely free of graffiti (or any other signs of accidental, unplanned-for urban life) since the area was redeveloped by the private land bank Solidere. Since 2005, instances of graffiti have spiked all over Beirut.

RGB, 6K, Fish and Rat create a message of unity that differs dramatically from most of the other street art in Beirut, which is used, more often than not, to define and label the artist and neighborhood within a system of class and identity politics. The red stencils of the Progressive Socialist Party, the peeling and scratched-out posters of political figures and images of the cross above the words “Hallowed be thy name” are testament to the fact that, even in the absence of physical barriers and checkpoints, Beirut remains in many ways a divided city.

“In Lebanon, almost everything has an exclusive nature: Politics [are] organized along strict sectarian divides; primary, secondary and advanced education [are] perfectly possible in a secluded, exclusive environment; even memory and history [are] kept within exclusivity,” says Joost Janmaat, a member of Partizan Publik, a think tank based in the Netherlands that focuses on “global social engineering,” meaning the generation of social and political change through a specific set of tools and actions.

On the walls of Beirut now, Janmaat argues, a new form of urban international cooperation is forming. Last November, for a project entitled “Beirut Unbuilt,” more than 50 architects, urbanists, writers, artists and students from around the world met with a group of local artists and architects, including Tony Chakar, Michael Stanton and Bernard Mallat, to propose ways in which the reconstruction efforts already under way should cater to public space. Organized by Archis in cooperation with Partizan Publik and the Pearl Foundation, the event dealt with spaces of construction and destruction in Beirut and South Lebanon.

At the end of the event, Janmaat decided that “public space was not something you could implement [with] a blueprint.” He teamed up with several other participants in an experiment they called “Public Space Invaders.” The night after the funeral of slain Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the “invaders” began to lay claim to the streets and squares of Beirut.

Armed with spray cans and a stencil reading “Public Space” in English, French and Arabic, the group stenciled its message from Sassine to Hamra. The night’s work culminated with what the group calls its “piece de resistance,” a stencil on the Martyrs Statue – made with the approval of soldiers who were on duty at the time.

“In some weird logic, on that night, the soldiers guarding the public places and the engaged vandals reclaiming places for public use somehow were there protecting the same [thing]: an open society, inclusive to anyone, exclusive to no one,” explains Janmaat.

“I don’t consider my work political. What you see now is that politics have increasingly become the domain of fear. What we are trying to do is to depoliticize the streets,” he adds.

Graffiti often suffers from its reputation as a subculture for rebels against authority. But Beirut’s graffiti shows how the artists often diverge and connect with a wide range of attitudes.

London-based graffiti artist Arofish, who gives as his real name only Jim, has been putting up stencils in Beirut since the war last summer. Also an activist, his work carries a strong political message. “There are different ways to try and change the world,” Arofish explains.

Responsible for the elaborate stencils of men, women and children flying kites in Dahiyeh, a camel branded with the letters “TV” and a highly visible mural of a Sukleen worker stenciled onto a wall in Tabaris, Arofish has worked extensively in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.

“Street art is the only kind of art that means anything to me. I don’t like galleries, I don’t like museums,” he says. Public art differs from privately displayed work by its accessibility to larger, more varied audiences. While art hung in a gallery needs to be proactively sought out, people involuntarily encounter public art during their everyday lives.

“It is easier for people to live in an environment dominated by fear than to open up and invest in public places,” says Janmaat. By captioning their urban environment, these artists offer a reminder that beyond the politicization and privatization that prey on so much of the city, there remain spaces that all Beirutis share. The writing is on the wall, and its message to Beirut is clear: Take back what is rightfully yours, the streets.

1 Comment »

Hi, great article!
Is there a way to contact Arofish or Mr.Janmaat?I would like to interview them for an article I am writing..Thanks!

Comment by Andrea — November 7th, 2008 @ 1:48 PM

Leave a comment

Upcoming events