Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Les Murs-murs de la ville (Or how the city tells its tales through the walls)

Recently, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have paid close to 2 million Dollars for an artwork. The work in question belonged to graffiti artist Bansky who has become in the span of a few years the name to drop if one is to say that one is hip, art-oriented, and “in the loop”.

Yet, for all its wonder, Bansky was not the first to break the ranks from boy-running-away-from-the-police to art-wunder kid. Jean-Michel Basquiat did it before him, transforming stencil spray into iconic art, but as they say “there’s nothing better than a brilliant young artist, than a dead brilliant young artist.” Basquiat’s death at an early age put a definite limit to his art output, sending the prices of his works into an exponential curve.

But is graffiti art? Well, the question raises itself as Beirut is bit by bit engulfed in a new wave of graffiti artists spraying over walls… Whereas some of them do a better job than others, it is worth noticing how walls – glum, grey and concrete – are coming to life with a multitude of ironic twists and turns. It takes a while to get into the skin, but suddenly, with a trained eye, there they are: An ice cream cone with – at first glance nothing peculiar – yet, the eye suddenly spots two peculiar dots inside the scoops…. Then the brain does the math – “Oh my God, nipples! These are breasts and not ice cream scoops!”… Or the spraying of the football player kicking a ball with protruding lights from it – “It’s a bomb!”….

Others have a humor which is less subversive and yet attack issues just as important. “Here is my body for you to have” says the spraying under one sprayed image. Are these the memorable words of Jesus Christ? Yes. Is it his image sprayed? No, it is that of a woman. Taken out of context, these words suddenly appear lusty and provocative.

Another recent spraying goes “So what?” and somewhere else on the wall, two men are sprayed in kissing mode (Perhaps reminiscent of Bansky’s own two policemen kissing) and so there rest of the sentence makes poignant sense: “So what? I love him”.

One of my favorites lies at the end of Monot Street, on the wall of a building that can be best seen when crossing under the “ring” bridge. It depicts a man cleaning the street as the surveillance CCTV cameras hover over him.

Actually, aesthetically speaking, whomever done that one, must have known the Bansky style: Few colors, rebelling against the system, mocking it without going to extremes, easy-to-grasp gimmick… All the ingredients that made Bansky the anonymous celebrity (Yes, Bansky’s identity is not revealed), he is today.

Another interesting one is the work sprayed underneath the Sagesse bridge in Achrafieh. Children are seen helping one another to plug the electric cord of a television set which flashes “News”. Maybe in its anticipation of the highlight of the day for many Lebanese, maybe in the naivete suggested by the children interested in something supposed to be for “grown-ups”, no matter what the reason is, there is something about that work just simply glues the eyes and the attention.

Yet, for all their “here today, gone tomorrow” prouesse, these works are taking the city over, subverting it, lightening up its moods, giving stories to its walls, stories which – unless documented could be lost forever. Some of the photos I have, and I pride myself in that, are of things which exist no more. Photos taken in the southern suburbs of wall-paintings of a bazooka piercing the Israeli flag (Signed Hizbollah), or that of the Golden-domed mosque in Jerusalem in the background with the “Hezb” fighters marching solemnly in the foreground with the words “A’aidoun” (We shall come back). The two walls in question have no doubt disappeared during the July’06 war on Lebanon, yet, to have chronicled their propagandist impact before it vanished is a true strike of luck.

Graffiti and other forms of expression are for me what I call “les Murs-murs de la villes” a French word play on the word “wall” and “murmurs” or stories told in half-tone and in whispers… A recent discovery on a wall left me taken-aback: It is known that in Lebanon, the families of dead people post necrology papers in the vicinity of the house of the deceased or on the site of his or her work, etc…. so that his friends and acquaintances would know the time of the funeral or the hours of condolences. On one such paper, plastered on top was a small bit of paper that said: “Photo ceramica: Ask for a photo made from ceramics, it is not affected by natural elements – sun, water, snow – to be put on your beloved’s grave as a gesture of love and gratitude. Phone number:xxxx”. Really, it was advertising on top of a necrology paper. Someone had actually done the effort of looking for necrology postings and made sure to plaster his niche product over them. One can debate the ethics of this for ages and still not come up with an answer whether this is permissible or not, but such a trick can only be done on a wall. Never through conventional media buy.

Another aspect that only walls can provide? A trompe-l’oeil effect! One of my most recent finds was in the Kahale region.. As one is going up a photo of former president Amine Gemayel can be found on one of the many sharp corners of the road. Right behind it can be seen the words “Do not let appearances deceive you”. A message which is either derogatory to him or sarcastic.

I kept thinking of what it all meant, only to have the answer revealed to me on my way back: Behind the photo of president Gemayel was – hidden by it – an ad for 7up. The ad, wishing to convey that the power of the soft drink is in its clearness (Why not go back to the “Uncola” slogan!) had fido dido present right behind his excellency’s.

Of course, walls are also the playground of “driveway philosophers” to quote Garrison Keilor. The so called cedar revolution spanned so many of those – people who in their own homes and with their own wit – outbeat the best copywriters of the land with their slogans. The classic “Faja’nakom moooo” (We surprised you, didn’t we?) in Syrian slang, or “Souriez, ils s’en vont” with the double word play of “souriez” (Smile and “Syrians”).

Every once in a while one comes across a sentence written by some shop owner that puts his or her appellation as a creative writer to shame, “Khod fekra w shtere bokra” (Come have a look and be back to buy tomorrow”. I saw that handwritten in a second-hand clothing store and never managed to get over its humbling effect. “Argilet Sarkis, ahla khedme w asra’a service” (Sarkis narguileh shop, best and fastest sevice – only in Arabic it rhymes).

One of my favorites dates back to the old Phoenicia hotel, before it was renovated. As we were shooting a movie in its confines I can across a sentence written on a door “Be nice to the cutomers, they are the ones paying your salary.” Only a manager could come up with something so pragmatic and twisted, a member of an advertising agency would have come up with something more creative perhaps, but it would have missed the point with the staff.

Examples of such nature abound on walls, away from mainstream gems of advertising – be it copy or aesthetics – can be found in forgotten corners of the city, short-lived, unreferenced and unprotected they die without anyone taking notice, just like whispers fade off or sometimes go unheard.
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