Monday, March 3, 2014

Beirut: Graffiti is dead. Long live subversion.

Photo credit: Ashekman

Back when the graffiti and stencil scene was reorganizing itself into crews, when young men would do nightly touch-and-go paint on walls, when everything was still haphazard and still oh-so-promising, I starting documenting those works - for better or for worse... Then in 2009 I teamed up with rap/graf' crew Ashekman (the Kabbani twins Omar and Mohammad) to do a song and video based on my book ArcheWALLogy (which was released at the same day as triple package - Farah Samman's design is still a classic till now). Even later when a very financially at ease friend wanted a graffiti, I commissioned the boys and documented the works with - wait for this 1,200 images - that were later constructed in a stop motion video.
The graffiti they did was "the stone in your country, remains for you and for your child" (a way to decry the massive way old buildings were destroyed in Beirut). Mind you, you may ask what's so subversive about this? Well, the wall in question was on the garage of where exceptionally rich tenants would park, and the idea of them having to see a graffiti day in day out was itself outrageous (sample comment: "Are you going to erase these dots on the concrete when you finish the wall?" asked a very well-to-do inhabitant as I was holding the ladder for Omar and it took all the might in the world not to burst out laughing at the question and therefore leaving the ladder for Omar to break his neck).
The reason I am bringing all this back story is because of the new BLC live graffitied billboard which the Ashekman guys did today (as shown in the image above). It's just the continuation of a trend which has been growing massively as of late - graffiti artists accepting commissions from major corporations (most of the time banks, or insurance companies or other boring institutions who want to look hip, young, and cool to the public).
There was even the big graffiti exhibition "White Wall" in Beirut Art Center (which, yes, was sponsored by a foundation which is attached to a big bank), and when I suggested during the press conference to keep the Beirut Art Center open at all hours because graffiti might not belong indoors or otherwise it might loose its defiant stance, my suggestion was laughed at publicly (save for a couple of graf' artists who thought it would exactly express what the medium is all about).
These days, a lot of things related to graffiti in Lebanon are not spontaneous, nor come from grass-root mentality, nor are they subversive, or thought-provoking, or defiant. They are merely a collection of visual items which are waiting for a sponsor that thinks that by linking themselves to a culture that is supposed to be in-you-face and pseudo-illegal, some of those qualities will whitewash their hidden corporate practices.
I really respect the talent of Ashekman and many of the other guys in the graff' scene, and I am all for them making money from that talent. However, to be honest, and despite me being a staunch supporter of the medium and even giving it academic legitimacy (remember that final year project at USEK by Marilyn Daibes which aimed at marketing Ashekman as a brand) I am reluctant to like what is going on: Much of the visceral energy which accompanied the original emergence of the scene has now fizzled away leaving only marketing departments assuming that by associating themselves with graffiti, they too will regain a certain halo or mojo.
The "grand dame" that originally studied graffiti - Maria Chakhtoura - and published the first ever Lebanese book about it, told me in an interview that graffiti began with the combatants of the Lebanese militia writing with coal on walls, but as soon as they veered to stencil... Something went amiss. There was no more rawness. No more attitude.
Graffiti is dead, long live subversion.
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