“Should graffiti be judged on the same level as modern art? Of course not: It’s way more important than that.” – Banksy
Street art is playing a role in urban regeneration throughout the world, such as Melbourne, Philadelphia, and Rio de Janeiro. Its importance is the creation of a communal experience. Street art invites everyone to the conversation, not only the representatives sitting at the decision-making table. And from a visitor’s perspective, it reveals the character of a place.
Before we get there, it is interesting to note the importance of art in Beirut society. Prior to the civil war, Beirut had established itself as a cultural hub of the Arab world. This heritage is shown at the renovated Sursock Museum (the building itself is a piece of art). The curators brought to life the times of the Salon d’Automne, a yearly cosmopolitan event in Beirut showcasing new trends in Lebanese art that molded the Arab scene during the 1960’s. This all hit an abrupt halt after the civil war started in Beirut in 1975. That is a complicated story, but suffice to say that it stunted the artistic development in Beirut until the war ended in 1990.
Street art is a big part of the post-war artistic movement in Beirut. Younger modern artists in Beirut, such as Ashekman and Yazan Halwani, grew up with war-graffiti glaring at them as they went about their daily routines. Warring militias had written their slogans and had painted their leaders’ faces on the walls, claiming Beirut neighborhoods as their territory. Influenced by this war-graffiti, these artists have created a new and distinctly Arabic style. Their murals are characterized by Lebanese icons framed by beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Replacing the faces of political figures with cultural ones makes a powerful statement about the sentiments of Beirut’s youth.
Another type of street art that you will see in Beirut are simpler splashes of color. This is most evident on painted stairways, such as in the trendy Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael neighborhood. These installations are the result of a project called Paint Up, which hosts public painting events. In their own words, from the Paint Up Facebook page, “You want to speak, you want a voice, one that the entire city sees as they walk by every day. That’s what we set out to do. We wanted to be able to disrupt the city, in a peaceful and non-invasive way; in a way which brings the communities some clarity, and transforms stairs into the bridges that connect our streets and alleyways.” Paint Up also seeks to alleviate the strong political divisions that still exist in Lebanon – after all, it took 46 votes and almost 2.5 years to reach a quorum in the recent presidential election. The stairs reflect the desire to heal the old wounds and the vibrant and optimistic side of the Lebanese people.
On the flip side, there is also physical evidence of those political tensions in the city. Lebanon’s political system mandates the consent of 18 different sectarian groups, including Christian and Muslim groups. When no major decision can be made without the consent of all groups, you can imagine how complicated this has become. Throw in wars and conflicts on all sides, refugees, and international influence, and you have a mess that not even those intimately familiar with Middle Eastern politics can unravel.
Going back to its roots, this tension shows up with stencils depicting political parties and leaders, and social commentary. Painted in a simple style using a single color or two at the most, and small and simple designs. The stencil supplies fit in a backpack and are painted quickly, making it quick and easy to replicate all over the place. Take this piece found in Mar Michael. Looking carefully, you can see that there is Arabic script coming from the mouth. The message blares the disgusted reaction to current political rhetoric.
In Bourj Hammoud, a section of the city originally settled by Armenian refugees during WWI, you find these references to the Armenian Genocide stenciled throughout the neighborhood. You will also see “April 24” stenciled in green, which is the date in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals were arrested and later executed at the start of the Armenian genocide. Lebanon is the only Arab country and one of the few countries in the world that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide.
Beirut is covered with these political stencils, covering topics from the Syrian civil war, conflicts in Israel and the Arab world, to support for local political movements. Many of these are tagged in Arabic, making it difficult for a non-speaker to fully appreciate.
Stencils are being used to highlight social commentary as well. You’ll see stencils of famous figures, such as Lebanese singer Fairouz and Bob Marley. One of the most prominent stencils that I noticed is the Live Love Beirut stencil. Live Love Beirut is a movement initiated by the youth in Lebanon. This stencil is symbolic of the emerging heart of Lebanon. The design reflects its history and its drive to progress, its pleas for unity and its desire to show the beauty of Beirut to the world. Live Love Beirut also maintains a popular Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/livelovebeirut/?hl=el). What do you think street art says about a city? Is it graffiti or art?