The writing’s on the wall: Tunisian graffitist talks art and uprisings

'Calligraffiti' on a mosque? This artist has done it by merging calligraphy with the spontaneity of urban street art

Saffiya Ansari

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French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed launched his new book on Friday entitled “Lost walls: Graffiti Road Trip through Tunisia” at Art Dubai 2014, the Gulf’s largest annual art fair.

It is a peak into the gypsy-like lifestyle of a rising artist, known for his fusion of traditional Arabic calligraphy and graffiti.

“Calligraffiti,” as the artist calls it, merges the painstaking art of calligraphy with the bold colors and on-the-fly spontaneity of urban street art.

The book acts as a memoir, recounting eL Seed’s journey through Tunisia during which he stopped in small, unknown cities and painted walls with murals inspired by people’s lives.

The publication was unveiled at Art Dubai 2014, which this year has seen 85 galleries from 34 countries and around 500 artists descend on the city for four days, ending March 22.

“I stopped in small cities around the country, meeting people and painting walls to tell the stories of those people,” the artist told Al Arabiya News.

“Painting in the street is something that is out of the box. Having this freedom of painting outside – where everyone can see your piece – it’s a personal challenge,” he added.

No stranger to wide-eyed attention, 2012 saw eL Seed’s most publicized project to date: the painting of the Jara mosque minaret in Tunisia.

Wielding cans of spray paint, the artist painted a verse from the Quran in a 57-meter high mural that was reported around the world, but caught very little media attention in Tunisia itself.

“The only negative thing was that Tunisia – the media – didn’t talk about it,” he said.

Perhaps, added the artist, because it was “something that happened in the south of Tunisia, in a city where nothing ever happens, by somebody who doesn’t live in Tunis.”

More than a statement

Located in the city of Gabes, the minaret project was about more that making an artistic statement.

“Gabes is my home town,” said the artist. “The minaret had been there for 18 years and nobody ever touched it… so I said ‘ok, let’s do it.’”

After consulting with the head preacher of the mosque, eL Seed picked up a paint can and suspended himself from the top of the minaret, using swirling Arabic calligraphy to paint the verse: “Oh mankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other.”

Having adorned public walls around the world, including in the U.S. and Australia, eL Seed noted that the response abroad has been surprising; people are taken aback by the difference from “what they see on TV; all this propaganda about Arab society” he said.

The artist further attributes any negative response to “a lack of education.”

Despite being keen to open dialogue with countries outside the Middle East, the artist says he is careful not to fall into the trap of “cultural imperialism.”

“I used to translate the script into English or French,” he said, “but I stopped doing that.”

Why? Because eL Seed sought to trample the idea of “cultural imperialism – you know when you always have to translate for the big power.”

Also, the street artist believes that the Arabic script “speaks to the soul,” and when the phrase is translated, “it breaks the poetry.”

Graffiti has played a leading role in the recent revolutionary tide sweeping the Middle East. From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, political statements, sardonic commentary and playful witticisms are still being painted on street walls across the Arabic world.

The artist gave his take on the phenomenon: “After somebody shuts your mouth for years, when you have the freedom of saying something, you’re going to shout it.

“If you want to make sure a lot of people hear you, you write it on walls.”