How Beirut’s Banksy has brought color to the city’s battered streets
Lebanese graffiti artist Yazan Halwani has taken to the sprawling streets of Beirut in an effort to paint over the city’s war-ravaged past
Lebanese graffiti artist Yazan Halwani has taken to the sprawling streets of Beirut in an effort to paint over the city’s war-ravaged past.
Using stylish calligraphy to create portraits, he has started a one-man crusade to illustrate the stories the streets tell.
All across Lebanon, Halwani’s art can be seen, from the packed Hamra Street to the residential - yet quiet Achrafieh.
Each piece tells a unique tale of Lebanon’s culture - from the famous, homebred artists that have helped to raise the country's profile abroad - to the local people whose stories have touched the hearts of the Lebanese people.
Halwani told Al Arabiya News that unlike other graffiti, he wanted to take a more positive approach with his art.
“Beirut was a city ravaged by war and does not need to be vandalized. But it needs to be reconstructed. So to oppose the trend of what most people do, I said maybe we should be more constructive,” Halwani told Al Arabiya News.
“I told myself that I should do something that has a lot more about identity, the wall should be a reflection not only of me, but also of the city.”
“The way I got into graffiti is a bit childish. I was around 14 to 15-years old, I use to see graffiti in the movies and listen to references about it in hip hop and rap songs in American and French. And I used to think it was cool,” the 22-year old said.
Just as most children at a young age, Yazan's influence came from western pop culture that made graffiti interesting and intriguing to him. Picking up the spray can, he would copy the graffiti artists he saw on television.
“I used to write Yazan in Latin letters in the same practice as it was done in the U.S. and all around the world. What I was doing was following the trend of what was happening in the graffiti world and denying my own identity by doing so,” Yazan recalled.
“At around 18, I began to ask myself the simple question 'is this who I am? Does this show the identity of who I am?' And the answer was a clear 'no,' because personally I'm not some kid who grew up in Brooklyn or Europe, I'm just some kid who grew up in Beirut. So at that time I picked up a calligraphy book from my uncle and started practicing. Instead of writing my name or even signing my pieces I started using calligraphy.”
Lack of cultural infrastructure
“Beirut is a cultural place, which has a strong cultural artistic identity. We have many good film makers, artists, dancers, and singers, but they're completely erased, not by their own fault but because of the fact that there's no artistic infrastructure,” lamented the gifted graffiti painter.
“The sad part is, when you walk in the streets of Beirut, and if you don’t know what Beirut is, you get this idea that it's kind of dominated by politicians. It's just that these people have put their photos and logos everywhere.”
Lebanon is a country that struggles with its cultural identity, split between western and eastern ideologies that have taken their toll on the country and its people, according to The Undergraduate Journal of Social Studies. It also struggles from sectarian strife and political tension within its government.
“What happens in Lebanon is, because the people who are in charge do not try to create this infrastructure, you get the sense that you don’t have anything cultural, so what I am trying to do is to showcase the real culture of Beirut on its walls,” he added.
Painting a positive image
“I used to see a lot of portraits of politicians on the streets of Beirut, so I decided to replace them with more positive portraits such as Sabah, Fairuz, and Ali Abdallah, just people from Lebanon or the Arab world,” the young artist said.
Yazan’s latest mural is of Sabah, the famous Lebanese singer and actress, which is found on the building in Beirut’s Hamra district.
“What happened was I found out who owned the building, approached them started a discussion with the owners and the people who lived in the area. They would always tell me about this golden era of Hamra, and the key of this era was Sabah with her really nice smile,” Yazan said of his latest work.
“Looking back on Hamra, she [Sabah] would add a lot of positivity, and since she passed away less than a year ago, it has a very nice symbolic presence when you take an image of this wall and you see Sabah looking back at Hamra as if she was leaving, and leaving with a smile.”
Halwani - who has painted all over the world, from Indonesia to Germany and further afield in Tunisia - recently graduated from the American University of Beirut and has taken a consulting job in Dubai. However this won’t stop him from doing what he loves.
“I will still pursue graffiti, it’s part of who I am, it became a part of my identity.”