Compelling Words in Public Space: French-Tunisian Artist, eL seed, Writing on the Walls of The World

Words written in Arabic invoke a variety of responses from Latin-based language speakers. One one hand, Arabic appears otherly and foreign — the language of people enduring political and social conflict — a secret code perhaps, disguising malicious intent. On the other hand, Arabic writing is a historically recognized conveyor of poetry, music, philosophy, doctrine, and verse. The letters, always cursive, never Gothic, flow right-to-left in the opposite direction from that of the inquisitive West. An extremely orderly language in its Modern Standard or classical form, it is somewhat ironic that its speakers, obsessed with maintaining its complex written and pronounced nuances, has respected, encouraged, and subsidized free and creative graphical interpretations by its artists throughout centuries, and it continues today on a startling scale as demonstrated by poet-artist, eL seed.


A photo posted by eL Seed (@elseed) on

eL Seed at Doha, Qatar, during the Salwa Road Project, Salah Zribi for DaFoxInDaBox

Fusing calligraphy and graffiti (calligraffiti), eL Seed weaves words into astonishing designs, with the mission to communicate to viewers on aesthetic and emotional levels even if they don’t fully understand the art’s meaning. At the core of his work is traditional Arabic calligraphy where letterforms and the messages they convey are abstracted into complex interwoven motifs that in one way, retain the meaning of the words, and in another way graphically overtake literal readability. Expanding on this, eL seed uses a highly contemporary approach to calligraphy while choosing content that promotes socially constructive ideas, and for his canvas he chooses public space — global public space.

By Ouahid Berrehouma - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Jara Mosque, Gabès, Tunisia, Ouahid Berrehouma

eL seed’s work is found in a broad spectrum of scale ranging from highly trafficked urban areas on epic institutional walls through ruined structures in sparsely populated rural and village areas. His choices of content include religious texts, poetry, literary quotes, and popular proverbs. But the location, design, and content always work together to, in his words, “reflect the realities of mankind.” By using public space as a venue for humanitarian messaging delivered with highly contemporary interpretations of a traditional art form, eL seed disables cultural stigmas associated with Eastern art and the languages it uses. The letterforms are Arabic, his designs are breathtaking, and the messages touch on social issues that spill over geographical boundaries.


A photo posted by eL Seed (@elseed) on

9th century Qur'an, an early kufic example from the Abbasid period
9th century Qur’an, an early kufic example from the Abbasid period, Google Cultural Institute
Ottoman tughra dating from the reign of Murad III, unknown author, M. Ugur Derman, Masterpieces of Ottoman Calligraphy, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, 2004, p.209
Ottoman tughra dating from the reign of Murad III, unknown author, M. Ugur Derman, Masterpieces of Ottoman Calligraphy, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, 2004, p.209

Intricate and ornamented Arabic calligraphy is not new, and artist-calligraphers have for hundreds of years created beautiful interpretations of words and verses even before the language attained stable form. The recording and replication of the Quran, Arabic poetry and literature coupled with increased literacy not mention the important inclusion of calligraphy represented in breathtaking Arabic-Islamic architecture provided massive opportunity for litterateurs and artists to draft elaborate graphical and pictorial representations of the language. Calligraphy was and continues to be a highly popular and respected literary-artistic art form, and eL seed and artists like him have built upon the heritage of their predecessors and have transformed this venerable cultural art form into a contemporary creative venue for positive and constructive messages.

Pictures from the Salwa Road Project, Doha, Qatar, Ouahid Berrehouma

And because eL seed carefully chooses his literary content to support his unifying and humanitarian efforts, he is able to penetrate institutional environments that might otherwise choose less Arabesque-like public graphics or forgo them altogether. Working with massive-scale projects in popular places while also placing equally beautiful calligraphy-art in humbler less-traveled areas reveals devotion to a wide latitude of society, and for an internationally acclaimed artist with installations in Tunisia, Egypt, Qatar, Brazil, South Africa, The United States, France, The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and who knows where else I’m leaving out, he underscores the importance of communicating in all public spaces with parallel execution regardless of popularity and fame.

In another article, I make comparisons of authorized graffiti with its opulent execution and lack of socially challenging content versus an unauthorized version that confronts power and authority to instigate social and political change. eL seed is an example of how to combine talent with strategic content and use them to open the arms of the public to receive both. Not only that, he has devised a way to use the graffiti medium to operate both in public space and in social media too, and in this way he attains extraordinary media coverage of the the idealism he promotes through his art.

At the beginning of this piece, I allude to suspicions evoked by the Arabic language and its words and the anxiety they sometimes cause Westerners. This is not an unfounded observation, and Aljazeera recently published a piece about  Palestinian graphic designers, Rock Paper Scissors, fun folks they are, who created tote bags with harmless Arabic messages to intimidate Western viewers, which the bags did (and selling like hotcakes).

The above bag translates roughly to, “this text has no other purpose than to terrify those who are afraid of the Arabic language.” Funny? Sure. Does carrying these bags help confront issues of Islamophobia and anti-Arabic sentiment in non-Arabic speaking places? Perhaps, and hopefully their use engages positive dialogue about cultural phobias that give rise to secularism and racism from cross-cultural ignorance.

A photo posted by eL Seed (@elseed) on

But eL seed takes a different approach: he uses a specific language from a highly stigmatized region incorporating words and ideas that support cross-cultural unity. In doing so, he neutralizes phobias and delivers an international message that encourages and compliments the best in all of us. No matter what the language, messages of peace and constructive change make public space better, and these messages serve as important reminders to oppose trends in society where public space is neither beautiful nor one that encourages unity among us.


Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.

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