Graffiti in the Middle East: Giving Up Personal Identity for the Sake of Social Justice

A slain revolutionist with her or his living counterpart on a wall near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
A slain revolutionist with her or his living counterpart on a wall near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt

Graffiti was, at one time, unauthorized written or illustrated messages placed in public places using a variety of art materials that facilitated speedy application for the graffiti author. Speed was important, of course, because the author-artist had only a small window of opportunity to paint without being apprehended. Now, however, unauthorized graffiti has given birth to a highly sophisticated authorized art form, and it has changed from an on-the-run public nuisance to a highly respected and sought-after public space art genre, especially in urban areas where graffiti artists can attain significant popularity and media presence. Yet for artists in politically-challenged areas of the world who use graffiti to graphically chronicle resistance, money, public recognition and celebritydom are often forfeited to advance social justice for them and their people.


New York City subway car. Photo: JJ & Special K, Wikipedia Commons via Flickr.
New York City subway car. Photo: JJ & Special K, Wikipedia Commons via Flickr.

When I moved to New York City in the eighties, I was taken by the staggering amount of graffiti — especially on the subways. Nearly every car on every subway line was awash with primitive marker and sprayed insignias along with elaborately illustrated typographic forms, often the names or aliases of the artists who did them. These unauthorized clandestine graphics could be interpreted as creative eruptions that emerged from inner city artists who forced their identity and talent into public space that was not available to them through legitimate means. Creating graffiti was risky: artist faced fines and incarceration, not to mention health issues from using spray paint and permanent markers in close quarters without respirators. Then there were those who were electrocuted while accidentally touching the subway’s highly charged third rail that powers the MTA system. Yet for these artists, the display of personal identity and artistic talent made the risk worthwhile.

A graffiti mural in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York.
A graffiti mural on the wall of a new espresso bar in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York.

Fast forward to 2016 where graffiti has transformed into public art, and the identity of graffiti artist, holds higher creative status than that of the muralist or the environmental graphic artist. Building owners, developers, corporate institutions, and government leaders endorse and subsidize highly opulent graffiti art from a growing community of talented competing artists. Now a publicly recognized art form with extraordinary editorial and social media coverage, including monographs, documentaries, and awards plus an industry-specific selection of art materials manufactured for graffiti, artists clamor for the privilege to create graffiti and gain public exhibition and the identity gratification that results from it.

This type of municipally-endorsed graffiti loosens the time restrictions placed on the artist and thus enhances the aesthetic quality of the art. More time means more prep, longer rendering time, revision time, allowances for PR and social media not to mention interaction with the owner-developers and the public. It is, in a way, a communal act of creating public art.

Yet these images, all taken within the last year, while graphically compelling, do not challenge power and authority, and this includes the graffiti from Turkey that, I presume, was painted in times less confrontational than now. All of them are imaginative, illustrative, fantastic, and in some cases, humorous. But no matter how beautiful and creative the images may be, they are safe. They challenge no one, they expose nothing, and the overall graphical themes can be found in popular graphic novels, animation, and contemporary fine art. These are the images generated by a comfortable artistic community at peace with the reining establishment. The overall feeling of the imagery is introspective and ethereal. They are lavish portfolio pieces that artists can proudly lay claim to and promote, as well they should.

But how does this graffiti differ from resistance-based graffiti — graffiti that intrudes into public space unexpectedly and is essentially an act of vandalism meant to activate us, incriminate leaders, remember heroes, challenge policies, and overthrow governments? When does resistance-revolution graffiti appear, and does it show up only in societies on the brink of revolution? No. It appears also in liberal democratic environments where socially challenging situations and topics inspire images promoting change and resistance. Occupy Wall Street, the 2016 presidential elections, Black Lives Matter, gender identity, the hijab and Muslim women have compelled graffiti artists to direct our attention to important topics like these and a long list of others.

In thinking about authorized graffiti versus its unauthorized counterpart, I will propose an obvious and probably unoriginal thesis: the more confrontational and current the social challenge, the more powerful, creative, and illicit the graffiti response. To be clear, my discussion of these two types of public graffiti and whether or not artists can safely claim responsibility for their work focuses on more pictorial types rather than word graffiti, which although is an exceptional measure of public opinion, leaves out visual symbols that artists use in communicating social issues.

Remembering Trayvon Martin. From Melrose and Fairfax.
Remembering Trayvon Martin. From Melrose and Fairfax.

With this said, there exists a strong correlation between graffiti images in war-conflicted areas of the Middle East and non-conflicted areas elsewhere where social issues drive similar compelling artistic responses. In both circumstances power and authority are challenged, social issues are portrayed in striking symbols, and depending on the freedom of expression or lack thereof coupled with how and where the artists perform graffiti, permits privileged recognition or necessitates anonymity.

Graffiti in Darayya chronicling the Syrian uprising, found on Reddit.

Social-political circumstances in the Middle East — the Arab Spring, violent aggression from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Syrian civil war, freedom of the press, women’s rights, LGBT issues — provide ample fuel any number of public artistic responses, including graffiti, and especially graffiti publicized in social media. When decades-long regimes are threatened by revolutionary movement, and these regimes respond aggressively toward their own people, 20th and 21st century technology enables citizens to make compelling cases to the world using social media and feeding international news sources. With little more than a smart phone, a Facebook profile, Twitter account, and Instagram, individuals and groups can broadcast governmental aggression and wrongdoing live. But at street level, graffiti presents a powerful tactic by using the cityscape as a graphical backdrop to form public solidarity through art that distills relevant causes and political movements into unifying symbols and calls to action. Graffiti, in this way, is essentially revolutionary posters projected directly to public space, each message applied one-by-one; each graphical message unique — even if they are stenciled. Further, the graffiti exposure is greatly extended into the public sphere through cunning uses of the above mentioned social media tool set by the artist, the public, and the media. Bear in mind, all of the images in this article are social media sourced, except for the images taken myself (images showing no source names or links), and even those now are part of public domain through social media.

Unattributed graffiti art in Tunisia, possibly.
Unattributed graffiti art in Tunisia, possibly.

And because graffiti artists communicate conflict from the ground level, we are shown highly emotional candid images of lost loved ones, social upheaval, violence, and death. These are not images put through PR or politically correct filters; they are often raw graphic novel panels conveying despair or hope under extraordinary circumstances. Gisele El Khoury of St. Lawrence University created the below interactive map that presents events of the Arab Spring through graffiti. She states:

During the revolutions, city walls were transformed from display areas for commercialism or government propaganda to vibrant locales of political and social commentary. The streets of Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Sanaa, and Barbar (a village in the north of Bahrain) became places where artists could rebut tyrants, and that provided the canvas on which they could share stories, remember fallen heroes, and speak directly to dictators.

Telling the story of the Arab Spring through Graffiti by Gisele El Khoury, published on
Telling the story of the Arab Spring through Graffiti by Gisele El Khoury, published on

And for Middle Eastern graffiti artists, the business of sending messages to dictators and tyrants bears a type of risk unlike what Western graffiti artists endure, because history proves the power of the public graphic image is nothing to be toyed with, especially when used to confront power and authority in fascist governments. Facebook is overrun with anti-Trump and anti-Clinton memes, and there is likewise in social media no shortage of acrid criticism toward US political parties, religions, corporations, celebrities, or media. But while living under fascist power, visualizing resistance and graphically promoting change can invite imprisonment or death, and graffiti artists bold enough to extend their talents to revolution must make a hard choice: either dilute or eliminate the resisting graffiti content and seek fame bequeathed to artists like them, or discard recognition, and anonymously support the causes of their people with more potent and provocative images.

Banksy graffiti in Behtlahem, Pawel Ryszawa, Wikipedia Commons
Banksy graffiti in Behtlahem, Pawel Ryszawa, Wikipedia Commons

Non-Middle Eastern graffiti artists like Banksy, who create resistance graffiti on behalf of suppressed people globally hold special privilege insofar as they make controversial graphical statements with some protection by being non-Arab non-region Westerners. Banksy graffiti in Palestine is internationally famous, and his images supporting Palestinians and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace appear worldwide. As a graffiti artist, he is an interesting example: although a Westerner, and although an international celebrity, he chooses self-imposed anonymity of artists enduring conflict and challenging power, and his covert persona increases the legendary mystique surrounding his work. He is intentionally unauthorized, and he is iconic of the astounding usefulness of social media for the graffiti artist.

And Banksy is not the only non-Middle Eastern artist whose work appears in the Middle East and is intended to show support for Arabs and their struggles. Many international artists’ work shows up on the walls of Cairo, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and in Gaza to name a few. But like Banksy, their work is facilitated by privilege driven by morals, albeit admirable morals, and not a reaction of dire personal circumstances imposed by suppression or life-threatening powers.

Middle East graffitists contribute public graphical responses to oppressive power that underscores the public demand for change. While their work is perpetually photographed and broadcast globally through news and social media, they often remain unrecognized and unknown because of the danger that is part and parcel to challenging power and authority. The popularity and financial reward available to Western graffiti artists for grand public works is, for many Middle Eastern artists, an unattainable ideal while they and work in highly unstable and often threatening environments. The graphics they conceive are less rendered and refined than the institutionally supported versions in the West. The ideas they create must at once capture the attention of power and authority, the public, and the media. And like the New York City graffiti artists of the eighties, speed is of the essence, and there is a heavy penalty to pay for taking too much time or being caught in the act.

Artists Against Police Violence
Wikimedia Commons
Interactive map, Telling the story of the Arab Spring through Graffiti, used with the kind permission of Gisele El Khoury
Occupy Arab Art

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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