It might not be to everyone’s taste, but Beirut’s cityscape has character. Whether it’s the contemporary architecture that dominates the city’s new development, or the Ottoman, French Mandate and Modernist structures which (restored or in disrepair) echo of the city’s history, Beirut’s urban fabric speak volumes.
Derelict walk-ups and modern high-rises, mosque minarets and church steeples, bullet-strewn facades and mirrored surfaces all cry out for attention, sometimes telling stories some would rather forget.
Elaborating the city’s surfaces – at least in those parts of town not watched by security guards – are the street artists.
A good deal of ink has been spilt on this subject, none more eye-opening than Zeina Maasri’s 2008 book “Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War.” The city’s history of street art doesn’t prevent Western journalists remarking upon, as if surprised by, a “highly revealing graffiti war” here, pitting pro- and anti-Baath groups against one another.
Not all street art need be political. A number of street art collectives have followed P+G crew in presenting a manifesto to avoid political imagery in their work. Such declarations appear to have been provoked by the February arrest of Lebanese painter and poet Semaan Khawam, charged with disrupting public order after police saw him stenciling an image of a gun-toting soldier on a wall in Gemmayzeh.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the Dihzaynerz (pronounced “Designers”) crew. This artists and designers collective recently started pursuing public art initiatives with the mission of making Beirut brighter and more beautiful.
“We are not interested in producing political street art,” says a collective member who wishes to remain anonymous. “Such works divide people. Our projects are aimed at beautifying ugliness. We want to provide an outlet to forget about the doom and gloom generated by politics in this country, to make people smile and relax.”
Members of the group want to remain anonymous so as not to be portrayed as individuals. They believe the group trumps its individual members.
To date, Dihzaynerz has undertaken three self-funded beautification projects. All focus on staircases in the neighborhoods of Sakiet al-Janzier, Bliss Street (adjacent AUB) and Mar Mikhail.
The work on each staircase has its own design, with the patterns becoming more complex with each new initiative.
In Sakiet al-Janzier, individual stairs have been painted in block colors. On Bliss Street, the design mimics a multicolored piano keyboard. The Mar Mikhail project – by far the most ambitious in terms of design size and complexity – sees the vertical sections of the 73 stairs painted in pixelated diagonals. This is only evident if seen from below; from the summit, the Mar Mikhail stairs look like a normal set of steps.
This “it depends on your perspective” aspect of the design is reminiscent of some of the work of the German street art collective Mentalgassi, who in 2010 collaborated with Amnesty International to create a series of fence posters across London raising awareness of the plight of Troy Davis, an American who, despite doubts about his conviction, was executed last year after 19 years on death row.
The Mar Mikhail project took seven hours to complete. It was created by 12 team members, who began painting at 6 a.m. In the future, Dihzaynerz plans to expand their scope, incorporating more freeform drawing and painting and working on other urban surfaces – buildings and rubbish dumpsters.
The term “street art” can send a collective shiver up the spine of more conservative parts of society, implying vandalism. Yet urban street art initiatives the world over have been acclaimed for their role in improving urban aesthetics.
In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, community-driven projects by artists such as the German duo Haas & Hahn have become local heroes for their role in softening the visual edges of some of the most impoverished parts of the city.
The Dihzaynerz say that public reaction to their work has so far been largely positive. Comments on the group’s Facebook page testify to this, with one reading, “It shows how much we need colors around us! It makes us happy!”
“People take photos. Others cycling stop in their tracks. And there have been times when people have said, ‘Why don’t the government do things like this?’” one group member says. “On one occasion an old woman approached us and requested that we add some purple to the design.”
Dihzaynerz has so far avoided the wrath of the authorities. They recall that during the Sakiet al-Janzier project, some concern was aroused when a group of policemen approached. In the end, they did nothing to stop the work.
“The government don’t care,” remarks one member. His words mingle relief that he’s not been prosecuted for his art and a sense of antipathy towards politics in general. “After all, we are just drawing and painting.”