Graffiti artists in New York in the 1980s almost certainly did not have Arabic calligraphy in mind when they picked up a spray can for the first time. All they wanted was to put their tags on as many subway cars, bridges and buildings they could find – anywhere that would win them respect.
But since then, graffiti has achieved a level of respectability they could hardly have dreamed of.
Municipal authorities now apologise when they accidentally remove a Banksy stencil, a urinal that Keith Haring drew on sits in a New York gallery and Jean Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired paintings sell for US$29 million (Dh107m).
In fact, graffiti’s reach is such that it has had a profound effect on a generation of calligraphers, many of them from the Middle East, according to a new exhibition in New York called Calligraffiti 1984/2013.It seeks to show how these two bold, text-based and public art forms have a dialogue that has become increasingly apparent since the Arab Spring.
Calligraffiti argues that, just as graffiti was born of the social unrest in America in the 1970s, artists and citizens in countries like Tunisia and Egypt are using it now to vocalise their frustrations. And one only has to look at the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt to comprehend this point; even in an age of Facebook and Instagram, nothing quite beats a spray can for making an effect.
Calligraffiti was first staged at the Leila Heller Gallery in 1984 by Heller in collaboration with Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her second take, again at her gallery in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, is another bid to create what Deitch, who served as an adviser this time around, jokingly calls a “transatlantic subway car”.
Heller said that she was inspired by the sheer number of artists she had seen in recent years that carried on what she first set out to do. “In those days, you didn’t know if there was a graffiti artist active in China unless you read about it.
“Now with the internet, you see so many of these artists active on social media. I kept saying, ‘I wish had included this artist and that artist in the original exhibition’.”
The two art forms do indeed have similarities that make them ripe for crossover. Like calligraphers, graffiti artists work in a tight circle of masters and there is a set of rules and codes if you want to be known – it is a discipline, in other words. Graffiti became popular through films like 1983’s Wild Style, about the scene in New York and the way in which urban youth broadcast their feelings to entire neighbourhoods long before Twitter.
For artists like Tunisian-born eL Seed, also known as Faouzi Khlifi, it all made sense growing up in the Parisian banlieue he called home. He started spray painting at 16 and learnt his art on the streets with no formal training – his educational background is in business – and later became interested in Arabic and Persian script as a link to his own history. He was also no doubt inspired by what Iraqi-born artist Ayad Alkhadi told me was a “rhythmic and fluid quality that can easily be repurposed as a spontaneous graffiti tag”.
The three contributions by eL Seed to Calligraffiti are the most arresting in the exhibition (he also caught the eye of Louis Vuitton, with whom he would become the first Arab artist to collaborate). They are all Arabic words, written thickly and in large letters in black, pink and red on a white canvas. In each case, the colours are allowed to run as if the words were bleeding, challenging a western audience not used to, say, seeing verses from the Ayah inscribed onto public buildings.