Graffiti, as we know it today, is foreign in the Middle East. The walls of this region are usually clear of elaborate and artistic spray-painted writings and drawings. However, this region is home to some of the most accomplished calligraffiti artists. Calligraffiti — an art form that fuses calligraphy and graffiti — is becoming a common art in the Middle East, where Arab men and women have found a way to create art that mixes the beautiful and traditional Arabic calligraphy with modern graffiti.
One of this region’s most talented calligraffiti artists is a Tunisian-French artist who goes by the pseudonym, el Seed, meaning ‘the master’ in Arabic, which is a name he adopted at the age of 16 from the French tragicomedy book, Le Cid, by Pierre Corneille. This 31-year-old husband and father of two has painted, in spray and brushes, the walls of France, Germany, Canada, US, UK, Brazil, UAE, Tunisia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
El Seed has made his way to Qatar to start a four-month project where he will paint calligraffiti murals on the four tunnels of the soon-opening Salwa Road. El Seed has been to Qatar before in 2010 where he held art workshops at the Museum of Islamic Arts. Qatar Museums Authority’s Public Art Department and the Public Works Authority (Ashghal) have commissioned the French-Tunisian graffiti artist to embellish the underground tunnels on Salwa Road inspired by anecdotes of Qatari culture. “When they had the idea of the project of doing art in the tunnel, Sheikha Mayassa said ‘ok, bring el Seed.’ For me, that’s really revolutionary because in Europe, you get a ticket or go to jail for painting on the highway. But here, they’re asking me to paint on the highway,” he says. “In the Middle East, the GCC, there’s no pelvic artwork in terms of graffiti. Every time they do graffiti, it’s on a wood panel then they’re taken off after sometime, but now they’re asking me to paint four tunnels, about 52 walls, 700 m each wall. That’s big and really cool!” For this project, a team of six assistants, both locals and expatriates of Qatar, will help el Seed prepare and implement his graffiti work on Salwa Road’s panels. Recruitment to the project is still on-going. (Visit the project’s blog: http://www.elseedindoha.com).
Born in 1981 to Tunisian parents, el Seed grew up in France and started spray painting in the late 90’s. “In the late 90s, my generation, we discovered the hip-hop culture like break dancing and graffiti so it was at that time I was into it so it came naturally,” he says. “I used to dance a lot. I used to be a break-dancer and a graffiti artist on the side and then graffiti took over years later.” El Seed was only 16 when he discovered his talent in graffiti. However, around the age of 17, he set his focus on something different — business. Today, el Seed holds a masters degree in business. “I always wanted to do something creative and artistic but nobody ever encouraged me to do it so I took a different path. Their vision is ‘oh, you got to make money. In where I come from, nobody could make a living from art so I was told to do something that I will be able to make a living from,” says el Seed about why he initially didn’t pursue a career in business. “So I studied business but I was always painting on the side. But for me, that wasn’t a life. I used to do my job but my head was somewhere else. I used to paint on the weekend and step-by-step, it became every night then all the time. Then one day, I just dropped my job and said I cannot to do this anymore.” During this phase of revelation, el Seed was put back on rail of graffiti by a French graffiti artist and friend called Hest. “When I was doing business, at some point, I stopped doing everything else. It was killing me. When you feel like there’s something missing in your life, you feel like a vegetable. When I wasn’t painting anymore, that was the missing part of my life. Graffiti was something I was looking for for a long time. I feel like I cannot continue my life without being able to paint.”
The story behind the painted walls
Painting on the walls of Al Salwa Road is el Seed’s second biggest project. His first biggest project is when Tunisia’s tallest minaret went under el Seed’s spray paints and paint brushes in September 2012. The minaret of the Jara Mosque in his hometown, Gabes, was painted with a verse from the Quran preaching tolerance. “That was the biggest challenge I ever had,” says el Seed. “The entire city was watching me. It was crazy. People were pressuring me. It was kind of mafia in Tunisia, pressuring me. It wasn’t tough painting it. It was cool. I loved it but people didn’t let me do what I want and threatened me. I was scared for me and my family. I was watched all the time.” This three week project took el Seed 10 days of thinking as he battled through being pressured. “People were saying ‘what is he doing? Why is he touching the mosque?’ In the 18 years, nobody ever touched it. The imam told me people are afraid to touch it,” says el Seed. He was told to paint the wall blue although he didn’t like the color. As a result, he was accused of having a political agenda, either being pro-Israel or pro-al Nahdha, the leading political party in Tunisia. “I’m not al Nahdha. I’m nothing. I don’t have any political agenda. I don’t believe in politics and the way it’s done today,” says el Seed. Soon after, el Seed changed the color for artistic purposes. “I didn’t care about anyone. This is my work. My name will come out of that. It was a big fight, against me and my ego.” This project placed el Seed on the media’s radar, landing interviews and coverage by the Huffington Post, CNN, BBC, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera. However, it wasn’t covered by Tunisian media. “I got nothing from Tunisia. It’s sad because when you have something that succeeds, nobody cares about it,” says el Seed. Regardless of the lack of local media coverage, the international coverage brought attention to the city of Gabes who’s facing major pollution issues.
Like many artists, el Seed does art because he has innate talent and passion for it. “There’s no message I want to send,” he says. “I try to be relevant to the place I am in. I don’t paint my name, el Seed. I like to paint quotes or poems.” In May, el Seed went to South Africa where he painted a wall in Arabic calligraffiti saying, “It’s impossible until it’s done,” which are the words of Nelson Mandela. El Seed rarely paints versus from the Quran, which he has done only twice — in the walls of mosques in Tunisia and France. ‘One place, one wall, one message’ is the expression el Seed goes by when he leaves his art on a wall. “I try to target the community I’m in. I target all the stereotypes about Arabs and Islam. In Tunisia, I was trying to unite people but it didn’t work. People say its fantastic but don’t think what’s written on it and that is what pisses me off because you should think about the message. You can just see the beauty of it and not take the wisdom of the verse,” says el Seed referring to the message (verse from the Quran) left on the — 47 meters tall and 10 meters wide — minaret of Jara Mosque, which says “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other.” He was hoping to bring peace but says people are still fighting against each other.
Although el Seed can spend minutes to months working on a piece, the calligraffiti he painted on the walls have frequently been erased, which taught him to immortalize his peace with his work. However, it does disappoint him as he says, “I don’t get it. I don’t draw naked women or something, or draw someone smoking weed.” However, el Seed’s work remains alive in pictures, which is the main way el Seed’s artwork is seen and promoted worldwide via his website (http://www.elseed-art.com/), Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The artistic labels and choices
Looking at el Seed’s artwork, it’s possible to assume that he’s a professional calligraphist. “I have to explain the fact that I’m not a calligrapher,” he says. “I just paint with Arabic script but people don’t get it.” Many people approach el Seed and ask him, “so why aren’t you a calligrapher. I say ‘I don’t know the rules of Arabic calligraphy. I’m a graffiti artist, painting in Arabic. I do calligraffiti,” he says. El Seed’s knowledge in calligraphy comes from being inspired by many calligraphists in the Arab region. “One of people who inspired me a lot was Hassan Massoudy,” he says. French-Iraqi Hassan Massoudy is one of the most renowned Arabic calligraphists in the world. “Calligraphy is really restricted in terms of rules and stuff. The work of Hassan Massoudy was totally out of anything I’ve ever seen from the way he shapes the letters to the colors he uses. He completely revolutionized the art of calligraphy,” adds el Seed.
The artist frequently finds himself having to explain his profession especially because much of his graffiti artwork is in Arabic writing. “In Saudi Arabia, there’s a big graffiti scene but they don’t paint in Arabic. I remember the first time I went to Saudi; they were shocked and asked me ‘how come you paint in Arabic? Or oh, you can paint in Arabic? I do it so you can do it.” says el Seed. “You’re an Arab, you live here and you’re born here so why are you looking at New York and copying what has been done there. That’s a totally different context,” he told the graffiti artists in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabic language is significantly important to el Seed especially to his identity. Although el Seed was born and raised in France, he never developed a sense of belonging to the country. “You need to feel like you’re part of a community, try to get back to where you come from. I come from Tunisia, my parents are from Tunisia and if you know who you are, you need to know the language so Arabic just came like that. It was a quest of identity more than anything else,” explains el Seed about why he chooses to paint in Arabic. “Being able to paint in Arabic is being able to keep a link with where I’m coming from. If I stop painting in Arabic, I feel like I’m cutting something off because I speak Arabic with my kids and family. I’m connected with Arabic in my everyday life. It’s like my umbilical cord that I put back. I’m breathing with it.”
El Seed would like to do away with many labels. “Even though I take the name graffiti, I think I’m an artist before a graffiti artist because what I do is not only graffiti. I try to do further than that,” he says. The calligraffiti artist also paints canvases using paint brushes so spray paint isn’t his only art tool. “I try to get out of all these labels that people try to put me in. I don’t want to be reduced to only a graffiti artist because when I’m introduced that way, people think it’s not serious,” says el Seed. He also would like to move away from the romanticized label that the media has given him and artists like him. “I don’t want to say that with spray cans we’re giving freedom to people. That’s not true,” says el Seed. “Yes, we’re part of the Arabic graffiti movement and Islamic art renaissance but we’re not freedom fighters. I want to get out of these kind labels that I’m a revolutionary or oriental artist. I’m not part of that. It took me nine months to even think of doing something for the revolution. I’m really pissed off at the artists who, in Tunisia mainly, came and started doing some work on the revolution when it’s so fresh. You can’t speak about something when it’s so fresh. It’s shameful.” El Seed’s first artistic statement, concerning the Tunisian revolution says, “Arabs agree to disagree,” which is a quote from Ibn Khaldun, a famous Tunisian historical figure of the 14th century, known for his groundbreaking historical, political, social and economic research. “People say I’m part of this awakening but we were awake. We were not sleeping. There was a lot being done but no one spoke about it and there was a lot of repression,” says el Seed about graffiti artists of Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries.
Graffiti: western or eastern?
Graffiti is recognized as western art, which — through the impact of hip-hop culture in the Arab region — has found its way to the walls of the Arab world. However, el Seed believes graffiti isn’t just a product of western culture. “They were doing graffiti in Gaza with spray cans but it was different, not the same as today,” he says, referring to the book, Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics, by Swedish photojournalist, Mia Gröndahl, which documents the initial appearance of graffiti in Gaza in the late 1980s. El Seed believes that graffiti has existed in the Arab region for a long period of time however the artwork of graffiti artists in the region hasn’t been publicized like the graffiti art of those in the west, especially due to the government’s repression and censorship. “The vision of graffiti that we have is only that of US and New York City like you have your name on the wall at the train, metro or something like that. But what we [Arab graffiti artists] need to do is have our own way of doing it. That’s the thing. Make it yours! That’s the power of graffiti.”
During his four-month stay in Qatar for the Salwa Road project, el Seed will be travelling frequently to complete his projects in other parts of the world. He has been preparing for an exhibition of his artwork in the Tashkeel Gallery in Dubai, which was held in January. In the same month, in one of the most prestigious streets in the world, the Shanzelize in France held el Seed’s artwork in an auction. Furthermore, El Seed has collaborated with Louis Vuitton to design scarves for the French fashion brand, which will be launched in March. “I’m glad they asked me because they asked six graffiti artist, each representing a region, and I was chosen to represent the Arab region,” says el Seed.