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A Change of Art: Four Arab Street Artists That Are Changing The Game

By touching on culturally relevant topics, these regional creatives are behind public pieces that truly resonate.


The Greatest of Mysteries mural by Myneandyours at Dubai Design District

Becoming a father hasn’t softened Myneandyours– quite the contrary. “My one-and-a-half-year-old son does whatever he wants to do, and it reminded me that I should do the same,” says the Dubai-based artist, whose real name is Marwan Shakarchi. Known for his signature cloud, Shakarchi admits that over the last few years his work had become “cute and fluffy.” His art is usually filled with darker undertones, featuring references to rock and punk album covers, skateboard art, and the work of graphic artists such as Frank Kozik and Shepard Fairey. And so, after completing a monumental project in the underground parking of Dubai Design District in 2016 (The Greatest of Mysteries) and a second part this year (We Breathe The Sea), and pasting a mural at Dubai nightclub Stereo Arcade, Shakarchi has taken on projects that stoke his rebellious streak.

Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Man Arabia

A project for the Virgin Megastore at The Dubai Mall revisited his older pasting style, giving the shop a “rough and raw” feel, he explains. The Iraqi-British artist is currently working on a project with HH Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, founder of Tashkeel, who commissioned him to paint a mural at the library of the school she attended as a child, the Latifa School for Girls in Dubai. Does he consider himself a street artist or simply an artist? “My street art was a way to open up a dialogue with the public,” he says. “But now my work has so many overlaps.”


A mural in Baalbeck by Ashekman, featuring Lebanese singers Sabah, Fairuz, and Wadih al-Safi

Identical twins Omar and Mohammed Kabbani founded the Arabic street art crew Ashekman in Beirut in 2004. “When we work on a wall, we’ve got four hands – so, it’s double ashekman.” “Ashekman” is Lebanese slang for car exhausts. “Everything we do is about street culture,” Omar explains. “From our music to our clothing line to our art. We wanted a name that would represent the streets.” Even so, people think Ashekman is a superhero, like Batman or Superman. But their idea comes from a much deeper, darker place. “We were inspired by the militias of the Lebanese civil war, who would tag walls and claim their territory using a spray can – we thought of them as heroes. Today, when people watch us work, they look at us like we are superheroes.”

Omar and Mohammed harnessed their superpowers last year when they embarked on Operation Salam, a self-funded project that spanned 85 structures across 1.3km in the conflicted Lebanese city of Tripoli. The brothers climbed onto the rooftops to paint the word “salam” (“peace” in Arabic), creating a Kufic-inspired installation visible from above. The twins, who have a background in graphic design, trained under Lebanese master calligrapher Ali Assi before adapting the art form for street culture. “It’s our mission to make the Arabic culture cool and hip,” says Omar.

Yazan Halwani

A self-portrait by the artist, exhibited at 8eme Jeux De La Francophonie in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

The 25-year-old is best known for his murals of Lebanese pop culture icons Sabah and Fairuz on the facades of Beirut buildings. Through his work, he explores issues of identity, sectarianism, and cultural definitions. Halwani has already left his mark in the US, Europe, Singapore, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Jordan, after teaching himself Arabic calligraphy at 16 in a bid to break out of this traditional style and make it his own. He uses Arabic letters drawn in calligraphic style to create portraits or images, breaking away from the meaning of words. “They are brushstrokes,” he says. “I don’t write anything.”

A mural of Fairuz on the streets of Beirut

Halwani did, however, write something for Tree of Memory, his tribute to the Great Famine of Lebanon (1915-1918). Using lines from a Kahlil Gibran poem, the monument sits just off the former Green Line separating what was formerly known as East and West Beirut. Another one of Halwani’s works is also located on that infamous line – Immeuble Noueiri depicts a scene from the 1998 film West Beirut and tackles the contentious issue of interfaith marriage. “I attempt to reframe our concept of national identity, Arab art, and calligraphy, and also the relationship of people with public spaces,” he explains. “People now stop and take photos of walls, so my work uncovers topics that are not necessarily known or discussed.”


Salute to the Martyrs in Helsinki, originally in Cairo

Egyptian artist Ganzeer lives in Denver, Colorado, but “boy, do I miss the region” he says. He gained notoriety in 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, when the streets exploded with murals that spoke of the troubled times. He painted his first mural in February of that year, steps away from Cairo’s Supreme Court. “I would never describe myself as an activist,” says Ganzeer. “I am just an artist and I do work about the things I care about – one of those things is social justice, because… I don’t know, I have a soul?”

Though his style is ever-evolving, there are common threads in Ganzeer’s work: comic books, minimalism, punk, modernism, Cairo, Ancient Egypt, and vintage sci-fi. His culture, however, is the underlying fabric of his works. “It is probably in my DNA at this point,” he says. “Not so different from my curly hair, the tone of my voice, and body language. They are things I don’t really have much of a say in but are part of my identity nonetheless.”

Street art in Frankfurt for a touring exhibition of Tutankhamun’s treasure replicas.

Ganzeer’s work has been characterized by bold, striking colors but recently, stark black and white have infused his art. Two main projects have consumed his “every waking minute” lately: The Solar Grid, a science fiction graphic novel, and Times New Human, a short story collection to be released in 2019. He has also exhibited installations in Germany and Sweden, and showed works in New York and Washington DC. “I have been busy,” he says. “And I am very, very tired.”

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