Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – During the First Intifada, technologies and forms of communication were vastly different compared to today. Mobile phones and social media sites were still years away, but the Intifada could never have taken hold without grassroots strategies for public communication. With cities, villages and refugee camps often placed under brutally enforced curfews, Palestinians had to take risks in order to circulate messages across communities, Nidal al-Azzeh told Al Jazeera.
“We went out at night, these were secret actions. We made short, strong statements and painted them on walls around the camp. They were general statements calling for boycotts of working in Israel, joining public strikes, encouraging people to act as a form of national duty. We aimed to empower people and encourage them to resist,” said Nidal.
Sneaking out of a house in the dead of night to paint messages on walls was an act of resistance that was fundamental in building and sustaining a collective uprising. These acts had to remain clandestine, being caught in the act led to severe beatings and prison sentences.
“If we were caught by the [Israeli] soldiers, or seen by collaborators, we were arrested and beaten. People confessed on me for writing statements. I was charged with this along with other things in 1989, and sentenced to 9 months in prison,” he said.
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the dynamics of Palestinian graffiti changed. Palestinians were no longer faced with the same levels of urgency and danger. Particularly within refugee camps, the statement writing and line drawings of Palestinian flags continued but also began to evolve into more detailed pieces.
Eventually, large-scale murals emerged. Although still very nationalistic, aesthetics were now taking greater prominence and a deeper collaboration between activists and artists was significant in this development. Visual artists took on a more public role in the urban environment and this included producing collaborative pieces in which artists collaborated with institutions and community centres.
Palestinian artist Ayed Arafah, born a refugee in Bethlehem’s Deheisheh camp, grew up during the First Intifada and later became involved in these institutional projects:
“We did this to send a political message to the next generation. But the landscape of Palestinians is changing now from time to time – according to the political situation internally and externally – so I think that graffiti is also taking different steps. Institutions both inside and outside of the camps are now pushing this formal work to keep their public profile. Graffiti has become a tradition, particularly within camps,” he told Al Jazeera.
The public murals that are seen across Palestine today are often created with, and sometimes funded by, institutions. Other pieces are done at the behest of, or expressing affiliation to, Palestinian political factions. Remembrance or commemoration, whether for martyrs or depopulated villages, is a prominent theme in contemporary Palestinian work, and national symbolism, using keys, kufiyehs, tents, and crumbling walls in still often thecentral element.
The construction of the separation wall added a further dimension to the issue. International artists began to flock to Palestine to paint on the wall although many Palestinians rejected this idea, seeing it as an act of “beautification”.
Possibly the best-known of these artists was Banksy, who stated in 2005, “The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison. It also makes it the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers.”
Arafah does not paint on the wall. “I won’t touch the wall with colors, it’s an act of normalisation or beautification. People come here now as though they are visiting the pyramids in Egypt, like they are visiting a tourist attraction. They see the beauty of graffiti now instead of the suffering.”
Taxi drivers at Bethlehem checkpoint today offer tourists trips to the Nativity Church and Milk Grotto, or visits to “see the Banksy’s”. Sadly, many of the tourists busily snapping photographs on the “Banksy trail” do not turn away from the wall long enough to see the faces or hear the stories of those who have been imprisoned by it.
Meanwhile, the influence of international artists on Palestinian graffiti is clear. Even away from the wall large-scale murals are often collaborations between Palestinians and internationals, and the supportive role of institutions could be seen as one sign of the wider institutionalisation of Palestine that has evolved so prominently in the post-Oslo period.
During the First Intifada, secrecy was essential while graffiti writing. Today large-scale murals are usually signed by artists and often also include reference to the institutions or collaborations involved.
In early 2012, new developments in public visual expression took shape. As the Palestinian street began to rise in support of hunger-striking political prisoners, activists used small, stenciled images of Khadr Adnan within strategies of public mobilisation. These pieces were once more aimed at a distinctly Palestinian audience and their message took prominence over aesthetics. Arafah wonders if it is this work rather than the large scale murals that is more closely related to the practices of the First Intifada.
“This style of making stencils, the process itself, refers to the ways of 30 years ago. Who the message is aimed at is important. It repeats the style of making graffiti with a very clear message aimed at Palestinians themselves. The Adnan textiles are not signed, they are not by institutions; it’s a political act.”
Many of the large-scale murals include text that is written in European languages, a fact that hints at either the artists involved or its intended audience. With greater numbers of international visitors in the West Bank today, graffiti is often being used as a call for international solidarity rather than grassroots mobilisation, but the re-internalisation of the hunger-strike stencils is notable.
Muhannad al-Azzeh was amongst a group of activists who were active as Khadr Adnan began his hunger strike. He believes that the hunger strikes refocused elements of the Palestinian street into direct resistance against the occupation:
“Between 2005-2010, people felt stuck between the NGO’s on one side, and the PA on the other. Palestinian graffiti somehow got lost in all this. When Khadr Adnan began his hunger strike it took Palestinians back to the checkpoints for demonstrations. He started the fight alone and others followed inside the prisons and the street also began to move,” explained Muhannad.
As technology has changed life over the years, people want images rather than texts so we came back to drawing. It became a way of supporting the resistance again.
Symbolism and frustration
The activists felt that they needed a visual symbol that could be used to mobilise people and build real solidarity with the hunger strikers. Graphic designers within the group originally created an image of Khadr Adnan alongside Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands that was posted on Facebook. The idea of a graphic image to be used as graffiti then developed, and soon images of Khadr Adnan with a padlock covering his mouth began to appear on the streets.
“As technology has changed life over the years, people want images rather than texts so we came back to drawing. It became a way of supporting the resistance again,” said Muhannad.
During the same period, graffiti also began to appear that reflected societal frustrations about the role of the Palestinian Authority. These were again internal messages that expressed very real emotions within Palestinian society.
“The PA is now the first wall that is hit when people are working against the occupation. They say that they are working to ‘protect people’, but they stop demonstrations and have arrested people who are involved in resistance. Khadr Adnan was in a PA prison before the Israeli’s took him,” explained Muhannad
Studying the vast array of graffiti that adorns Palestinian streets, however, it may seem impossible to generalise about it’s collective uses or aims. Alongside these newer pieces of re-internalised Palestinian graffiti are many pieces that are still heavily influenced by international ideas, styles and slogans as well as more traditional pieces that are deeply loaded with national symbolism.
Ayed Arafah believes that this wide spectrum of work may in itself represent something deeper within contemporary Palestinian society.
“There are many Palestinians struggling to survive today and there are also capitalists and people around the PA who are living well, can travel and have nice cars, and there are so many NGOs, internationals and institutions. Maybe graffiti reflects this issue. As we have so many levels of Palestinian society today, we also have so many different types of graffiti and for so many different reasons,” said Arafah.