Q&A: Calligraphy meets street art in Beirut

Artist Yazan Halwani has adorned the walls of Beirut with portraits of local heroes and artists.

Yazan Halwani street art
'I wanted to replace photos of politicians with something more positive. That was when the choice came of Fairouz,' Halwani said [Yazan Halwani/Al Jazeera]

On Hamra Street, which runs through the vibrant commercial centre of West Beirut, a new mural covers the side of a five-storey building. It is the face of iconic Lebanese performer Sabah, rising out of a cloud of Arabic calligraphy.

For Yazan Halwani, the 22-year-old Lebanese artist behind the mural, this is just the latest piece in a body of work that spans the city and its famous characters.

Halwani has adorned walls with portraits of poet Khalil Gibran and singer Fairuz, as well as lesser-known local heroes such as Ali Abdullah, a homeless man on Bliss Street who died one winter’s night in January 2013. Although Beirut’s graffiti scene is still young, Halwani is one of its vanguards.

Al Jazeera caught up with him to talk about his latest urban experiments, his run-ins with the police, and how he uses graffiti to tell stories of Beirut.

Al Jazeera: The works that you are most famous for are a mixture of portraiture and calligraphy. Why did you choose to combine the two?

Yazan Halwani: It wasn’t a moment’s decision. It was actually a progression.

At first I was doing Western-style graffiti with its flashy colours, the wild styles, the tagging – stuff like that. At some point, around [the age of] 18, I noticed that I needed something that had more identity. In order to do that, I started looking at calligraphy. My uncle had a calligraphy book and he showed it to me, and I’ve been borrowing it for a few years now. I don’t think I’m going to return it.

The idea for the portraits came partly after I had done [a portrait of assassinated journalist] Samir Kassir, which had a positive effect on people, and also after I realised I was always removing photos of politicians.

I wanted to replace those figures with something more positive. That was when the choice came of Fairouz, of Ali Abdullah. They are the stories of the city.

Halwani embellishing one of the walls of Beirut with Arabic calligraphy [Yazan Halwani/Al Jazeera]
Halwani embellishing one of the walls of Beirut with Arabic calligraphy [Yazan Halwani/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: You’ve spoken before about tagging, the practice of signing one’s name or pseudonym on a public wall, as being no better than the local politicians who cover Beirut with their names, logos and faces. Is that why you no longer do it?

Halwani: Definitely. Actually, the initial form of tagging that existed in Lebanon is not what the graffiti artists started; it was the political militias who used to do it.

[Those tags] were in the form of stencils most of the time. During the civil war, whenever a political militia would gain control of an area, they would stencil their logos. So that is one factor [as to why I stopped tagging].

Another factor is that Beirut is actually a city that is already destroyed and is being rebuilt, so going around and vandalising a city that was already vandalised is just like [kicking] someone who is already on the floor.

I do think tagging is a kind of vandalism. If you want to do something different here, you need to help [the city] stand up. I think you have to try and contribute in a positive manner to the city that’s trying to rebuild itself.

Al Jazeera: What sort of attitude do the authorities take to your work? Do they harass you about it?

Halwani: Whenever people ask me, ‘What happens when the police come?’, they imagine that I always have to run or something. Actually, when the police come, you just explain to them that you’re not a gangster, you’re not doing anything harmful, you’re just painting a wall – because that’s what you’re doing.

Most of the time, they understand.Sometimes they even want to paint with you. Other times, when my work is more political, they have taken my papers – for the Samir Kassir one, for example.

The interesting thing is that whenever you can you talk it out and explain you’re just someone trying to embellish the city and remove the signs of war, they understand because they are part of the city too, and they know its story.

Portrait of homeless man on Bliss street [Yazan Halwani/Al Jazeera]
Portrait of homeless man on Bliss street [Yazan Halwani/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: Recently you’ve started dabbling in cement sculptures; why?

Halwani: I love cement. I don’t know why. I guess because it’s everywhere here. Cement is a very bad material to make a sculpture out of, but I think the reason I insist so much on using it is that it’s the way this city might talk. I imagine it would form words out of cement, out of itself.

This is why I started with calligraphy sculptures. It’s kind of a new form of street art. Instead of just scribbling on the wall, you get a sculpture and leave it in the street.

The first sculpture said ‘Beirut’, very simply, as if this was the first word the city would say: its own name. 

Also, sculptures give a new level of interaction in the street compared to a mural. A mural might be something you look at, but a sculpture is something you step over or move around.

It’s a more playful approach to street art.

Al Jazeera: How important is the relationship between the wall and the graffiti for you?

Halwani: I think in the new direction I’m taking, which is away from typical urban graffiti, I try not to do graffiti that is alien to the street. I want it to feel native to it.

One example is a piece I did on a very dirty wall. Instead of repainting it, I tried to remodel the dirt, creating new layers with a spray can in such a way that they would look like the shadow of the letters. The other example is the Fairuz piece.

The background was actually supposed to be a different colour – it was kind of pinkish, which is not the colour of the building.

So I changed it to bring it closer to the colour of the building and the surroundings, to make sure it seemed as if this graffiti was always there.