The Arab Spring Brings Wave of Graffiti Art

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Other recent changes in the Mideast and the Arab world are the result of the Arab Spring. People in countries like Tunisia and Egypt are enjoying the kind of freedom of expression they were denied for decades by repressive governments. One popular form of expression that's spreading now is graffiti. eL Seed, who prefers not to use his real name, is a French-Tunisian graffiti artist who lives in Montreal. He gets commissions to work all around the globe. He actually calls his art ââ?¬Å?caligraffitiââ?¬  because he uses Arabic calligraphy in what he paints on walls and buildings. eL Seed says the Arab Spring has unleashed a flood of graffiti.

eL Seed: Since, you know, we have freedom of expression, people that really want to express themself freely and bring the message to everyone, they want to say what they have in mind to everyone. I don't know, I hear a lot that artists create revolution, but I believe in Tunisia is the contrary, revolution has created artists. Since January 14 last year, we see a lot of people getting in the street and painting. Just regular graffiti but a lot of street art, like lettering and some figurative pieces as well.

Werman: So it's kind of the corollary, it's actually the revolution that's creating the art now.

eL Seed: Yeah, actually I think that [xx] created a lot. Before January 14, I knew some graffiti artists and some street artists in Tunisia but it was a lot really underground, and now all the artists painting in the street are brought to the stage, and it's not seen as vandalism or anything like this. People recognize it as a true form of art, because it was linked to a big historical change in the country.

Werman: And January 14 being the day that President Ben Ali was evicted.

eL Seed: Yeah, exactly.

Werman: Now if you look across the Arab world it seems that the graffiti varies in quality, the graffiti that's now appearing. Some artists seem quite well trained, others really are more like North American taggers. Just to contrast, tell us about the kind of work you do.

eL Seed: Yeah, sure. I paint in Arabic and only in Arabic. I don't even put now the translation of my work in English or French, it's just Arabic, because I believe the Arab script speak to the soul before speaking to the eye. In another way, it's a way for me to find this kind of control and [xx] where you have to translate everything for the other people to understand. For me, it's more like a way to create a bridge to invite people to learn more about Arabic language and Arab culture. And I encourage a lot of people in the Middle East, like the youth starting graffiti now, to paint in Arabic, because we have a culture and a history and I think we need to use that and not just copy what is done in other countries. We need to create our own graffiti style.

Werman: So let's take one example of your work that you painted in Tunisia. You painted the side of a minaret in your home town of Gabes. Tell us about that.

eL Seed: Yeah, so actually I painted the two sides of the mosque and I painted it during Ramadan. And I painted on it a verse from the Quran. I took a verse which is a universal message saying, oh you mankind, we have created you from [xx]. So it was a way to bring people together in Tunisia and even out of Tunisia. It is a message of tolerance and mutual respect. But what I want to say is graffiti is coming from the street, it has to stay in the street. If then it goes into galleries and then if you have an event, graffiti is still a spontaneous thing that you get a spray can and you paint on the wall. It has to stay underground.

Werman: eL Seed is a French-Tunisian graffiti artist. He lives in Montreal. We've got a slide show of his work at TheWorld.org. eL Seed, thank you very much. Good to speak with you.

eL Seed: I appreciate it.