Graffiti in the UAE: the street art culture rises

We explore the point of home grown street art, who does it in the UAE, why they do it and where they stand.

An abandoned school has been the site of on-going street art since 2006 near the the Khalidiya and Al Bateen areas of Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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At Art Dubai's 2012 Global Art Forum, during a talk entitled Powerless: Art vs Media, the panellist and Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi stood up and wept. Recalling Cairo's Arab Spring, she was moved by what she saw as the power of art to counter anti-revolutionary propaganda.

Waxing on the inspirational role of graffiti and the potency of street images, she seemed to forget that the spray can has long been an arm in the region. In Beirut, political parties claim geographies with wall scrawl, much as New York gangs tag their territories. In Syria, the recently deceased Nour Hatem Zahra, a member of anti-Assad movement The Spraymen, fought his war with words on walls.

In the UAE, rare is the voice raised in protest, least of all in the public space. So what is the point of home grown street art? "The meaning of graffiti," explained aerosol artist Sya One in an interview conducted by the Virgin Megastore blog last year, "is marking any surface with a trace to show that you were there." Graffiti is generally the domain of "writers", who spray words-as-image, most frequently their own names. Street artists, less concerned with their names (some don't even sign their work), usually juggle text and imagery, injecting them with sharp social commentary. "It's no longer about proving my existence with graffiti," claims Safe, an Abu Dhabi street artist whose highly visual work packs some hard punches against big enemies like consumerism. For some, marking one's turf comes second to crafting a message.

If, as media pundit Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, we become what we behold, then most Dubai residents are likely to be some form of outdoor advertising. One tag, at the foot of a mammoth Sheikh Zayed Road billboard, stingingly spotlights the hollowness of this ad saturation: "All these lights, and nothing to display." The handiwork of prolific yet discreet artist Arcadia Blank, this is just one of the many pungent morsels he has used to turn heads and provoke thought in Dubai neighbourhoods since early 2011. Aesthetically, his work may be scratchy, speedily-sprayed text, but reactions to its bold simplicity have been widely favourable. Many nod in approval of his targeting temporary structures ("he's an artist, not a vandal"), while claiming to be momentarily lulled into a mindscape away from the Dubai rat race.

Arcadia Blank wants simply to inject a voice into what is perceived as a voiceless place. Opposed to the stranglehold of Dubai's commercial art galleries, he fights to shift the focus towards the public realm. "I hope my public text work has helped plant seeds in the local art community's minds regarding public space," he modestly admits. "Art has a place in the city. It fills a very prominent void."

Not all “graffers” have such honourable civic intentions. The tagger Al Afghani, working in the newer parts of town, favours rants (“I hate pretentious arts”). Elsewhere, a gang of Emiratis’ signature is three dots forming a triangle.

But what of street art that, well, is not on the street? Brands, eager to don an edgy aura, are busy courting graffers. Perrier, Adidas, and the Aloft hotel in Abu Dhabi have all commissioned works from the likes of Sya One and Steffi Bow. Event planners, too, are quick to jump on the graffiti bandwagon, with live art "gigs" becoming increasingly commonplace.

Galleries are notoriously reticent in welcoming street art into the inner sanctum of the white cube. The Beirut Art Center's 2012 White Wall show sensitively struggled with the slippery issue of bringing an inherently outdoor and accessible art form indoors. But one street art insider mistrusts these intentions. Break DJ Lobito is the founder of Deep Crates Cartel, a collective comprising local street artists and other urban talent. "Part of the function of street art," he asserts, "is to deconstruct the institutions that have created the art industry."

Municipalities also want their piece of the street art pie. When asked about Dubai Culture's recent efforts to nurture public art via themed initiatives like "The City is Your Canvas", most artists fall politely silent. Does local government involvement and municipal messaging sap the power out of street art, domesticating its untamed spirit?

Whatever the future of the art form, it seems inextricably linked to the rise of public art. Deep Crates Cartel is lobbying hard to obtain legal walls where artists could let loose without fear (Saudi Arabia already has one).

As commissioning public art garners greater attention, the street artists see an opportunity: their art can keep its bite, but evolve in a fully legal, even civic, context. With one catch: no corporate promotion or municipal hidden agendas. Only then, they imagine, will we have the kind of art powerful enough to bring tears to our eyes.