One artist is altering the Dubai street scene

A once-anonymous graffiti artist in Dubai is now gathering attention.

Graffiti on a temporary construction site in Dubai, penned by the artist Arcadia Blank. Courtesy Arcadia Blank
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It started in Al Barsha: the appearance of quippy one-liners written in black pen on corrugated iron, security guard huts and concrete blocks.

"Metatron is bored", "Quarantine that dream" and "Modernity is melting" are just some of the cryptic musings that have begun springing up around town.

The author of these textual tags, identifiable by the little chunky triangle drawn beneath, has become more daring, steadily swapping the quiet streets around Barsha for more exposed areas. Construction site gangways on Sheikh Zayed Road and wooden boards shielding in-development buildings are being emblazoned with writings that each share a sardonic, semi-didactic tone. Commuters heading to Dubai Media City pass six huge concrete slabs that have the letters EVOLVE written on them in shaky pen.

Take this one, spotted on the more quiet villa-lined streets in Umm Suqeim: "The world's gone from blue and green to black and yellow." It is written on to boards that hide a large, new concrete building. We have to assume this is not a reference to the US rapper Wiz Khalifa's song Black and Yellow, but instead a rebuke for the colours of construction encroaching on pristine landscapes everywhere.

These tags may cerebrally be a cut above "Mahmood woz 'ere", but any graffiti is very much frowned upon under UAE law. In this case, the writer has been targeting temporary architecture around town, meaning that his or her work is likely to be removed. But Major Saeed Abdullah of the Dubai Police explains that it's still not allowed: "I think he will need to get permission both from the construction company and the municipality."

Until now, the prolific writer has kept well under the radar, but a blog did appear a few weeks ago showing some of the work. From there, TheNational managed to track down an email address.

"Art here is pretty much limited to designated places, fairs and galleries and there still aren't really that many bridges that connect the public to that art world," said the artist "Arcadia Blank" in response to our email. "Street art can be one of those bridges. Although the art scene here is growing, it still focuses most of its attention (and money) on the international art circuit instead of investing in its own artistic development at a local community level.

"I think as long as street art in Dubai does not disrespect or insult the local culture or the authorities, it can take things to an exciting new level. I also think it's a natural part of any city's growth."

Arcadia Blank's work is far removed from the colourful, mural-esque style of graffiti that has proliferated internationally over the past 30 years. Its scratchy, bold simplicity is more akin to the Netherlands-based artist Laser 3.14, who also makes use of temporary construction sites around Amsterdam to scrawl cryptic, semi-didactic texts.

Asked why she/he writes solely on walls and surfaces that will one day be removed, Arcadia Blank says: "Mainly because I have absolutely no intention of breaking the law."

But the artist continues: "Since the mid-1990s, construction sites have become an undeniable part of the new Dubai landscape. Following the global credit crisis in 2008, many projects got cancelled and the city became full of these abandoned plots and half-built buildings that are just lifeless. With that in mind, temporary construction elements seem a much more appropriate canvas than someone's finished private property.

"I need and want to see signs of humanity around me - I think it's only natural. The open environment in Dubai is so commercial and corporatised that some people actually thought what I was doing was some kind of viral [advertising] campaign. That goes to show what the environment can do to your thought processes."

Adam Hardy is the curator at Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in DIFC, and has brought a number of street artists to Dubai for exhibitions. "Arcadia Blank's work is ultimately out of context in Dubai society - this is what gives it such a spotlight and can make it interesting.

"If we were to see this in New York, London or Berlin, it would melt into the environment of that particular city and we wouldn't see this as such a 'new' style or stop to read it, as this would be not as novel and would probably be covered over with the next 'throw up' in no time."

But Hardy does acknowledge the spirit of the work. "I guess the works are interfering with a society that has been lulling us to sleep with its purring machines - a sort of Barbara Kruger meets Banksy meets Jenny Holzer idea.

"Some of these quotes were specifically made for mass-audience films, but taken out of context and thrown up on the wall, they appear more aggressive."

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