Imagination needs direction if graffiti is to become art

How is graffiti in the form of art any different than drawings in others forms if it is given the right funding, attention and parameters?

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I've always been a sucker for words. For as long as I can remember, I have participated in every writing, elocution and declamation contest there was. I find that expressing myself through the mode of language soothes me like nothing else.

The same goes for art. I got into the art and photography scene less than a decade ago, and sometimes even find myself scribbling or doodling my name when I'm bored.

These are but somes modes of self-expression; others are writing, drawing and painting. It is a way to communicate one's feelings. With the new year upon us, more people are finding their voices as privacy rules and barriers break down. What used to be considered inappropriate expression is now openly encouraged and even rewarded.

Such is the case of graffiti, which is the act of inscribing or drawing on walls for the purpose of communicating a message to the general public. The actual term graffiti comes from the Greek term graphein, which means "to write".

The most basic type and by far the most popular graffiti is tag, in which the artist writes his or her name in a unique style. This is the style you'll see a lot of in the UAE. A more advanced form of tagging is a throw up, in which the artist may use bubble letters or "wild style" to create a more intricate design. The next level of graffiti usually depicts a scene or well-known characters with some sort of slogan. This type of graffiti often requires the collaboration of multiple artists.

Graffiti today is art. It started off in ancient times with pictures drawn in caves and re-emerged as a hip-hop movement in the 1960s in New York. Now, it has become a global phenomenon - so much so that you can't miss it on buildings, walls, bus windows or even the fingerprint scrawls in the sand that is caked onto windshields in the UAE.

However, instead of being seen as art, many in the UAE find graffiti revolting and those who do it "menaces" to society. It can be seen as an invasion of privacy and personal space, or that it makes neighbourhoods look like a slum or ghetto.

But given that the majority of the UAE's population is made up of people under the age of 35, with limited outlets to self-expression, is it strange that some find vandalism or even graffiti a form of communicating feelings, frustrations or feuds? This particular point can be seen in the rowdy celebrations of National Day, when people decorate their cars with slogans, paintings, stickers and decorations.

I definitely agree with the fact that spray painting "Abood is the best" or "Hamoodi is number one" is not what I'd like to see on my street or neighbour's house. But with some work and touch ups, such expressions of art could actually look nice if they truly meant something.

Graffiti is not considered art by many today because most art gains value when it is placed in a museum or an exhibition. Only then do most people recognise the object as "art".

But why can't a wall be your canvas, or even the back of a taxi? I see countless boring ads placed on billboards, motorways and taxi cabs, when these spaces could easily be used to showcase the talent of our youth instead.

Can you imagine how powerful the messages would be if youth were given some space to express themselves? I'm not saying let people graffiti left, right and centre. But if they were given an opportunity to express what they see within a set of boundaries, we wouldn't have so-called vandalism graffiti.

Many might disagree and think: "Well, this is a 'western' thing and it is inappropriate." But no matter where you're from, you know that drawings can be found anywhere. How is graffiti in the form of art any different than drawings in others forms if it is given the right funding, attention and parameters?

But not everyone is a potential graffiti artist. A competition could be run to see who has the talent for it and we could bring in the best graffiti artists from around the world to work on a collaborative project of Emirati and western art. In the future, this could be one of the main attractions for visitors and residents alike.

Our local graffiti artists could go down in our history books as the revolutionaries of modern-day street art in the Emirates. That's definitely something to look forward to.

Aida al Busaidy is a columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show