Ashekman on Calligraffiti, The Power of Art, Reclaiming the Walls of Lebanon, Operation SALAM (Peace), Painting Grendizer around the World,
Art that Unites Communities and
Shinning a Positive Light on the Middle East
Omar and Mohamed Kabbani
The walls of Lebanon bare scars. Subjected to and living with bullet holes, posters depicting politicians, posters advertising the latest concerts, tags, warning signs, ads, random telephone numbers and opinions or quotes, all alongside beautiful and evocative art graffiti that fill the walls with colour, modernity and power.
The scars on these walls that carry so much history, have faded a little with time, either because they have been brought down and rebuilt or as they have remained intact since the war, living around war torn builidings, has thus become the norm. Regardless of any restoration, the mixture of hope and pain and the visuality of that time in history has not disappeared, these visuals have seeped under the skin of people.
Trying to eradicate the scars and heal the wounds are Ashekman. They are independent artists and today through their hard work have become entrepeneurs.
Their art has reclaimed public spaces, reclaimed the walls to showcase that art can speak just as loudly as any political poster and that art can be an outlet to bring power to the powerless and freedom to any expression. They care that their art can make a difference to people and be a visual language, whether through their project Operation SALAM (Peace) In Tripoli, Grendizer in Ouzville or “To Be Free Or not to Be” in Beirut. Through the use of calligraphy within their graffiti and through depicting cultural and artistic figures from the region, they believe a positive perspective of the Middle East can shine.
I have always admired Ashekman’s work, each time I went to Beirut I proceeded to take lots of pictures of the walls filled with their graffiti. But now, I admire them even more so, knowing that it is through their own initiatives and dedication that they are bringing art to the walls of Lebanon.
I went to meet Omar Kabbani, who with his identical twin brother Mohammad Kabbani form Ashekman, to discuss how Ashekman started and what graffiti art can achieve.
Our conversation began with Omar explaining what Ashekman is about…
Most of our graffti artworks have social or political messages. Since we have this medium and are painting in a public domain, we have to take full advantage of it. We are post war kids who live in Beirut and grew up during the war. We spent a lot of our childhood in shelters. All these things, all that time had an impact on us, so we needed to find a way to express ourselves, and that way was through graffiti.
When did you start?
Officially Ashekman started in 2001. First with music and the graffiti roughtly at the same time, because as independant artists we wanted to promote our name, we wrote our name Ashekman on the walls so that everyone who would see it, would therefore hear about Ashekman’s music.
We didn’t have and still don’t have a production company, a manager or anyone to help us, we had to do everything by ourselves. As we evolved we noticed that a graffiti following was gathering around our work, people were waiting to see what our next piece would be. Thereafter we realised that we had this opportunity to promote any message that we wanted and that’s how we started doing more impactful art within our graffiti.
What does Ashekman mean?
It’s the exhaust pipe of the car in Lebanese slang. Everything that we do is Arabic and that name is pure street. An exhaust pipe removes all the dirt from inside of the car to the outside and the symbolic meaning of it to us, is that we do the same thing through our art. We expose the vices of society. We expose everything through our art.
So your weapons are pen and paint?
Yes weapons of mass expression.
An exhaust pipe in the Ashekman offices in Beirut
You were saying that you are post war kids, I read somewhere that during that time you used to watch Grendizer on television?
He is our childhood hero by far. As I recall there was one Lebanese TV Chanel available, which was Télé Liban, the state’s chanel. Often in times of war, we would watch television after having been in the shelters hearing shootings, fighting and bombs. Grendizer, which is a Japanese super robot animation character, was our childhood hero, in that, on TV he was saving the earth from the bad guys, so we wanted to do the same thing when we grew up.
Not that when we were young we thought that we will grow up and draw him, but since it had affected us and influenced us, we thought why don’t we use this figure as our mascot to promote our message of peace and saving the earth. Of course we draw several other things, but Grendizer we have drawn on many walls.
People’s champ بطل الشعب Grendizer 10m x 8m #Arabic calligraffiti mural in Beirut Ashrafieh part of Perrier worldwide street art initiative, 17 Dec 2015
Is it a way for you to reclaim the streets, reclaim the public spaces, in a sence showcasing graffiti art as a power tool, that these public spaces, these walls belong to the people of the country
Definetely, and I see it clearer now that I am older. When we used to go walking to school, we used to see militia men from all sides, whoever was in power in either West or East Beirut, holding a Kalashnikov on one side and with the other hand spraying graffiti or stenciling.
As a child seeing that, you think or feel that he is claiming the streets, but he is doing so using a weapon. Now, wherever you see our hashtag, it is a way to say the streets are also partly ours. So whenever we do a graffiti on a wall, all the street then knows that since there is a piece from us, in a way a territory is being claimed back from those dark times.
You claim back the territory for the people
I really like your green puppet or muppet graffiti, but I read that it was controversial.
What is the meaning behind that piece? I interpreted it as though it was saying we are free to decide but are we puppets of those who have the power?
The piece is called “To Be Free Or Not To Be” and it’s a play on words from Shakespeare. We did this in collaboration with the NGO March about freedom of speech and to fight censorship.
It was first done around 2011 or 2012 but it is still relevant today, as every week the Bureau of Cencorship have an impact on people and bloggers, they have to be careful what they write about or who they write about. In this day and age it’s funny to speak about this, but really it makes you cry.
So the grafftiti piece is there to remind everyone, every single person, that there is a voice within each one of us and there is someone from the streets that supports you, whatever you want to say.
We feel that back, when people come to see us to say that they saw a piece of ours.
About three years ago in Beirut, when there was the trash crisis and the garbage was not being picked up, people went to the streets in protest, so we went down in support to do stencils and posters. It was like in a guerilla warfare.
Like guerilla artists
Yes and people started to share our work online, it was unbelievable. You feel everyone is stressed out or annoyed and it suffices that just one person pokes them a little to speak their mind and we were that spark in a way. The spark and the exhaust pipe at the same time. When people see that someone who is not a public figure, I am not known or anything like that, but when they see someone who has the guts to go to the streets and spray paint and are standing on the same line as them, they get encouraged and have enthusiasm to speak louder. It’s not that we encouraged people to go to the streets, they do that on their own when there is a crisis, but we gave our support.
"To Be Free or Not To Be" made the news in Beirut after it was erased, so in collaboration with Freedom of Speech NGO March, we painted this calligraffiti mural again. The message is: “أنت حر أو لا تكون”. October 23, 2015
Do you have permits to do your graffiti?
When we first started, like any or many graffiti artists, we didn’t have any. We used to wake up at 4 am and go tag under bridges or on buildings. But to paint the facade of a building, we can’t do that hidden away, we have to get permits, which we always do now. We actually want to get the permit, it is important for us to do a mural where there is a lot of footfall and visibility for people to enjoy it. Graffiti is not made to be in an alleyway where people can’t see it. People need to see it. With that, social media has helped a lot.
I was going to ask you about technology and social media with how much it has impacted your graffiti
We did a piece in the Ouzai neighbourhood renamed as Ouzville. The area is considered to be a slum, it’s not really a legal area and there’s a lot of controversy surrounding it. Nevertheless, colourful art on all the buildings are being painted so that if you are landing at Beirut airport, the area is visible and comes to life through the colours and there’s not just the view of concrete. The piece we did there is one of Grendizer.
Usually people don’t really go to that area or very few do, mainly because of security, but thanks to social media, there was a lot of exposure and thereafter plenty of interviews about the art and the neighbourhood came about. We were able to shed a light on an area that has been neglected.
When the buildings are covered in art you change the perception people have of a place and they may then want to come and visit it. Furthermore, the people who live there, whether it’s the person going to work or the young going to school, if they look up to see the art on the walls, they may feel some hope for the future rather than looking around and feeling like they are living in run down surroundings. I know it’s not much, maybe we are just doing 1% of what can be done, but still, we are trying our best to make a difference.
Art doesn’t have to be on Hamra Street, in the heart of Beirut or in one of the best areas of the city, it can also be in an area that has been totally neglected. We didn’t do this piece for ego, we did it to show the impact that art can have on people.
Omar and Mohamed Kabbani painting Grendizer in Ouzeville
Do you get any government support for your projects?
Since we’ve started with Ashekman we work as independant artists. We got used to working like that. Most of the graffiti you see in public spaces are paid for by us. Even Operation SALAM which was a very big project, where we had about 50 people working with us for three weeks, we paid a lot of money for logistics.
We are artists and today entrepeneurs with a company based in Beirut and in Dubai, and a clothing store in Beirut. The structure grew from music to being young artists that were drawing and tagging in the streets until today having a company and endorsing projects. I think people do respect that. Those who from day one have followed us, they know from where we started to where we have gotten to. For instance, when someone sees us in a festival in Birmingham or in any place around the world, there will always be at least one Lebanese person and they will often come up to us and say, hey guys, what are you doing here, I know your work from back in Lebanon, I know you from way back, and that makes us really happy.
It’s so great that Lebanese people have given you that moral support.
To not get financial or much visible support from any type of authority is difficult, especially when you are working hard to put accross a universal value such as freedom of expression or bringing art to underpriviledge areas.
To be fair we didn’t ask for any support from any type of authority. With Operation SALAM for instance, when companies offered support, for this particluar project, we declined it, because we didn’t feel this project required that, as it was about peace and we didn’t want it to be about anything else.
How did Operation SALAM come about?
It started almost three years ago when we first thought of the idea. We opened google maps and started to search for areas with good visibility for us to create the project. But we were thinking of doing it next to Ouzai as there are possibilities to paint on the buildings. And as they are very old there is a stronger likelihood that we can be granted permits from the people living in those buildings. That’s the most difficult thing, to be given a permit for each building, because most of the time each one has about 5 owners, so you can imagine if you need permits for about 80 buildings for the project, it means you need something like 400 permits.
We started in Ouzai but they didn’t let us continue with the project for security reasons. We had to stop and search again on google maps. Once we saw Tripoli online, we knew it was the right place.
This project needed to have an authenticity surrouding it and an area that could reflect that. It is a project completly seperated from the ego that usually comes with graffiti art. In street art there is the aspect of the ego, you put your name everywhere to tell others that you are here and that’s not what we wanted with this.
What we wanted to do, was something that serves people.
The project was to write the word SALAM meaning Peace, on the rooftop of buildings. The part of Tripoli we chose to do that in, has until recently seen many troubles in the Jabal Mehsin area of Tripoli. So we saw it as the perfect place for the word peace to be written in arabic. Then as we started to look at the rooftops of the buildings, we saw that the word SALAM was already configurated by the architecture of the building shapes. The shape of each roof is like one of the letters, one building looks like an L, and another is an M. It was already there, it was written, it just wasn’t coloured.
As if it was destined for you to go to these buildings and write peace in an area that has seen so much war
This area has seen a lot. The roads that cross each other, the Syria road, Jabal Mehsin and Debené, the people living on these streets across from each other were basically killing each other. This is a whole area that is under threat, a run down area, somewhere we felt our work could serve people.
We asked the NGO March, who we had previously worked with, to help introduce us to the people of the area. We met about 50 people, half from each neighbourhood that were at war and had been shooting at each other. A lot of them were saying things like look at this bullet scar on me, look at that spot I used to shoot there, there I used to go down to the tunnel to shoot and fight, this person killed my brother and so forth. So you start to think to yourself, were are we living? How are people still living like this? And Tripoli, is a city not too far to where our studio is based in Hamra Street in Beirut. But when you hear people talk, you feel so far away from what they are living with, to what we are living or seeing in Beirut. It’s really sad, it’s a poor area and there’s a lot of politics involved.
Regardless of the politics, all of them were super happy with the idea of working with us on Operation SALAM. They love it when someone outside their city comes and gives them time, because more often than not, they are left aside, left to their own devices, you see so much poverty, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they have such good hearts, you feel people are really genuine.
They want other’s to approach them and feel part of the country
This is one of the powers of art and the dedication and heart of when human beings put humanity above politics and religion.
Yes they want to be approached. Once we agreed to do the buildings in Tripoli, we showed the locals the google maps and we explained to them the concept. In order to really pin point the area, we sent up a drone. But also, when we would say something like we need this house for the project, someone working with us always had a connection behind a building, their response was often, this is my aunt’s house or my family knows them, and in a way this helped us with the logistics.
There were also always war stories behind each building, with the locals telling us that they would put sand bags and shoot here and there, there were these crazy war stories, that were thrilling to hear and at the same time make you feel so sad. It makes you cry to think where were they? And where were we? And were are we now?
But they dropped their guns. They started to help us to achieve our art concept. And so the idea of writing SALAM, is not just about the writing of a word. It’s SALAM as in peace for the area. It’s SALAM for Lebanon and SALAM to show the Western world, our world and our perspectives. Because most people outside the Middle East, when they think of the region, they think of terrorism and we are trying to show that there is a youth in the Middle East that have independant initiatives that can become big initiatives, showcasing to the whole wide world, that we want peace, we are creative, we love life, we want to show everything positive from and about the Middle East, we want to put this forward. The stigma in the Middle East is what? Terrorism, extremism, everything "ism". People outside the region, assume everything bad about it.
You are showcasing that art can be a tool of soft power or diplomatic power.
In Operation Salam, not only are you promoting peace, but the people helping you were ex-fighters. So it’s a double victory for peace.
Yes that’s true. Furthermore the green colour we used to paint with, is not a regular green, it’s the anti-leakage paint. It stops the leakage for each of those buildings we painted on.
From the start, we had thought of doing that. People were asking us why we used that colour green, was it a colour that most differientiates from the building colour, which is true, you can see that colour the most from the drone, but it was mainly because it helps the people that live there with any leakages and it also helps stop the sun heating the buildings severely, which it does so in the summer.
The whole project, shined a light on an area that was left aside and we were able to provide work for 50 to 60 people from there for three weeks, paying their wages for that amount of time.
There were many who appreciated that and sent us some lovely comments on social media, and then there are some people who don’t understand what we were doing, and wrote comments about the fact that instead of us spending money on paints, we should have just given people the money. I’m not arrogant but I won’t engage with that, because that’s not a solution, that is not how communities or a country progresses, what we try to do is help communities to realise that through work and through engaging in art they can find a way out of a rut.
Through your graffiti, Ashekman is promoting the Arabic language too,
Yes we purely paint in arabic at Ashekman. We usually do the Somboli calligraphy, which is the flowy calligraphy and some of the writting is Kufic, which is geometric. We wanted to have a graffiti style that fitted us well and where the letters can interact well with each other.
We are promoting the arabic language because we are so proud of our heritage. The core of Ashekman is graffiti arabic street art. We don’t do anything but in arabic, regardless of any country around the world we are working in, we are promoting the arabic language through our art.
When we were in Birmingham, we did a big Grendizer mural at a festival and most people were so happy to see arabic writing. Of course there were others who were wondering if we were writing something controversial, but that was a minority and people through art can learn about other people’s heritage. Regardless of people’s thoughts I still write in arabic because it’s my heritage, I believe in it, I do respect people’s opinion, everyone’s opinion, but don’t take away my rights. That’s how we feel at Ashekman, don’t take aways our rights to express ourselves through art. There may be some who want to erase our pieces because they could feel hostile against different cultures, but we don’t feel any hatred towards anybody. And besides, we are creating art.
And Arabic is a universal language across many countries and continents.
And it is graphically very beautiful
The specific term of the style of graffiti is called Calligraffiti?
Yes when you mix calligraphy with the graffiti it is called Calligraffiti. It involves the medium of paint but with the use of added layers. A stroke can become bigger, you can paint an outer glow or you can do drips with the paint. Extra elements to the graffiti turns it into Calligraffiti.
I also saw around Beirut that you have done some graffiti of Fayrouz and Sabah.
Is it about a reviving a time in history?
We were invited to do the first graffiti piece, a big mural in Baalbeck of Wadih El Safi, Fairouz and Sabbah.
These artists we painted, the state doesn’t give them the respect they deserve. When Sabbah died, what happened? Nothing official was done for her. When Wahid El Safi died, same, no one did anything. But these artists are part of the culture and DNA of the country, they have impacted so many Lebanese.
When Wadih El Safi passed away, the first thing we did, was go to the Tabbaris area in Beirut and paint a mural of him, this one we did very spontaneously, but it is still there. When we did it, behind us there were the army stationed and we thought one of them was going to stop us, but he started to praise our work and said to us these stars have not been given the respect they deserve, you are giving them respect through your mural, it was moving to hear that, he almost hugged us as we were painting it.
Artists, want people to remember their work we want that too, we all want to leave our fingerprints behind. The younger generation maybe they don’t know these stars or don’t give them the credit they are due, we give them value because they promoted Lebanon the best way they knew how to and highlighted the Arab world. In a way, we are taking from them the baton, like when the Olympic athlethes run they pass on the baton to one another. Of course these artists, they are on another level, I do not proclaim that we are on their level, but at least we are supporting and passing on a positive message of the culture from the region.
Sabah, Feyrouz and Wadih al Safi on a gigantic mural in the heart of the city, nearby the Baalbeck pillars
Sabah – صباح The first Arabic Calligraffiti mural in Beirut to immortalize the icon singer “Sabah” after her death, with the message: “بدي عيش للمية بس ليسموني الصبّوحة” ” I want to Live till 100so they can call me Sabbouha”
Zahab Safi – ذهب صافي Part of the Arabic calligraffiti series initiated by ASHEKMAN to memorize iconic figure in Lebanon and the Arab world, this mural was made from Kuffi Arabic calligraffiti letters with the message:”ذهب صافي” or “Safi is gone” but also with another meaning: “Pure gold”.
You also teach workshops, that is also a way of passing on the baton
We do a lot of graffiti workshops.
What do you sence from the next generation, are they hopeful or not so much?
I don’t want to say that graffiti is a trend now, because it is not a trend, If it was, then it would have seized by now. It’s been around since the the 1970s, so it would have definetly dissapeared by now, even though it’s still rather fresh in the region. But more and more people are taking an interest in it.
We started doing graffiti about 18 years ago and when we teach it to the new generation at first they are very excited about street art and to see the actual street artist talking to them, because usually graffiti artists are not accessible, they are more loaners, it’s a crew, like a closed circle, people usually know this and when we are invited to a University to teach, they look at us amazed and excited that we are there and not in some alleyway doing graffiti. But I always say that if someone doesn’t have passion inside of them then they can’t go on. So if I teach them one on one graffiti they then have to work work work.
You guys worked hard, there is a real discipline in your work
We’ve taught a lot of people and have influenced and even adviced many artists who are up and coming. But there are so many people who don’t realise, that you can’t burn steps. You need to work step by step to get to a certain solid base.
I saw your Ted talk and I was very touched when you talked about your journey, your hard work and about your mother and father and their influences on you, so I just wanted to end our conversation on that note and ask if you wanted to say something around that
Our mother was a painter so of course she influenced us. She’s more into landscape and fine art and calmness, then we came along with graffiti being all grungy hardcore. But of course we saw her paintings in our home and in our families houses, so that impacted us. And our father, is a thinker, a political thinlker too, he read a lot and we talked to him on many occasions. His thoughts influenced us a great deal. From these two influences, we created Ashekman.
To today where you are paving the way and influencing the next generation, like your parents paved the way for you. Especially since there is not much of a support system
There is no support system so you have to do it by yourself. That’s why sadly you see a lot of artists who are switching to something else because they cannot pay their bills.
For us this is our bread and butter. We hussle hard, whether it is through graffiti, through the clothing line or through the music.
Ashekman is like a wave, one art form goes up and is the front runner and the other art form follows, then all of a sudden it's vice versa and it’s that one that is the front runner and so on it follows…
Work is like a graffiti art wave, you're exposing the debris then recycling it into a message.
The message of hope and empowerment through art.
Grendizer graffiti at Ashekman headquarters in Beirut
Ashekman around the world:
Gendizer Mural in Kuwait
Grendizer in Yerevan Armenia, invited by The Tumo Center
Grendizer in Birmingham UK
Ashekman Studio started in Beirut city 2004 by identical twin brothers Omar & Mohamed Kabbani, ASHEKMAN is an Arabic street art crew specialized in Arabic graffiti and Arabic calligraffiti. It all started with mixing their Graphic design degree in an Arabic context, which resulted in a Lebanese street art crew. The twins studied Arabic calligraphy under master calligrapher Ali Assi. They were heavily inspired by the Lebanese civil war graffiti, which first emerged during the 80s and 90s. Various fighting militias used graffiti to tag walls during the Lebanese civil war. Considered among the early adopters of Arabic calligraphy in street art, the twins main objective is to revive the Arabic culture using an urban context.
All images are courtesy and copyright of Ashekman.