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A War of Colors:
Beirut Street Art and the Reclamation of Public Space

The Lebanese Civil War left its mark not only on the bodies and psyches of Lebanese people, but also on the visual landscape and cultural ethos of Beirut. During the war (1975-1990), and for years following the cessation of armed conflict, Beirut’s streets belonged to militias, thugs, snipers, and shabāb, young men who acted as vigilantes in their respective neighborhoods. Fearful for their lives on account of the danger posed by bullets, bombs, or kidnappings, ordinary civilians hurriedly walked through the hazardous, dirty streets to get from one place to another. The city’s visual landscape was mainly comprised of pockmarked walls, crumbling buildings, posters of political leaders both dead and alive, menacing political slogans, and the logos of various militias who fought to control the streets literally and symbolically. After the war, these same walls would undergo substantial transformations at the hands of emergent street artists who grew dissatisfied with the hegemonic occupation of the cityscape by militias and their divisive sectarian markings. Recognizing the potentialities of street art in forging an aesthetic intervention and presenting an alternative discourse to sectarianism, Beirut’s street artists have tasked themselves with reimagining the streets as a space for creating community-centered artwork [End Page 71] and engendering civic engagement, thus reclaiming them from the hands of warring political factions that monopolized them during the Lebanese Civil War.

While the visual culture of wartime Beirut remains generally understudied, Maria Chakhtoura and Zeina Maasri have contributed pioneering studies of graffiti and political posters, respectively. Maria Chakhtoura’s La Guerre des Graffiti [The Graffiti War] (1978) offers an annotated survey of the ubiquitous graffiti slogans that filled Beirut’s streets from 1975 to 1977. Chakhtoura’s collection documents the overwhelmingly dehumanizing rhetoric common among Lebanon’s various political factions. The derogatory slogans collected in Chakhtoura’s study include expressions such as “The Phalanges are dogs. Their leader is a pig,” “Jumblat birthed a mule,” “Jisr el-basha is the graveyard of Palestinians,” and “Arab=Animal.”1 It is no surprise that Chakhtoura lamented the findings captured by her camera, which, according to her, reflected the spirit of “delirium” and “orchestrated fanaticism” that permeated Beirut at the time.2 In a similar vein, Zeina Maasri’s Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (2009) offers an insightful study of political posters that were ubiquitous during the Lebanese Civil War. Maasri’s study reveals the power of these discursive tools in commemorating sectarian leaders, intimidating and demeaning perceived enemies, and advocating each political party’s version of “truth” and its vision for Lebanon. Arguing against the reductionist conceptualization of political posters as mere propaganda, Maasri argues that political posters “are inscribed in the hegemonic articulations of political communities in Lebanon’s war” and that they serve to “articulate the discourses, desires, fears and collective imaginaries pertinent to the various political identities being formed and transformed during wartime.̶3 Similar to sectarian graffiti, political posters thus served as a weapon of war—one that sought to elevate sectarian leaders, dehumanize the enemy, and assert the real or imagined dominance of local and regional actors.

In addition to bearing the marks of sectarian graffiti and political posters, Beirut’s walls have endured the impersonal, sterile touch of urban revival in the postwar era, as Lebanese leaders sought to reintegrate Lebanon in the global market and to reinvigorate its tourism sector. After the end of the war, reconstruction efforts swept the country, and signs of change appeared in some [End Page 72] parts of the city: freshly painted walls, shiny storefronts, newly paved streets, renovated sidewalks, and striking high-rises. However, as many Lebanese artists, scholars, and activists have contended, such cosmetic changes have been alienating, contrived, and exclusionary in their own way. Upscale development projects—including Solidere’s infamous reconstruction of downtown Beirut—do not truly reflect or honor the Lebanese people’s struggles, local talents, or unique history.4 While the reconstruction projects did alter select public spaces, rendering them more “inhabitable,” such projects have been generally reserved for neighborhoods deemed worthy of resuscitation due to their potential market value. As Rasha Salti notes, “[w]hen a public domain was deemed potentially ‘marketable,’ it was rehabilitated and swiftly auctioned off. When it was not deemed potentially commodifiable, it fell into malign neglect.̶5

As the years progressed, however, a new phenomenon seemed to be at work. In the early to mid-2000s, an unprecedented type of graffiti and street art appeared in Beirut’s streets:6 tags designating the nicknames of graffiti crews, witty stencils, labor-intensive “pieces” with complicated letterings and bold color schemes, and large-scale murals. These new types of graffiti first invaded the city’s “lesser loved” alleys, bridges, and streets and gradually spread into more visible parts of the city including main streets and highways. By the summer of 2013, they started to resemble a substantive corpus of work rather than isolated instances. Walking the city, residents would come face-to-face with a portrait of Lebanon’s renowned singer Fairouz or would find themselves greeted by famous cartoon characters bouncing off the city’s dilapidated walls.

In this article I examine select murals by independent artist Yazan Halwani (b. 1993) and by Mohammad and Omar Kabbani (b. 1983), the twin brothers who go by the crew name “Ashekman” (which translates into “exhaust pipe” in local Lebanese parlance). The Kabbani brothers and Halwani have been at the forefront of Beirut’s postwar street art scene. While there are dozens of skilled graffiti artists at work in Beirut, these street artists are among the few whose artistic skills and clever deployment of local and global symbols, tropes, and slogans put them well ahead of their peers. Furthermore, these artists have consistently produced a diverse body of artistic murals that engage with social issues including violence, freedom of speech, and governmental incompetence. By painting murals all over the city, they have created “open museums” that passersby, irrespective of their religious, socioeconomic, or educational backgrounds, may ponder.7 [End Page 73]

In what follows I offer a contextual analysis of representative murals by Yazan Halwani and the Kabbani brothers that highlights the artists’ engagement with the political and aesthetic environments in which their street art participates: the visual landscape of the Lebanese Civil War as well as Lebanon’s precarious sociopolitical and economic conditions, intersecting local and global processes, and evolving public opinion with regard to Beirut’s emergent street art.

Beirut’s street artists seek to reclaim the streets from their alienating wartime and gentrification-era conditions alike by producing community-centered art that ornaments the scarred city with thought-provoking visual artifacts. Creating alternative urban environments as well as commemorating cultural icons whose appeal crosses sectarian lines, including popular singers, musicians, and intellectuals, their street art seeks to provide Beirut’s residents with alternative models for civic commentary and to engender an ethic of coexistence and metropolitan engagement, as well as public appreciation for street art and the streets themselves. In a country marred by civil war, where graffiti has recurrently served as a provocation for sectarian violence—marking one’s territory and terrorizing power—the production of public art becomes crucial in reimagining the visual landscape, as well as the cultural ethos, of Lebanon’s capital city. By offering an alternative to the inflammatory markings of sectarianism, or even the impersonal insignia of commercialism, this community-centered artwork serves as a public counterdiscourse. It often seeks to articulate not only the city’s proud history and renowned cultural icons, but also its ongoing daily struggles with social and economic problems, such as the mismanagement of public waste, the lack of security, and the scarcity of resources with which the average Lebanese must grapple.

Large-scale artistic murals such as those painted by the Kabbani brothers and Halwani do not, of course, stand alone in the streets in postwar Beirut. Their [End Page 74] street art exists alongside casual doodling (such as “Nadine, my endless love”), activist stencils (such as the image of a woman with her fist clenched in a revolutionary gesture, along with the words “fight rape”), political posters (such as the pictures of Lebanese leaders including Saad Hariri, Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea), partisan slogans (such as “Al-Qasir is the graveyard of the party of the devil,” in reference to Hezbollah, the Party of God), and militia logos (of parties including Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Hezbollah).8 In other words, street art has not replaced other types of inscriptions and visual symbols but rather competes with them in the production and interpretation of space. Furthermore, in Lebanon, as in other places where the production of politically centered visual symbols tends to ebb and flow depending on shifting sociopolitical conditions, graffiti and street art are the creation not only of militias but also of disgruntled civilians, who take it up as their weapon of choice. For example, the “Cedar Revolution” protests, which erupted in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Harriri in 2005, were supplemented by the on-site creation of protest graffiti. Sune Haugbolle notes that the fence around Hariri’s mosque in downtown Beirut “had been overwritten with graffiti that revealed the multiplicity of interpretations and standpoints generated by his death.̶9 Similarly, Marwan Kraidy observes that as the Syrian uprising intensified, Beirut’s walls were transformed into “battlegrounds between friends and foes of the Syrian revolution.̶10 More recently, in the summer of 2015, politically-centered graffiti filled downtown Beirut in the wake of the “You Stink” protests, which were sparked by Lebanon’s garbage crisis. Multi-lingual slogans such as “hukūmit zbāli” (“trashy government”), “You stink but you don’t do shit,” and “anā bitnaffas hurriyeh” (“I breathe freedom”), remain strewn all over downtown Beirut—thus transforming the usually spotless commercial area into a multi-textured canvas of crude obscenities, witty remarks, and poetic dictates for a more just society. [End Page 75]

The growing body of scholarly work dedicated to the documentation and analysis of visual culture in the Arab world demonstrates the increased recourse to visual discourses in the region, as well as the need for a critical examination of these discourses in their diversity and multiplicity.11 Undeniably, studies of graffiti and street art contribute to illuminating the lived realities of people in the Arab world. Young Arab artists increasingly employ graffiti and street art as a form of intervention, by “visually making noise.” It thus behooves us to listen more carefully to the stories of those who have decided that “a wall has always been the best place to publish [their] work.̶12 M3alim and EPS’s mural, for example, which features a man wearing military camouflage and standing in front of the words “h.arb ‘alwān” (“a war of colors”) (Fig. 1), epitomizes the dynamics of art-centered civic engagement. Mimicking the trope of warfare, the mural heralds an urban war of a different order: a battle for the ornamentation of Beirut through the production of local street art. Armed with brushes and spray-cans, young artists strive to outdo one another in creating colorful

Figure 1. M3alim and EPS, A War of Colors (Corniche El-Nahr/Peugot). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 1.

M3alim and EPS, A War of Colors (Corniche El-Nahr/Peugot). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

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street art that is designed to please the eye and open the mind. This type of artistic intervention is potentially transformative as it not only physically alters the cityscape into a more aesthetically pleasing space, but also promotes an ethos of artistic rivalry and community building. M3alim’s proposition offers an alternative discourse to the aggressive usurpation of urban space through the wielding of weapons or the construction of sterile buildings and impersonal commercial centers.

Ashekman’s slogan, “al-shāri’ ilna” (“the street is ours”), echoes the Kabbanis’ promise to reclaim the streets from thugs and militias and to put them in the hands of the city’s residents. Similarly, Halwani argues that he is “trying to show people that it’s very easy to change the city, to make it ours and not [that of] some politicians […] so [residents] know that the city is theirs and they have a responsibility and right.̶13 The Kabbanis’ and Halwanis’s self-articulated visions and artwork reflect the aesthetics and spirit of what Rafael Schacter terms “consensual ornamentation,” that is, “outward looking, legible, community-embracing visual designs” that mirror their practitioners’ “desire for harmony, communion, for an intersubjective relationship with the wider public sphere.̶14 Schacter’s conceptualization of the ornament as having “an ability not only to remodel our physical environment, but to reconstruct our understanding of the world itself̶15 offers a useful framework for understanding the decorative and transformative dimensions of the murals of the Kabbani brothers and Halwani. The artistic murals of Halwani and the Kabbani brothers represent community-centered ornaments whose function is rooted in a desire for visual as well as social transformation, rather than a purely decorative (or deformative) purpose.


The first wave of artistic graffiti in Beirut strongly resembled hip-hop graffiti and street art in the West. Most early pieces used English and French and had no connection to Arabic. Zoghbi argues that this is due to the fact that European artists played a significant role in shaping the early graffiti scene in Beirut.16 In Beirut, Western-inspired graffiti generally appeared in abandoned parking lots and under bridges, in out-of-reach places and other recesses of the city’s decaying infrastructure. Such pieces offered unexpected bursts of color that breathed life into otherwise muted or damaged walls. For example, a tag by Phat2, which [End Page 77] features the artist’s nickname in bold pink letters, adorns a dilapidated building (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Phat 2, Phat2: You cannot catch me, cannot hold me, you cannot stop, much less control me (Saloumi). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 2.

Phat 2, Phat2: You cannot catch me, cannot hold me, you cannot stop, much less control me (Saloumi). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

The work is a testament not only to the artist’s success at embellishing a dismal-looking and forsaken lot, but also to his “tactics” for infiltrating a closed-off site. The Achrafiyeh-born artist flaunts his overreaching power with the inscribed statement, “You cannot catch me, cannot hold me, you cannot stop, much less control me.” This statement manifests the artist’s playful usurpation of space in defiance of the “No entry” sign posted on the fence. Similarly, a bubbly piece by ACK (Another Crushing Kill) sits atop the wall of a small balcony of a historic building in Achrafiyeh (Fig. 3). It demonstrates the crew’s artistic and kinesthetic skills and its ability to navigate even the most exposed and hazardous spaces.

Figure 3. ACK (Another Crushing Kill), Ack (Achrafiyeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 3.

ACK (Another Crushing Kill), Ack (Achrafiyeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

These examples suggest that street artists—and their audiences—have been longing for an alternative visual landscape to the one engendered by sectarianism. In other words, Latin-lettered hip-hop graffiti seems to have offered an inspiration, or perhaps a departure point, rather than a full-fledged [End Page 78] solution to their cravings for an alternative visual culture. Ultimately, some street artists would move away from solely imitating Western graffiti; experimenting with a multiplicity of languages, symbols, and tropes, they envisioned and fashioned a more hybridized form of street art—one that articulated the city’s local color by drawing upon its Arab/Lebanese heritage in addition to its transnational identity and globalized reality. The Kabbani brothers were among the first Lebanese street artists to incorporate Arabic calligraphy in their work and to produce Arabic-language calligraffiti murals, which combine Arabic calligraphy and graffiti, among other elements.17 One of Ashekman’s signature-centered pieces demonstrates the merging of hip-hop inspired images with Arabic script (Fig. 4).

The work features a stylized rendition of the crew’s name in brightly colored Arabic letters and a small image of a cartoonish car muffler in the form of a smiling skull. The skull’s eyebrow consists of the Arabic shadda diacritic, one of Ashekman’s trademarks. The Kabbani brothers take pride in integrating Arabic writing in their pieces and consider it part of their mission to promote Lebanese colloquialisms at a time when Beirut’s middle-and upper-class youth are increasingly using English and French as a mark of social status. Similarly, Yazan Halwani went from tagging his name, in an attempt to emulate “these taggers in New York,” to learning Arabic calligraphy, and his work now pays tribute to an Arab-Islamic heritage of which he is proud.18

Figure 4. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Ashekman (Mar Mikhael). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 4.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Ashekman (Mar Mikhael). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

As Beirut’s street artists increasingly moved away from tagging their names, many started to invoke Beirut itself, often as a trope for unity and anti-sectarianism. As [End Page 79] an example, SISKA and PRIME’s graffito, “Beirut ma bitmūt” (“Beirut will never die,” Fig. 5), is among the first Beirut-centered pieces that appeared in the city. The artists painted the mural during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, in an attempt to uplift residents by appealing to their civic pride since, as SISKA put it, “Beirut was empty, gray, and desperate,” and “the citizens were sad” and “felt stuck.̶19 The graffito features the text “Beirut ma bitmūt” along with images of a cedar and a bomb. The wall invokes the discourses of death and survival by virtue of its discursive message, the physical surface to which it adheres, and the context in which SISKA painted it: the bullet-holes on the wall are remnants of the civil war, thus hailing back to an era of devastation-and-resilience in Lebanon’s history. Invoking Beirut’s survival of past tragedy, the graffiti artists insist on projecting an optimistic future by strategically using a bullet-ridden wall to persuade civilians that this violent moment, too, will pass. SISKA’s graffito does not attempt to obliterate the scars of war, but rather draws attention to them by situating them at the core of the medium and the message alike.

At the same time, this graffito invokes what has become a cliché: a phoenix-like Beirut that continuously resurrects itself from its ashes. Notwithstanding the graffito’s possible association with a sentimental or nostalgic image of a mythical Beirut, it is crucial to emphasize the tragic context in which this graffito was born: an unexpected war that ultimately resulted in roughly 1,200 deaths, 4,000 injuries, and the displacement of approximately a million Lebanese civilians. Therefore, harboring hope and promoting communal solidarity became a vital factor in every aspect of daily life, as civilians found themselves in the midst of yet another war with no end in sight. SISKA’s graffito reflects these sentiments. Furthermore, the emphasis on reimagining a unified Beirut in the face of calamity offers an alternative national narrative to the divisive sectarian discourses produced by Lebanon’s militias during and after the Lebanese civil war. Beirut was spatially divided into a Christian-dominated East and Muslim-dominated West during the Civil War, and it remains generally segregated along sectarian lines. As Haugbolle asserts, “symbolic turf wars” are still reproduced [End Page 80] by political parties and their followers, and “[t]his geography of communitarian divisions reflects the sectarian political system in Lebanon, but also continual sectarian divisions in the population.̶20 At times of conflict, such tensions are often at risk of further escalation as residents find themselves competing for limited resources and are likely to lean more on their sectarian political leaders. Cognizant of Beirut’s history and its ongoing sectarian tensions, SISKA asserts, “Usually, political messages and signs were meant to divide the city into different territories. Our idea was to unify the message and the territory—one message for all, one city for all.̶21 SISKA’s words demonstrate the ways in which the city’s sectarian divisions, reflected spatially on the streets, have directly influenced his inclusive vision of post-war street art. The city, as re-imagined by street artists, becomes a place where it becomes possible to voice internal critiques, to express a counterdiscourse to sectarian propaganda, and to celebrate cultural achievements that unite the public through a sense of national and civic pride.

Figure 5. SISKA and PRIME, Beirut will never die (Gemmayzeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 5.

SISKA and PRIME, Beirut will never die (Gemmayzeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

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Maasri notes that over one-third of the civil war posters she amassed were dedicated exclusively to the “veneration of leaders.” She asserts that the za’īm figure (sectarian leader) often “got amplified into a mythical hero, protector of his community and its sectarian interest.̶22 The ubiquity of posters featuring the photographs of leaders meant that people were socialized into believing and “acting out” the notion that sectarian leaders were the only viable role models. Since street artists aim to counteract sectarian visual markers, it is no surprise that they have produced their own (sub)versions of “leadership posters.” Deploying portraits of esteemed singers, poets, and journalists, street artists have memorialized such notable cultural icons based on their intellectual and artistic contributions to society rather than their sectarian affiliation. By erecting murals of such figures, they have sought to re-socialize Lebanon’s youth by broadening their expectations about who could and should be revered and remembered in the street. To borrow Schacter’s words, these artists seek to “reach out to the public with their images” because they believe that their artifacts are “more appropriate, more social, than the vast majority of visual culture that lay within the street.̶23 Unlike polarizing political slogans or the posters of sectarian leaders, such murals seek to create an inclusive visual culture that would engender a sense of pride and civic engagement, rather than highlight (and fuel) sectarian passions.

Fairouz (b. 1935) is among the figures that graffiti artists have memorialized. The venerated singer has achieved an iconic status in Lebanon, and throughout the entire Arab world, for reasons that go beyond her unrivaled voice. She is generally admired by Lebanese of all religions, and many respect the fact that she did not leave the country during the war, despite having the means to emigrate. Her songs offered the Lebanese much hope during the war and are a staple in many households and at various social gatherings. One of the most famous calligraffiti murals is Halwani’s portrait of Fairouz in Gemmayzeh (Fig. 6).24 It features a profile picture of Fairouz, with her mouth slightly open, as if she was photographed in the midst of her singing. The carefully selected black, gray, and beige colors match the faded paint of the salmon-colored wall. The portrait deftly follows the path of the stairway up the street. Aside from producing an aesthetically arresting mural that integrates harmoniously with its surroundings, [End Page 82] Halwani had another purpose in mind when painting Fairouz. He wanted kids to grow up looking at pictures of artistic role models, not politicians. He boasts about delightfully “removing politicians’ faces” so that he can create a smoother surface for painting his portraits.25

Halwani’s mural thus represents a literal and discursive intervention into the streetscape that constructs an alternative discourse about “more deserving” role models. Yet Halwani did not leave his audience feeling proud merely for being part of the “civilization” that produced Fairouz. Using his calligraphy skills, he inscribed a chastising expression by Palestinian rapper Tammer Naffar, which translates into “Our grandfathers invented the zero, and their grandchildren became zeroes.” Naffar’s line—which invokes the Golden Age of Islam and its contributions to mathematics—warns of the deterioration of Arab nations over the past few decades. Therefore, the mural simultaneously seeks to lift the spirits of Beirutis while cautioning them against ideological complacency.

Figure 6 - No description available
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Figure 6.

Ashekman, too, employs the calligraffiti mural as a means of alternative commemoration. One of Ashekman’s murals includes a portrait of the late Lebanese composer and singer Wadi’ Al-Safi (1921-2013) (Fig. 7). The calligraffiti mural features a black and white portrait of Safi, along with the expression “dhahab Safi,” enclosed by two small ‘ouds in lieu of quotation marks, against [End Page 83] a purple background. The word “dhahab” means gold, while the singer’s last name, “Safi,” literally means “pure.” The expression “dhahab Safi,” (“pure gold”) thus reflects the Kabbanis’ linguistic savvy as hip-hop artists who have a penchant for wordplay. The expression also means “Safi is gone” (as the word “dhahab” also means “left”). The Kabbanis’ mural thus mourns the loss of one of Lebanon’s national treasures (pure gold). It grants the legendary musician the public honor that the Lebanese government failed to bestow upon him.

Figure 7 - No description available
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Figure 7.

Figure 8. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Sabah: “I want to live to one hundred, so they can call me Al-Sabbouha” (Achrafiyeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 8.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Sabah: “I want to live to one hundred, so they can call me Al-Sabbouha” (Achrafiyeh). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

In June 2015, the Kabbani brothers completed a calligraffiti mural that memorialized the late singer Sabah, since they felt “she wasn’t commemorated as she should have been” (Fig. 8).26 Sabah’s mural is located in Achrafiyeh. Given Achrafiyeh’s infamous traffic, passersby have ample opportunity to contemplate the mural and reminisce about Sabah and her art. Painted in bright green and yellow, the mural features the blonde artist smiling and gazing upwards. The background against which her portrait is set incorporates Arabic calligraphy, making it appear as if the singer is emerging out of the petals of a flower. Below the picture is a quote in Lebanese dialect, which translates as, “I want to live to one hundred, so they can call me Al-Sabbouha.̶27 It is worth noting that Sabah endured inhumane jokes about her [End Page 84] age—and ageing—and faced numerous rumors about her death years before she actually died. The mural thus includes a rich subtext with which many of Sabah’s fans are familiar, thus appealing to audiences beyond the level of aesthetics or commemoration alone. In an interview with the Al-Anadol News Agency, a local resident commented that “the ambiance was great during the painting of the graffiti, and we [the viewers] were waiting eagerly for the completion of this work so we could judge it.̶28 The interviewee perceives the Kabbani brothers’ murals as a form of participatory public art that merits a response on her part. Her statement echoes Schacter’s assertions that public art “is not produced to be merely attractive, as mere ornament,” but rather “to attract, to entice us within its web.̶29 Sabah’s mural captivates passersby and engenders reflections and conversations about various issues including the street artists’ drawing and painting skills, the singer’s life and death, and the evolving role—or worthiness—of Beirut street art itself.

Figure 9. Yazan Halwani, Sabah (Hamra). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 9.

Yazan Halwani, Sabah (Hamra). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

The “war of colors” prophesized by M3alim reached its peak in the summer of 2015. Days after the brothers completed their Sabah mural, Halwani unveiled his own massive calligraffiti mural of the trailblazing Sabah in Hamra, one of Beirut’s busiest neighborhoods. The mural occupies the wall of an old building that hails back to the pre-civil war era, allowing the late Sabah to tower over the city with a monumental visibility that only political leaders have dared in the past (Fig. 9). The mural features a portrait of a beaming Sabah, flashing her broad smile. Her image sits against a backdrop of Arabic calligraphy, whose letters resemble blowing [End Page 85] leaves and create a halo-like effect around her head. Halwani intentionally chose that building as the setting for his Sabah mural as it once housed the Horseshoe Café, a popular haunt for artists and intellectuals such as the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and the Lebanese-Armenian painter Paul Guiragossian. Halwani’s close attention to the specificities of the cityscape and its history reiterate Martin Irvine’s discussion of the “deep identification and empathy” that contemporary street artists feel towards the cities in which they are situated. Regardless of their motives, aesthetic styles, or quality of work, the city remains “the assumed interlocutor, framework and essential precondition for making the artwork work30 In his discussion of the mural, Halwani laments the fact that the neighborhood—which now hosts multinational corporations such as H&M, Starbucks, and Radio Shack—has lost its local flavor, and hopes that his Sabah mural may help recreate “the sense of culture that used to exist.̶31 By painting an Arabic calligraffiti mural of Sabah, Halwani both immortalizes Sabah and embellishes the city in a way that does not erase or corrode its cultural distinctiveness.

Aside from her artistic contributions, Sabah was known for resisting dominant gender norms and for proudly asserting her right to live a free, fulfilling life, despite facing criticism for violating traditional values and customs. In his description of the Sabah mural, Halwani writes, “She was not only an ‘icon’ [.…] I think we need to take Sabah’s drive in modern society, break taboos when need be [,] and not be held by norms.̶32 Paying a public tribute to Sabah’s spirit of nonconformity takes on a unique and arguably political dimension in a society where people are generally socialized to adhere blindly to their sectarian leaders and to avoid breaking dominant societal norms.

Halwani and the Kabbani brothers have appropriated and repurposed Beirut’s public spaces, “fill[ing] [them] with the forests of their desires and goals.̶33 They have re-imagined the practice of visual commemoration as a celebration of beloved cultural icons and creative cultural productions, instead of the veneration of political leaders and the promotion of sectarian divisions.


Gröndahl demonstrates that graffiti in Gaza has always reflected the city’s socio-political situation and the mood of its residents, noting that while the first year of the peace process resulted in “happy and more hopeful” graffiti, the [End Page 86] city’s walls articulated the “disappointment, frustration, and anger over a peace process that had not kept its promises” in the autumn of 2000.34 The same may be said with regards to the Kabbani brothers’ socially-focused murals, since the authors see their graffiti as equivalent to the “eight o’clock news.̶35 Ashekman’s playful murals insinuate that the Lebanese government is incapable of containing chaos. One graffito includes a stenciled rat, modeled after the character Remy from the animated movie Ratatouille, wearing a chef’s hat (Fig. 10). The image is topped by the colloquial Lebanese expression “arrib ‘al tayyib,” which roughly translates into “Come get the yummy stuff!” The Kabbani brothers painted this graffito after a cleaning crew strike in 2014 that left the city’s public garbage bins overflowing with trash.36 The graffito thus captured the dismal situation of Beirut’s filthy streets, which became a haven for rats and infestation—highlighting the disastrous outcome of the government’s failure to negotiate with the striking workers. The artists inventively appropriated garbage as an artistic trope, symbolically transforming the “dystopian, disagreeable, and malodorous” into witty, eye-catching artwork.37 Ashekman’s Ratatouille graffito was somewhat prophetic as it “predicted” what would ultimately become a grave garbage crisis in summer 2015, as tons of garbage accumulated in Beirut’s streets after one of Beirut’s major landfills closed and the government failed to find an alternative solution. In the wake of the “You Stink” civilian protests, the brothers reproduced the graffito all over the city and posted a picture of it on their Facebook page, annotated with the caption: “With the trash flooding the streets, #Entrepreneur Rats in #Beirut started #ASHEKMAN opening #StreetFood franchise all over the city #thestreetisours #stencil #trashtalk.̶38 They thus articulated the absurdity of the situation and highlighted the role of their street art as a legitimate form of public communication in a way that is perhaps more creative and resonant than “the eight o’clock news.”

Figure 10. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Come get the yummy stuff ! (Bourj al-Ghazal). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 10.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Come get the yummy stuff ! (Bourj al-Ghazal). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

[End Page 87]

Another playful graffito by the Kabbani brothers is “ma.tlūb,” (“Wanted”) (Fig. 11), which features the video-game character Bomberman running and carrying a bomb. While the bright colors and cartoonish drawings of the mural look cheerful, it was inspired by disturbing events. The brothers painted this mural in response to the series of targeted bombings that hit Lebanon during the past decade, claiming the lives of several politicians and journalists. Bomberman represents the figure of the uncontrollable, elusive assassin. Killings are likened here to mindless video games, where violence is normalized and human lives are insignificant. The tragicomic mural speaks to the precariousness of peace and the incompetence of governance in postwar Lebanon. It also echoes the Lebanese people’s frustration with their political leaders and their recurring question “wayn al-dawleh?” which translates into “where is the government?” particularly in the wake of tragic events. The mural also articulates many people’s perspective that the government must “do more” by being more engaged and responsive to the needs of the city and its residents.

Likewise dominating Ashekman’s murals is Grendizer, the robot hero of the eponymous Japanese anime that gained popularity among children who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the Grendizer murals features the giant robot assuring residents in classical Arabic that “a people who have Grendizer

Figure 11. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Wanted (Al-Barrad al-Younani). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 11.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, Wanted (Al-Barrad al-Younani). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

[End Page 88]

as their protector will never die” (Fig. 12). By this logic, it is Grendizer, not political leaders, who can save Lebanon from its predicaments. Grendizer’s statement mimics the inflated rhetoric and dogmatism of Lebanese leaders who have become famous for their empty rhetoric and self-aggrandizement. The Kabbanis have produced numerous variations of the Grendizer mural, with one referring to him as “ba.tal al-sha’b,” the “people’s hero.” According to antique collector and art history instructor Hadi Maktabi, the extraterrestrial Grendizer is here to rescue us as he “blazes his laser beams perhaps to purify Beirut’s putrid air.̶39 Grendizer steps in because Lebanese leaders have abandoned ship. Like Bomberman, Grendizer exposes the failure of Lebanese politicians to translate their (empty) promises into actions because they are too busy pursuing their own interests. Using humorous street art, the brothers publicly transmit a seriously disturbing message regarding the city’s dysfunctional leaders and its increasingly dystopian reality.

Figure 12. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, A People who have Grendizer will never die (Verdun). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 12.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, A People who have Grendizer will never die (Verdun). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

[End Page 89]

Whereas the brothers tap into childhood memories of superheroes, Yazan Halwani adheres to the use of portraits as a means of addressing social issues and prompting civic engagement. One of Halwani’s most touching and thought-provoking murals memorializes Ali Abdallah, a homeless and mentally ill man who died on Bliss Street40 on one of Beirut’s coldest nights in January 2013. Wondering if Abdallah might have survived if he had received proper assistance, Halwani inscribed Abdallah’s face so it could serve as a “constant reminder” of the necessity of extending care to underprivileged people on a regular basis, rather than acting only when tragedy strikes.41 Abdallah’s makeshift burial may be considered an attempt at restoring some dignity to a man who was literally left out in the cold. The artwork iterates an ethics of care, whereby values such as “sensitivity, empathy, responsiveness and taking responsibility” become the basis of relating to one another.42

Figure 13. Yazan Halwani, Ali Abdallah (Verdun/Concorde). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 13.

Yazan Halwani, Ali Abdallah (Verdun/Concorde). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

At one point, Abdallah’s mural was defaced, along with Halwani’s mural of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. It is rumored that a homeless schizophrenic man is behind the defacement of Halwani’s murals and the scribbling of religious statements on various graffiti pieces, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this rumor. What matters is that Halwani repainted Ali Abdallah’s somber face in intricate detail, including the cigarette often seen dangling from his lips (Fig. 13). Next to Abdallah’s image, he scribbled the sentence “ghadan yawmun afd.al,” which means “tomorrow is a better day,” and which refers to the title of a song by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese alternative rock band.43 The dialogic mural thus incorporates various layers of meaning, including the allusion decipherable to fans of the band. The restored mural communicates a sense of renewed hope regarding the public’s attention to homelessness, since Ali’s tragic case—and Halwani’s mural—may have brought attention [End Page 90] to a long overlooked problem. By repainting Abdallah’s image, Halwani reaffirmed Abdallah’s right to the city, granting him the same respect he had granted Fairouz and Sabah. Ironically, he tasked graffiti—the most transient of mediums—with immortalizing and elevating a once-forsaken man and promoting an ethics of care. Halwani’s and the Kabbani brothers’ calligraffiti murals elucidate the evolution of Beirut’s street art and its producers’ dedication to creating artwork that is of and for the city.


In his discussion of graffiti and the city, Graeme Evans maintains that the “dichotomies between, crime-art, control-tolerate in practice, are therefore played out in a continuum along which city authorities, the public, and graffiti and street artists move, as taste, opinion (including local and national media), city branding and development shift over time.̶44 The on-the-ground actions of Beirut street artists often complicate categorical separations of margin and center, art and violation, and mainstream and peripheral by virtue of the changing status of graffiti and street art in the eyes of authorities, the public, and the street artists themselves. Graffiti and street art are neither legal nor officially illegal in Lebanon, and graffiti artists operate under unpredictable conditions dictated by those in power. For instance, many of the artists negotiate with the police when caught in action. Confronted by a police officer, their first impulse is often neither fight nor flight. As Omar Kabbani explains, “When you do graffiti, you can’t be the bully” and “you have to act smart.” He and his brother deal with law enforcement officers in an assertive but respectful manner. On one occasion, a police officer interrogated the Kabbani brothers and eventually discovered that they were the “Ashekman” hip-hop band, so he asked them to sign one of their CDs for his son and let them be.45 Similarly, once, after interrogating Halwani and determining that he was not “vandalizing” the street, a police [End Page 91] officer pointed out that his graffito lacked color. Delighted that the officer was engaging with the work-in-progress, Halwani invited the officer to help him fill in some color. Halwani has, however, also experienced less friendly encounters with the police, including an incident in which his possessions were temporarily confiscated. Nevertheless, he continues to act with self-restraint in order to prevent tensions from escalating.46 Such interactions demonstrate that street artists may not necessarily avoid nor even radically challenge authority; rather, their working practices often engage productively with law enforcement personnel in an effort to fulfill their missions of ornamenting the city and shaping public opinion regarding street art as a space for performing community service rather than propagating vandalism or violence.

By the same token, street artists often have a complex, ambivalent relationship with social institutions such as the mainstream media and the municipality. While they often articulate critical stances regarding the media’s or the

Figure 14. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, To be Free or not to Be (Mar Mitr). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 14.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, To be Free or not to Be (Mar Mitr). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

[End Page 92]

government’s shortcomings, they still strategically woo and court such institutions when the situation demands it. When a new cleanup resolution dictating the removal of political posters and sectarian slogans came into effect in February 2015, for instance—resulting in the removal of one of Ashekman’s murals—graffiti artists worked with the media to save their other pieces.47 Ironically, Ashekman’s removed mural featured the expression “anta, h.urr aw la takūn”—that is, “To be free or not to be”—along with three monkeys enacting the famous “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” maxim (Fig.14). The mural, which clearly champions freedom of expression, was removed under the pretext that it was “political” and had to be painted over like all other politically driven visual symbols. Ashekman’s graffito became the first street-art casualty of law enforcement, even though it was neither sectarian nor illegal since he had secured permission from the mayor and the owner of the building to paint it.

The removal of the mural—which was not explicitly “political” but which nonetheless struck law enforcement officers as such—speaks to the ambivalent status of Beirut’s street art. In other words, this art is not merely perceived as just “decorative” or as an “innocent” form of embellishment. It has the power to be controversial and critical, causing authorities to question whether or not it should be allowed to flourish on the streets of Beirut, particularly at times when political slogans are being erased. This incident also speaks to the power of these artifacts to generate ornaphobia (an “anxiety of ornament”) as much as appreciation. According to Schacter, public art may be perceived to be “as powerful as it is pollutive,” thus bearing “an ability to attack and repel in quite equal measure.̶48 In the context of Beirut’s contentious streets—where the images of singers and cartoon characters once mocked or defaced political leaders—Ashekman’s and Halwani’s artworks may tap into individual and collective anxieties regarding who should have the power and legitimacy to “captivate” the city’s public, let alone to occupy its public space.

In response to what they perceived as an unjust act of censorship, the civic institution MARCH—to which the Kabbani brothers belong, and whose main goal is to fight for freedom of expression in Lebanon—vociferously supported the brothers during their clash with the municipality.49 The group released a statement on their Facebook page admonishing the government for suppressing civil rights and obliterating constructive street art. An excerpt from the message read: “Is this the solution to Lebanon’s problems? Silencing voices calling [End Page 93] for freedom, literally painting over positive messages? Does our government have any regard for its citizens’ most basic civic rights?̶50 Renowned talk-show host Zaven Kouyoumdjian devoted an episode of his television show to discussing the impending fate of other murals, including Halwani’s beloved portraits. Ordinary residents of the area were also interviewed, and they expressed rage at the government’s decision to destroy artistic murals that gave them much joy in the streets. The combined efforts of street artists, grassroots organizations, Lebanese bloggers, and the mainstream media ultimately resulted in extracting an apology from Mayor Ziad Chebib. The mayor even invited the Kabbani brothers to repaint the mural in the same location.51

The repainted mural includes the same text, “To be free or not to be,” but the text is now supplemented by an arguably more provocative image—that of an arm manipulating a Kermit the Frog puppet (Fig. 15). Ashekman’s mural suggests that a puppet-like life, void of agency and freedom of expression, is not worth living. Moreover, the mural’s erasure and resurrection attests to the ways in which a city’s visual culture is continuously reimagined by numerous intersecting discourses including the statements and actions of street artists, public officials, media figures, and city residents—all of whom interact and compete in the production and interpretation of the visual culture in which they coexist.

As Sarmento and Campos argue, visual culture encompasses a “combination of universes and sub-universes, with their agents, objects and specific processes of production, dissemination, and reception of visual goods,” and its “renewal” is often contingent upon “cooperative and conflicting relations.̶52 Adopting the term “post-graffiti” to discuss contemporary forms of urban inscriptions that defy strict binaries in terms of production, circulation, and reception, Luke Dickens argues that while renowned street artist Banksy may be “vociferously opposed to zealous municipal officials,” he has often been “more conciliatory in practice.̶53 Dickens’s observations may be applied to the Beirut’s street artists, who may rage against the municipality but still remain open to negotiation and reconciliation. These artists occupy an in-between space from which they may work with and against government officials in order to involve residents not as spectators but as engaged actors who have been gradually socialized into feeling invested in public art and entitled to deciding the fate of Beirut’s visual culture. [End Page 94]

In his discussion of street culture in the era of increased globalization, Irvine emphasizes that contemporary street art increasingly resists “reductionist categories” and that “the most notable works represent surprising hybrid forms produced with the generative logic of remix and hybridization.̶54 The artistic choices of Beirut street artists reflect their attentiveness to intersecting local and global discourses in the capital city. As we have seen, the Kabbani brothers and Halwani have elevated local cultural icons by engraving their faces on the city’s walls. They have also tasked themselves with promoting the Arabic language, both in its spoken and written variations. At the same time, the Kabbani brothers have incorporated global figures such as Remy, Grendizer, and Kermit the Frog, figures with which the Lebanese public is very familiar due to the ubiquitous presence of global goods, Western film, and multinational corporations. The brothers “Arabize” and “hybridize” these figures, adapting them to the demands of Beirut’s streets. In Askheman’s hands, Remy speaks with a heavy Beiruti accent and warns of a Lebanese garbage catastrophe. Grendizer demeans Arab politicians and mimics their sermonizing rhetoric; Kermit the Frog becomes an example of the manipulations of a puppet regime.

Figure 15. Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, To be Free or not to Be (Mar Mitr). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.
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Figure 15.

Mohammad and Omar Kabbani, To be Free or not to Be (Mar Mitr). Image courtesy of the author and Will Taggart.

Beirut street artists are also mindful of the critical role of the Internet, particularly social media, in facilitating the global circulation of street art. They mindfully seek to utilize the opportunities presented by cyberspace with respect to archiving and disseminating their work. Halwani’s and the Kabbani brothers’ [End Page 95] artworks exist on the streets of Beirut and well beyond them, often populating websites that are based in and beyond Beirut. Even when they are defaced on the streets of Beirut, their works often thrive online because they “continually code-switch back and forth between the city as a material structure and the ‘city of bits,’ the city as information node.̶55 The artists design, execute, and digitally document their Beirut-located artifacts with the knowledge that these artifacts will soon embark on a border-crossing journey on the web.

The Kabbani brothers and Halwani do not hide their motivations for seeking to establish themselves as professional artists, while at the same time continuing to ornament the streets of Beirut for free. Trained in graphic design, the Kabbani brothers own a graffiti-themed apparel store, and they perceive themselves as self-made artists and entrepreneurs whose business allows them to “stock the fridge” and to fund their free public art.56 They are proud of their roots as poor, amateur graffiti writers, but they now see their artwork as a growing brand. They also refuse to veer away from their unique aesthetic style for the sake of making a deal, carefully choosing to work only with clients that commission them to “do-that-thing-that-[they do] for them, too,” to borrow Adam Euewens’s description of calligraffiti artist Niels Shoe Meulman’s approach to graphic design.57 Yazan Halwani explains that painting a wall in Beirut’s streets can range in cost from three hundred to several thousand dollars, so he must find a way to pay for the wall. He asserts, “The artist can’t do the work unless he can finance himself as an artist. I personally do gallery shows and canvases. […] I paint these canvases, I sell them to the rich and then I give them to the poor, that is, the city.̶58 The Kabbani brothers and Halwani have donated their time and skills to non-profit organizations and have made a living selling individual artworks or leading educational seminars in Lebanon and abroad. Their evolving approach to graffiti and street art resembles that of other urban street artists across the world.59

Luke Dickens argues that “contemporary inscribers” are “media savvy individuals” who mindfully produce cultural artifacts that “operate across increasingly sophisticated social, professional and entrepreneurial networks” and that it only makes sense to view this “new-found affiliation with the establishment as partial, negotiated and ambiguous, rather than a comprehensive ‘selling out.’̶60 Following Dickens, we might consider the historical and political context in which this street art is situated and resist summarily dismissing it [End Page 96] as “complacent” or “apolitical” based on the reductionist view that, unless it is anonymous, illegal, and explicitly political, and unless its producer refrains from using his/her artistic skills to make a living, a graffito “does not count” or is not worth examining. Aware of the high cost of censorship, Beirut’s street artists seek to transform the city by inscribing images and texts that are as transformative as they are decorative while minimizing the risks of retaliation. It is equally important to acknowledge that these youths have found a way to make a living—inside Lebanon—at a time when many young people of their educational and artistic skills have resorted to migration in search of more secure and lucrative career opportunities, not to mention personal safety. The Kabbani brothers’ and Halwani’s graffiti pieces thus communicate not only their artists’ overt messages about art and social justice, but also unspoken subtexts about “making do” with limited resources, in the face of rising political tensions, governmental neglect, and diminishing employment opportunities.


The increasing presence of community-centered street art represents a complex phenomenon that reflects and compliments the existence of other types of initiatives within Lebanese civil society. As Salti notes, “There is an organic mirroring between the plural and vivacious use of the city’s walls in the postwar period and the state of civil society.̶61 Halwani’s and the Kabbani brothers’ acts of “consensual ornamentation” are perhaps best seen as a chapter in a much broader narrative of civic engagement. While spraying the separation wall with graffiti did not end the Israeli occupation, it contributed to bringing international attention regarding the plight of Palestinians.62 Despite the legitimate reservations of some people regarding the embellishment of a wall that had caused substantial hardship, the collaborative efforts of local and international graffiti artists, including Banksy, raised around a million dollars for Palestinian charities.63 In a similar way, Beirut street art will not singlehandedly end sectarianism, inflammatory rhetoric, or violence, but it might lead to increased social awareness with regard to public art and civic engagement. By filling public spaces with stimulating murals that invoke Lebanese cultural icons like Fairouz and Sabah, or even playful, “glocalized” figures like Remy and Grendizer, Beirut street artists seek to engage and to connect pedestrians through art, laughter, commiseration, and collective memory. At the same time, it is important to maintain a critical distance toward Beirut’s walls. Just as some [End Page 97] people expressed ambivalence towards the embellished separation wall—which led to a transnational conversation regarding the pros and cons of decorating it—it is incumbent upon us to consider the possible “side effects” of street art in Beirut and to weigh them against other broader concerns.

Lamenting the long-enduring control of militias over Beirut’s streets, Omar Kabbani asserts, “I’m embellishing my city. I’m making people realize that street art is an art form and that graffiti does not have to be associated with people vandalizing walls. … It is about art. It’s not about gunshots.̶64 Kabbani’s words (and actions) demonstrate the deeply engraved mark that war, and wartime graffiti, left on the psyche of a young boy growing up in Beirut. For the Kabbanis and other artists of their generation, the maneuvers of militia men have inspired a desire for a nonviolent spatial intervention. In their Arabic hip-hop song “El-7itan 3am Te7kineh” (“the walls are talking to me”), the Kabbani brothers rap about the walls’ pleas for intervention. The walls in Ashekman’s song complain that they “can’t take it anymore,” and implore him to “protect them” because they “want to be in good hands.̶65 The Kabbani brothers “protect” the city by repairing its depressed and depressing walls and giving them the face-lift they deserve—while always working from within the city’s physical and social fabric.

Halwani expresses a similar attitude regarding his relationship with Beirut’s walls. He argues that whereas many graffiti writers in the West employ graffiti as a means of vandalizing the public space in order to express their dissatisfaction with the system, graffiti artists in Beirut “rebel” against mainstream behavior by repairing Beirut’s damaged public spaces. He states, “In the West, the graffiti writers may see themselves in a David-Goliath type of battle with the government and municipality. Here, I see it more like David versus the sick lady Beirut. Here, everyone is ruining things. So, I fix things.̶66 Halwani’s personification of Beirut as a sick lady and his vision of himself as her caretaker demonstrate an ethics of care. They echo Banksy’s statement that “some people [End Page 98] become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.̶67 As this study has demonstrated, these artists have reconstructed the street as a platform for sharing public artwork that ornaments the city’s walls and transforms its cultural ethos by valorizing and celebrating the artistic and intellectual contributions of its cultural icons—not its political leaders—thus providing an alternative visual landscape and discourse to sectarian logos and political posters.

Young graffiti artists are modeling alternative modes of being-in-the-world, or being-in-Beirut’s streets. They show and sometimes “tell” (through non-profit graffiti workshops, for example) that there are alternatives to spending time on the street fighting, harassing women, or scribbling sectarian slogans.68 Most importantly, graffiti artists teach Beirutis that “the street is theirs,” and that it is time to appropriate their streets and treat them with the same respect and care that they reserve for their own homes. Young street artists provide community-centered ornamentation, commemoration, and constructive social critique at a time when the majority of Lebanon’s political leaders remain too embroiled in their internal wars to initiate any productive changes. These artists create spaces that “can tell stories and unfold histories.̶69 Excavating the contributions of these non-violent warriors and teasing out the “stories” and “histories” that are embedded in their murals is key to ensuring that they—not just warring politicians and religious zealots—are given the opportunity to share their interpretations regarding the past and present events affecting their country, as well as their visions and visualizations of the future.

Nadine Sinno

NADINE SINNO is Assistant Professor of Arabic in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her research interests include modern Arabic literature and cultural studies, Arab and Muslim feminisms, war narratives, visual culture and gender studies. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals including Middle Eastern Literatures, The Journal of Arabic Literature, The Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Arab Studies Quarterly, and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.


The author would like to thank Will Taggart for his invaluable feedback on the manuscript at its various stages and for being her co-photographer in Beirut. She is very grateful to Lucia Volk, Michele McKee, and the anonymous reviewers and editors at ASAP/Journal for their insightful suggestions. She thanks her former research assistants Ashley Worrell and Nora Almoussa for their help with tracking down sources for this article.

1. Maria Chakhtoura, La Guerre des Graffiti (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1978), 70, 103, 132, 77. All translations are mine.

2. Ibid., 6.

3. Zeina Maasri, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 17. [End Page 99]

4. SOLIDERE is the private company that was tasked with supervising the redevelopment of the Beirut Central District. Many scholars have engaged in insightful discussions about the controversy surrounding the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. See among others: Aseel Sawalha, Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010); miriam cooke, “Beirut Reborn: The Political Aesthetics of Auto-Destruction,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 15, no. 2 (2002): 393-424; Caroline Nagel, “Reconstructing Space, Recreating Memory: Sectarian Politics and Urban Development in Post-War Beirut,” Political Geography 21, no. 5 (2002): 717-25; and Saree Makdisi, “Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere,” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 3 (1997): 660-705.

5. Rasha Salti, “Urban Scrolls and Modern-Day Oracles: The Secret Life of Beirut’s Walls,” Third Text 22 (2008): 620.

6. In the context of this essay, it is precarious to draw strict lines between “graffiti” and “street art” for various reasons, including the fact that the artists under study reject strict distinctions between the two since their artworks manifest a hybridity of elements that may be traditionally associated with both “graffiti” and “street art” in terms of artistic inspiration, style, permissibility, and accessibility. The artists have referred to themselves as “graffiti artists” and as “street artists” and to their works as “graffiti,” “street art,” “murals,” “calligraffiti murals,” and “public art.” The essay thus incorporates that terminology for practical purposes without imposing strict labels.

7. This study is part of an ongoing larger project, which aims to offer a comprehensive survey and analysis of Beirut graffiti and street art, including political slogans, casual doodling, militia stencils, revolutionary graffiti, tagging, and artistic murals. In this study, I chose to focus on the post-war artistic mural as any attempt to fully analyze the diverse types of graffiti would not be feasible in a journal-length article. Furthermore, the Arabic-language calligraffiti murals by Halwani and the Kabbani brothers have consistently appeared in the streets of Beirut and are notable in terms of frequency of production and visibility/recognition; therefore, their work is representative of the post-war artistic mural and merits a critical study.

8. My fieldwork has spanned over the summers of 2014 and 2016. I have photographed graffiti and street art in neighborhoods including the following (commonly used English spelling): Amliyeh, Achrafiyeh, Adliyeh, Ain al-Tineh, Ain al-Mreisseh, al-Barrad al-Younani, Badaro, Bourj al-Ghazal, Bliss, Clemenceau, Corniche El-Nahr/Peugot, Downtown, Gemmayzeh, Hikmeh, Horch, Kantari, Karantina, Koreitem, Malaab, Mar-Elias, Mar Mitr, Mar Mikhael, Mazraa, Sanayeh, Saloumi, Snoubra, Tabareez, Tallet El-Druze, Tariq El-Jdeedeh, Verdun, Wata, and Yessoueiyeh. My observations are based on my examination of over 2,000 photographs of visual symbols including political slogans, doodling, murals, political posters, and stencils. While photographing the city’s inscriptions, I aimed to document all the visual symbols that I encountered, regardless of genre or my personal opinion concerning the aesthetic quality of the artifacts. [End Page 100]

9. Sune Haugbolle, “Spatial Transformations in the Lebanese ‘Independence Intifada,’” Arab Studies Journal 14, no. 2 (2006): 72.

10. Marwan M. Kraidy, The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 121.

11. Among such work, the studies by Maria Chakhtoura and Zeina Maasri cited above shed important light on the use of political posters among militias during the Lebanese civil war. In the context of the West Bank, Julie Peteet’s pioneering study of the graffiti of the Intifada reveals the use of graffiti as a means for resisting Israeli occupation and unsettling “dominant-subordinate relationships”(“The Writing on the Wall: The Graffiti of the Intfidaa,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 2 [1996], 139-56). Similarly, Craig Larkin’s nuanced study of the graffiti and street art of the separation wall explores the ways in which the (in)famous wall has been transformed into “the world’s largest canvas for oppositional protest art, global critique, and local resistance” (“Jerusalem’s Separation Wall and Global Message Board: Graffiti, Murals, and the Art of Sumud,” Arab Studies Journal 22, no. 1 [2014], 134-69). Mia Gröndahl argues that graffiti has served as “a barometer of the political situation in Gaza” (Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics [Cairo and New York: American University of Cairo Press, 2009]). Analyzing the use of visual narratives across the Middle East, Lina Khatib asserts that “[t]he Middle East has become a site of struggle over the construction of social and political reality through competing images” (Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle [London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2012], 2). The collected essays in Pascal Zoghbi’s and Don Karl’s edited volume attest to the artists’ utilization of graffiti as a means of contesting authoritarian regimes, sending transnational messages of solidarity, and memorializing key figures of the Arab uprisings (Arabic Graffiti [Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2013]).

12. Banksy, Wall and Piece (Wemding, Germany: Century, 2006), 8.

13. Ellie Violet Bramley, “How a Beirut Graffiti Artist is Using his Murals to Try to Unite a Fragmented City,” The Guardian, 22 September 2015, https://www.theguardian.com

14. Rafael Schacter, Ornament and Order: Graffiti, Street Art and the Parergon (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 50, 55.

15. Ibid., 10

16. Zoghbi, “Beirut’s Graffiti Writing and Street Art,” in Arabic Graffiti, ed. Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl (Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2013), 90.

17. The term “calligrafitti” was coined by Dutch artist Niels Shoe Meulman. Calligraffiti is a hybrid visual composition that combines elements from calligraphy and graffiti. It is characterized by the fusion of seeming opposites such as control and chaos, modernity and tradition, and text and image. For more information on Shoe Meulman’s calligraffiti, see Niels Shoe Meulman and Adam Eeuwens, Calligraffiti: The Graphic Art of Niels Shoe Meulman (Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2013). Arabic calligraffiti [End Page 101] merges a variety of elements including Arabic calligraphy, portraits, geometric designs, and Islamic scripts. For more information on Arabic calligraffiti, see Hassan Massoudy, “Two Daughters of the Same Parents,” Arabic Graffiti, ed. Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl (Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2013).

18. Sara ElKamel, “Meet ‘Beirut’s Banksy,’ The Artist Who’s Transforming The City One Wall at a Time,” The World Post, September 4, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/in-lebanon-an-artist-for-a-new-generation-is-born_us_55e9bff4e4b093be51bb5025

19. Siska, “Beirut Never Dies,” 101.

20. Haugbolle, “Spatial Transformations,” 62.

21. Siska, “Beirut Never Dies,” 101.

22. Maasri, Off the Wall, 57.

23. Schacter, Ornament and Order, 75.

24. Gemmayzeh is a neighborhood in the Achrafiyeh district of Beirut. This area is generally considered Bohemian and artistic, with historic buildings dating back to the French era. It was heavily bombarded during the Lebanese Civil War and has undergone some renovation but continues to show scars of the war. Currently, it features bars, cafes, and restaurants and has a vibrant nightlife.

25. Personal interview (Skype), August 1, 2014.

26. Email correspondence with artist, June 4, 2015.

27. “Al-Sabbouha” is an endearing nickname for “Sabah,” which means “morning.”

28.Bil-graffītī, judrān Beirut al-kharsā’ marāyā tatakallam” [“With graffiti, Beirut’s Mute Walls become Talking Mirrors”], Al-Anadol, June 13, 2015. All translations are mine.

29. Schacter, Ornament and Order, 42.

30. Martin Irvine, “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture,” The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell (London and New York: Berg, 2012), 237. Emphasis in original.

31. Bramley, “How a Beirut Graffiti Artist is Using his Murals.”

33. Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xxi.

34. Gröndahl, Gaza Graffiti, 12.

35. Personal interview, June 13, 2014.

36. Ibid.

37. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 43.

38. Ashekman, “The Street is Ours,” https://www.facebook.com/ASHEKMAN

39. Personal interview, June 24, 2016.

40. Bliss Street is located in the Hamra area, in the Ras-Beirut district of Beirut. It is [End Page 102] home to the American University of Beirut. This area includes historical and commercial buildings and many restaurants that cater to university students. It also has cafes where students, professors, artists, and activists often meet to socialize and discuss everything from fashion to politics.

41. Personal interview (Skype), August 1, 2014.

42. Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 119.

43. Mashour’ Leila is known for its bold, satirical lyrics which explore social issues within Lebanese society including war, assassinations, and othering.

44. Graeme Evans, “Graffiti art and the city: From piece-making to place-making,” in Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 174.

45. Personal interview, June 13, 2014.

46. Personal interview (Skype), August 1, 2014.

47. For details regarding the campaign, see “Political banners removed, dialogue goes on,” The Daily Star, February 6, 2015, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/LebanonNews/2015/Feb-06/286594-political-banners-removed-dialogue-goes-on.ashx

48. Schacter, Ornament and Order, 35.

49. Founded in 2011, MARCH is a non-governmental organization that is dedicated to fighting for the right to freedom of expression (against censorship, particularly in the areas of art and culture), women’s rights, diversity, and conflict resolution. For more information, visit March’s website: https://www.marchlebanon.org.

51. Najib, “Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib Admits Mistake, ASHEKMAN’s Graffiti To Be Repainted,” BlogBaladi, February 12, 2015, http://blogbaladi.com/beirut-governorziad-chebib-admits-mistake-ashekmans-graffiti-to-be-repainted.

52. Carla Sarmento and Ricardo Campos, “Introduction: Theories and Methodologies on Popular and Visual Culture,” in Popular and Visual Culture: Design, Circulation and Consumption (Cambridge Scholars Publishing: New Castle, 2014), xiv.

53. Luke Dickens, “Placing Post-graffiti: The Journey of the Peckham Rock,” Cultural Geographies 15 (2008): 488.

54. Irvine, “The Work on the Street,” 236.

55. Ibid., 242.

56. Personal interview, June 13, 2016.

57. Adam Eeuwens, “Introduction,” Calligraffiti, 17.

58. Personal interview (Skype), August 1, 2014.

59. The study of the psychology of graffiti-making by Myra F. Taylor, Julie Ann Pooley, [End Page 103] and Georgia Carragher reveals that as young graffiti artists enter adulthood, they begin to take into account their impending adult responsibilities and consider life-style changes that would allow them to avoid “harsh adult financial and penal penalties.” Those with honed artistic skills may ultimately “adopt the more publicly palatable and ‘legitimate’ identity of a sanctioned graffiti artist” (“The psychology behind graffiti involvement,” Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross [London and New York: Routledge, 2016], 199).

60. Dickens, “Placing post-graffiti,” 477.

61. Salti, “Urban Scrolls and Modern-day Oracles,” 624.

62. William Parry, Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), 9.

63. Larkin, “Jerusalem’s Separation Wall and Global Message Board,”144.

64. Personal interview, June 13, 2014.

65. Ashekman, “El-7itan 3am Te7kineh,” Youtube Video, 3:13, posted by “Ashekman,” October 19, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4f9OJvWwe3s.

66. Personal interview (Skype), August 1, 2014.

67. Banksy, Wall and Piece, 8. Emphasis in original.

68. Graffiti artists have collaborated with non-government organizations and provided graffiti workshops for school children, refugees, and amateur graffiti writers. For more information, see Pascal Zoghbi, “Beirut’s Graffiti Writing and Street Art,” in Arabic Graffiti, ed. Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl (Berlin: From Here to Fame Publishing, 2013), 89-100.

69. Bell Hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 152. [End Page 104]