- 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...