There is art housed and closed, somehow it stagnates in museums under cold lock and key. And then there is art right here, open and fresh and free. The art of the city embraces us. It tells us its narrative and the power of its youth. If these walls could speak, they’d tell you all about art and life in Beirut; whispered from spray cans.
Twenty three year old Yazan Halwani is a street artist that paints murals through a combination of renewed Arabic calligraphy and portraits of Lebanese artists and cultural icons. A distinctive element of Yazan’s art is the focus on portraits as a central element within a mural or a painting. Their size, themes and portraits are what define them. In 2011, Yazan decided to change his style and create murals that are independent of the west, by leveraging Arabic calligraphy and portraits of Lebanese icons loved by most. He frequently reports that his shift in style was accompanied by a shift in attitude: “Graffiti has a strong connotation of vandalism, but in my city most people do vandalism: Lebanese Civil War, corrupt politicians. This is why I try to make my murals a constructive expression of the city.”
On Hamra Street, which runs through the vibrant commercial center of Ras Beirut, a new mural covers the side of a five-story building. It is the face of iconic Lebanese performer Sabah, rising out of a cloud of Arabic calligraphy. She welcomes you into her home, smiling from above overlooking her city.
Another portrait he drew is that of Ali Abdullah. Ali was a homeless man, and a legend on Bliss Street. Ali died on the coldest night of Beirut’s winter because he was living in pitiful conditions. Ali’s death triggered short-lived actions to help the homeless in Beirut. He painted his mural a few hundred meters from Ali’s street to immortalize him and to remind us that one should act before another poor soul like Ali dies. Next to his painting, he wrote “Ghadan Yawmon Afdal” (Tomorrow is a better day).
Through his murals, he achieves the objective of painting a positive image of the city of Beirut. Yazan’s famous walls in Beirut include a wall in Gemmayze Street that represents a portrait of Lebanese artist and cultural icon Fairouz, who’s a symbol of Lebanese identity that’s not soured by sectarianism. The 81-year-old owner of the building opposite says it must be one of the most photographed walls in Beirut.
Yazan tries to show people that it’s very easy to change the city, to make it ours instead of belonging to some politician. Even by doing something as simple as repainting a wall, it shows the impact one person can have on the urban landscape. This is the inspiration he hopes people need, so that they know that the city is theirs and they have a responsibility and rights within in.
As the paint washes away with rain, first it lays a brief mark of its own on all of Beirut’s sidewalk cracks and all of her broken pieces, the little slabs and pebbles that weathered off from storms. He spills drawings on her walls with pastel colors and darker shades that are to convey a visual story that belongs to this city.
Like most of the people he painted, their portraits suspended here and there in Beirut won’t last forever in this ever-changing city. Yes, I know it’s temporary, just like we’re temporary, but maybe that’s what makes it so beautiful and makes each and every one of us so unique.
To my city and her artist warriors…