Lebanese artist Yazan Halwani has attained global fame painting the streets of Beirut. He talks branding, branching out and his fear of turning Beirut into a billboard with Eleanor Dickinson
Like many street artists, Yazan Halwani began painting walls because he wanted to be a bit of a teenage rebel; a David defacing the streets of Beirut in defiance of the authorities’ Goliath. Taking the lead from his peers, Halwani began ‘tagging’ graffiti on the walls of the city, hoping to be arrested for vandalism. But as he soon learnt, to be a vandal in Beirut you need to work a lot harder.
“I have this really distinct memory of painting and hearing police sirens,” he says. “It was on a highway near my house. I really wanted the getting arrested experience (I was an idiot, to be honest). So then the police passed by, and the officer was looking at me from the window, but then the car just flew by.”
Though seven years later it has become a humorous anecdote, the experience nevertheless taught him a serious lesson.
“In Beirut, the civil war was the biggest act of vandalism that the city has ever seen,” he says. “It’s an act of vandalism when you have political parties who control the streets with an oppressive presence. In certain areas, they ask people where they’re going; they’re on posters – they exist in the urban space. So suddenly painting a wall becomes the weakest form of vandalism ever. If vandalism is your aim, then in Beirut you should not be a graffiti artist. You should be a political party gangster.”
Though Halwani’s failure to get arrested may have deflated his anarchic aspirations, it gave him something of an epiphany. Hoping to do something “constructive” for Beirut, he stopped tagging the walls with an indistinctive graffiti scrawl and began creating his now-famous calligraphy-infused murals in the hope of reminding Lebanon of its cultural past. By painting people “relevant” to Lebanese society and culture such as the murdered journalist Samir Kassir and musical icons Fairuz and Sabah, Halwani hoped to reclaim some of the city’s streets from the oppressive political presence.
These portraits have since become cultural landmarks in Beirut’s battered landscape, earning Halwani international acclaim – and interest from commercial backers. Though the 23-year-old stresses that “becoming a millionaire” is not his aim, he
is not immune to the allure of commercial work.
His most recent venture saw him design an Arabic watch face for the luxury brand Tag Heuer. The watch was revealed at a glitzy Dubai bash just last month, seemingly worlds away from trying to get arrested on a Beirut highway.
Has Halwani, to use the term loathed by artists and musicians alike, sold out?
It’s an uncomfortable question and one that he considers for moment. He then says: “In terms of how I see things, if you are doing an advertisement, it’s not patronage. If a certain entity is giving you a platform or commissioning a work that’s your own work, but just on a platform, that’s completely fine.
“Typically, the way that Pepsi comes in and tells you that you have to paint Pepsi, some artists do it and they will do it like any work. If it’s part of your concept, then it’s completely fine, so I don’t consider it as selling out. But with the identity of my work, it has nothing to do with Pepsi, but I do calligraphy and I do portraits, so there is a thought process behind it. When Tag Heuer approached me – and I think this is the reason the collaboration worked out – they said, ‘We have the watch face, you do what you want with it.’ So the concept was mine; I wrote a message on it, which was completely mine. It wasn’t part of a brief. I don’t see it as patronage, I see it as a collaboration. But, if they had said ‘write Tag Heuer in a slightly Arabic form’, then I would have been like…” He trails off but his facial expression makes his feelings evident enough.
When it comes to street art, Halwani is even more cautious. Unsurprisingly his fame has put his brand of murals and calligraphy in high demand, forcing him to become “very selective” about who he works with, especially in Beirut. “I do not take public street projects as commissions at all,” he says. “Because when you start doing that, the walls of the city become billboards and not murals, and that’s something I feel really strongly about.
“But what keeps typically happening in Beirut these days is that every advertising company has a project loosely related to calligraphy or street art. I receive an email and it gives me this brief, but I say, ‘Look guys, I’m not going to use Beirut as a billboard. Absolutely no way.’ If I started doing that, then other brands would, and it would just ruin Beirut.”
He adds: “Also, doing that would make my murals advertising for my services as a concept. So people would start saying, ‘It’s a business. He has two products: one is the fliers, which are the artistic murals, and then you have another segment, the commissions, which is where he makes the money.’ So this subsidises this. It becomes a business model not an expression. I always say no. And usually the project doesn’t happen in the end or I see it done by someone else, sometimes in a similar style. So I see some calligraphy on a wall and I say, ‘They got someone to do it, but at least it wasn’t me.’”
These days Halwani spends as much of his time in Dubai as he does in Beirut. After our meeting, he will be travelling to Sharjah, a place with a “good organic art scene”, for a meeting regarding an upcoming project. Future projects are in the pipeline in Bahrain and Kuwait, perhaps an indication of where the demand for street art now lies.
But Halwani’s geographical reach is not the only area he’s expanding on. Delving beyond walls and onto canvas prints, plus more recently sculpture, Halwani now sees himself as a ‘conceptual’ artist rather than just one of the street.
“Right now I’m much more interested in the thought process and the concepts and searching the history of certain art forms,” he explains. “Increasingly conceptual art, which I think is important but should be more accessible, is becoming all about ideas. It’s inventing something that was not made before and I think this is the ultimate goal of conceptual art. I think I do this in street art because I do not care what it looks like, but I care about the idea, the concept and what it does for the city.”
He adds: “Other graffiti artists don’t consider me as a graffiti artist. It’s sad but it’s true. They think what I do is more murals, which is cool. I’m fine with that. I don’t care about the label. I care about doing something for the city.”