WRITER: Nadine Khalil
From Tunisia’s congested streets to the abandoned Star Wars film set in the desert, graffiti artist eL Seed, has moved on to make his mark in cities ranging from Doha and Jeddah to Paris and New York.
Should you happen across some of eL Seed’s graffiti scrawled on one of the desolate walls that are his canvas, it won’t be his signature that gives him away, as he longer tags his work.
Instead, you can identify his work in one of two ways. Firstly, his pieces usually contain a literary reference and secondly, his lettering is quite distinctive, Arabic characters that seem to unfurl and run into each other, an intricate mesh where each letter is decipherable but words don’t seem to begin or end. When I mention this, his reply couldn’t be more simple. “We don’t have capital letters in Arabic to demarcate the spaces between sentences and words.”
From beneath his black-framed glasses and crew cut, the artist has a solemn air about him that is softened by the way he moves his hands in fluid, circular movements, as if he were holding a spray can. During our interview, his fingers are dotted with black ink. But as literary as eL Seed’s work may be, his intertwined style almost suggests he doesn’t really want it to be read. “This allows you to appreciate the script, even if you cannot read the message,” he continues. “That’s the power of Arabic writing, it speaks to your eyes first.”
In fact, eL Seed’s message is very much the point. One of his early Tunisian murals, created a year after the revolution, was taken from a passage by Tunisian poet Abu Al Qasim Al Husayfi. “It comes from the notion that everything is ephemeral and can be translated as ‘Kings build their kingdoms but neither kings nor their kingdoms can last’, just like injustice and oppression can’t endure forever.”
Given that he works in Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he only learned to read and write in the language in 2000. Aged 19 and living in France, where he grew up, he decided to study Arabic at a school. Until then, he only knew how to speak Tunisian dialect. “I felt the need to go back to a part of me I didn’t know,” he tells me, adding that this was a time when he was also discovering Hip-Hop culture, break-dancing and graffiti.
Despite the linguistic rigour of his citations, the artist is more playful with the calligraphic aspect. His work is an encounter between formal, Islamic art and a contemporary street aesthetic. Admittedly, the combination isn’t new. The term ‘calligraffiti’ was first used in the late 1970s to describe Dutch artist, Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman’s graphic art, which combined Gothic lettering with typography. eL Seed’s work further differs from traditional Arabic calligraphy in that it is sprawling, free-style and unbound.
He says that in a way, he is thankful that when his interest in calligraphy was first sparked, he couldn’t find a teacher. “This has allowed me to maintain a certain freedom in writing,” he tells me, “I don’t know the rules.” In person, he exercises the same freedom with language in the versatile way he switches effortlessly between Tunisian Arabic and French.
“Painting in the street democratises art, its role is to begin a conversation,” he continues. “And it can inspire people to do something.” Although he is quick to dismiss any link between his work and the revolution in Tunisia - calling the notion mere “romance” and adding that it wasn’t the artists who made the revolution but the revolution that made the artists - the aftermath of the revolution may have enabled a lot of his work.
His most controversial work to date, for example, is on the Jara mosque in his hometown of Gabés. After getting the approval of the local sheikh and mayor, he spent the month of Ramadan suspended 47 metres above the ground painting the minaret, the tallest in the city. The mural displays a verse from the Qur’an, the surat al-Hujurat 49:13, about mutual tolerance: “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other.”
Last year, he was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority to paint tunnels on Doha’s Salwa Road. Describing the project as a ‘huge outdoor gallery’, he worked on 52 walls over the course of four months but it was his project for La Tour Paris 13, the largest collective street art exhibition in the world, an Arabic translation of Baudelaire’s quote that “the heart of a city changes more than the body of a man” that really opened doors. Around the same time he became the first Arab to work with Louis Vuitton on their ongoing Foulards d’Artiste project.
“I was flattered because it’s such a big brand but I thought about it, I didn’t say yes right away,” he confesses. “I began thinking about the idea of a clash between street art and luxury, a fake idea, since they can co-exist. My calligraffiti was an homage to Taha Mohammed Ali’s poem about Venice.”
eL Seed’s design was recreated on three Louis Vuitton monogrammed trunks, which were auctioned for charity by Christie’s last October in Dubai, netting 111,000 USD.
But it is his current project, Lost Walls, which he started working on last summer and which will be turned into a book, that is closest to his heart. “It aims to show an image of Tunisia that’s different from the touristic or revolutionary one by going to the lesser-known cities and old towns. It started as a joke after I finished with the minaret. I told my friend I wanted to go on a Forrest Gump trip, from one city to the other,” he explains. “We went from north to south, east to west. The idea was to paint murals based on people’s stories. The walls are witness to different lives and document a people’s history.”
One stop was Djerissa, once a wealthy town thanks to its iron deposits. “It went from 40,000 iron workers to only 120 after independence in the 1950s. If you go there, it looks like time has stopped. People say it was the iron from this city that was used to build the Eiffel Tower, they call it Petit Paris. But the young generation today doesn’t even know about it. I painted a mural there in Arabic that says ‘Time stops and life continues’.”
He also went to Tataouine, which bears traces of the 1976 film set built by Star Wars director, George Lucas, in the middle of the desert. “It had 155 old ksours, “ he says, talking of the town’s traditional stacked barrel-vaulted mud-brick homes, “of which only 44 are preserved. I met an old man there who told me how the desert was taking over. So I wrote ‘I will never be your son’.” The reference is to Luke Skywalker’s famous retort to Star Wars villain, Darth Vader.
As our conversation draws to a close, eL Seed recalls one of the encounters he had with a 65-year-old man, who offered to drive him and his Lost Walls team around and show them locations. “People are excited to help because no one goes to these places,” he says, suggesting that the revolution may have made such encounters possible. “For example, you go somewhere, find an abandoned wall, you paint it. A cop stops you and you think he will arrest you but instead he asks, ‘why don’t you paint the other side of the wall?’”