Until recently, political logos daubed on Beirut’s walls hinted at the political and civil strife in the region. TALA SALEH has documented these guerrilla icons in her book ‘Marking Beirut’, and we met her last week to talk about it.
How long has graffiti been around the city?
Well, I didn’t actually notice it until I started the project but I think the political graffiti has been around since the civil war, maybe 30 or 35 years ago. I only noticed it when I started my research in 2006, but there are lots of types of graffiti, not just political logos.
Where did you get the idea for the project?
I like graffiti in general, kind of like an infatuation if you want to say that, with graffiti all over the world. None of us knew what was around, we weren’t sure whether we’d find something or not. I guess it just grew.
Are there any other books like this?
In Lebanon, no. There is another book made in the 70s, called the War on Graffiti, which documents the first years of the civil war. There have also been a few online magazines, that look at murals and street art too.
Is it correct that you’re concentrating mainly on an older wave of graffiti?
Actually, yeah when I started off I concentrated on the political graffiti from the war. When I was putting it altogether around 2007-2008, I started looking at street art too, which was still quite new. So I added a section on street art, and the artists involved in that.
Is there a common theme to the graffiti that appears around the city?
Politics. Even the more recent street art speaks of the socio-political situation at the time. Whether it be instability, peace and unity, it all revolves around the same thing.
Who makes the graffiti? Are they political groups?
The logos are anonymous. They’ve been designed by artists within the political parties, but who sprays them? I think just followers. But with street art, they tag themselves, the same as anywhere else. What’s interesting though is that they have their own specific territories for their street art. Whether they were born and raised in South Beirut, East or West Beirut, they’re not allowed to trespass over other peoples’ territories.
So it’s not like it’s used as a medium for turf war, then?
It’s more like it’s just used to show people where they’re located, and where they are. They have their own turf, or space, and for other artists to paint there, they need to ask permission, or else it becomes a competition almost.
Did you have an opportunity to meet the artists?
I met three or four of the artists: there’s a group called Ashuk Man, which means exhaust pipe in Arabic, who are graphic design graduates from LAU. They’ve done a lot of work using Arabic typography as graffiti. Some of them came to my book signing and pinpointed their work out to me.
How would you say this kind of work is different to someone like Banksy?
The graffiti is different in the sense that it’s more serious. It’s made by government factions that are very active in the community, whereas Banksy makes comments on comments on everyday life of the British, or the state of the world. In Beirut it’s a bit more official. The street art though is just like any other street art, where they just comment on how they feel, or paint whatever they feel like painting.
Would you say the book was internationally accessible? The political situation in Lebanon is very difficult to understand…
Yeah, it is. The book includes 16 articles, including the introduction written in a journalistic kind of style. And there’s no real front or back either; you can start anywhere and it will give you a brief background. The book only tries to tell you what was going on at the time the graffiti was made. It’s hard to keep up with the politics there, because it changes every day, you know?
Would you say being Saudi has given you a more objective view?
I would say that it helped me remove myself. I wasn’t born into the situation, it wasn’t a part of my everyday life as a child. The war holds a place for me, obviously, but it’s not as nostalgic as for the Lebanese. Being Saudi meant I could lift myself out, but as a designer I have an opinion, if not about the war then about the graffiti, so I don’t know if I was really objective.
How has the nature of the graffiti changed?
Now, a lot of the logos have been painted over. The walls have been painted white. You also see street art where you didn’t before; where the conflict was political. The emergence of street art has changed it from political to social, and the street artists aren’t afraid anymore.
What’s the reception been to the book in Lebanon?
My distributors are Lebanese, and in the first meeting some were overwhelmed, some were reminded of the war, a lot were ashamed because they never thought of documenting their political graffiti. From the feedback so far, a lot were excited to see a book where their truth is exposed. You don’t really see the extent of the political situation until it’s graphically placed in front of you, which is what I did. I mean, I’m not banned from the country, so I think I’m ok.
Was this part of a uni project then?
It was my final project, and my course was five years. The original version was much simpler, where I made a mini flip-book divided. From there I modified it into the layout of a book. It was put together randomly from my archive of over 2000 photos taken between 2005 and 2009, and I chose 200.
My publisher guided my through the process of making a book, and how a book is successful through layout and imagery, but the design and aesthetics I did myself. I had to divide myself into like, ten different people! It was really hard in the beginning and I gave up, maybe four times.
So you’ve just moved to London, what’s next?
Well I start my course on Monday [an MA in graphic design]. I’d also like to start my own design firm somewhere in the Middle East, not necessarily Saudi, but somewhere. I’m taking it from here; I need new inspirations, so London’s my city now.
Text/Interview: SIOBHAN LEDDY
Images: TALA SALEH