This past September, Gaza-based calligraphy and graffiti artist Belal Khaled found himself stranded for seven hours at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The predicament was typical: Gaza has been isolated for more than a decade thanks to an Israeli-Egyptian enforced blockade of the territory, and Palestinians hoping to leave the territory must rely on the mercy of Egypt’s customs officials. What was atypical about this particular moment, however, was Khaled’s upbeat spirit and inventiveness. Witnessing the gloomy atmosphere of individuals stuck in borderland purgatory ⎯children sleeping next to their parents, people waiting for their name to be called⎯ Khaled resolved to escape “the dismal state of the place,” as he relayed to Huffington Post Arabi, by practicing his craft, first, on discarded cardboard and then, as people gathered around to look at what he was doing, he began to entertain fellow travelers by offering to draw calligraphy on their cell phones, their laptops, and even their hands.
It is this animating spirit that defines Gaza Graffiti, a collective of street artists who boast on their Facebook page, “we are the first Graffiti team in Gaza, Palestine. We have lots of walls and the Israeli occupation has given us even more walls :)”. The group was founded by Khaled, and while not every graffiti artist in Gaza belongs to it, Gaza Graffiti exemplifies the phenomenon of Gaza’s burgeoning street art scene.
In an age when the Palestinian national movement is riven to the core and lacks any coherent vision for national liberation, Gaza Graffiti oscillates between escapism and resistance art. Whether due to some combination of frustration and exhaustion or as a result of their desire to make political points that are reflective rather than aspirational, the artists are neither consciously drawing with a political idea in mind nor deliberately avoiding a politicized form of art. They are simply artists who feel no obligation to represent the “Palestine Question” and practice their art for art’s sake. For all that, no one operates in a vacuum and the reality of occupation and blockade is inescapable for Palestinians; they are routinely confronted by it, and often in harsh doses. The very act of splashing Gaza’s walls and streets with calligraphy and murals is arguably a form of everyday resistance, a refusal to succumb to despair.
The situation in Gaza ⎯whether the blockade, the devastation of three Israeli wars and continuing bombing raids, or dysfunctional governance⎯ won’t be changed by graffiti artists any more than Khaled’s act of spontaneous artistry changed the reality of being stuck at the border. But in both cases, graffiti offers colorful relief from some of the grimness of everyday life in the Gaza Strip. While gray ruins from recent wars and half a century of occupation are ubiquitous, the wall graffiti are a literal bright spot for all Gazans.
“Eyes on the wall” is a common theme among Gaza’s graffiti artists. Gazans cannot help but feel spurned by the outside world, which has stood by as Israel has turned the Strip into a giant open-air prison. Even the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has let its feud with Hamas overshadow any concern for Palestinians in Gaza. As the mural above probes, the people of Gaza “see you,” but do you see them?
Few artists have the luxury of being absolutely indifferent to the retail value of their work. At showroom galleries, their artwork is transformed into a commodity product auctioned off to the highest bidder ⎯a painful sight for some artists as they watch a proverbial labor of love become a status symbol of the rich and famous. While it would be foolish to assert that Gaza’s artists are living in an artistic utopia blissfully liberated from the capitalist art market (most Gazans can only dream of making a living out of art), the reality in Gaza does mean that artists are not influenced by the demands of the gallery marketplace. Perhaps it is for this reason that graffiti has become such a popular form of art in Gaza. It is art solely for the sake of amusement; not only is it not package-able, but it’s also ephemeral. Such as this road calligraphy by Khaled:
If you lack an easel and a canvas and have no need for them anyway, then Gaza Graffiti proclaims, “Make everything beauty.”
And when the walls are your canvas, you can dream big! Below, the largest mural in Gaza:
Much of the graffiti reflects a clear Western influence in stylistic forms, which is to say, that the graffiti is quite similar to that on the streets of New York City, the old-school graffiti that was the bane of municipal governments. What it may lack in elaborate images, it makes up for in colorful characters. Below is the street art of one such graffer who signs “Came One.”
And, below, Moh Khalifa, Mohnad Assar, and Khaled, respectively:
But if anyone forgot this was Palestine, the Arabic calligraphy is on the walls, too:
Graffiti has even started to acquire respectability in Gaza as some shopkeepers now seek to brand their stores with the work of local artists. This one clothing store in Gaza called Casual did just that!
Graffiti gone commercial: It might have lost some of its edge, but the people of Gaza are embracing it one wall at a time.
Below our interview with Belal Khaled:
How does a kid from Gaza become a world-famous graffiti artist?
I started drawing graffiti by the time I was 5. In the early years, I would draw on the walls of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, where I live. At first, things were rather difficult because it was a new art form in the Gaza Strip and many people were perplexed. Some people thought it was just garbage on the walls and outside the law while others were supportive with positive reactions, including from businesses and the media.
When did you start Gaza Graffiti?
In 2014, the first graffiti team in Palestine, for the purpose of spreading the culture of graffiti art and educating people about this new art form in Gaza. The group also facilitates collaboration between graffiti artists who work together on graphics. It’s still in its infancy; Gaza remains home to a very few number of graffiti artists.
Do you consider your art as political or resistance art?
Art is the weapon of the artist, but a peaceful weapon from which we can portray many of the ideals that we aspire to. In Gaza, there are many messages on the walls, but no uniform idea. It all depends on the circumstances experienced by the artist.
Do you see graffiti as an escape from the hardships of life in Gaza?
I am not seeking an escape from the hardships, but, rather, graffiti is the participation of the people, of graffiti artists, in the hardships of life in Gaza. In the end, all in the Gaza Strip are our brothers and sisters, and we must share the struggle with them.
What makes graffiti in Gaza different from the writings on the walls everywhere else in the world?
This art emerged from our hearts through wars and siege. It represents perseverance. And our resourcefulness. Unlike other places, we do not have “graffiti tools” or dedicated shops, but we try to overcome these obstacles; we make our art with simple tools.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.
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