Close to Beirut’s Sodeco Square, a painting of a LL100,000 bill has popped up. It’s not an exact replica of the real note. It features a portrait of the late and renowned Lebanese writer, artist and poet Gibran Khalil Gibran. This is not the first time 20-year-old graffiti artist Yazan Halwani has painted influential cultural figures on the city’s streets. Stroll down Gemmayze and you will come across a large depiction of Lebanese singer Fairouz. Head to the industrial area of Qarantina and you will spot a portrait of the late journalist and political activist Samir Kassir.
An activist at heart
When he is not studying for his undergraduate degree in computer and communications engineering (CCE) at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Halwani is making Beirut’s streets prettier. Typically choosing walls crammed with posters of electoral candidates; Halwani brings them down or paints over them. “All our role models are politicians so I wanted to replace them with people that are more positive and influential. If we use them as role models instead, maybe the country will go forward,” he says.
Halwani is not just a graffiti artist and an honors list student. He is an activist at heart. His graffiti of Ali Abdallah — a homeless man well-known around the Bliss Street area whose death from cold early last year shook the AUB community — serves as a reminder “not to wait for someone to die on the streets because of the cold [but] to help them out, you can help anytime,” he says. He has plans to make his pieces work for the homeless but prefers to only share these ideas once they materialize.
From French Rap to Beirut Streets
Halwani’s artistic journey started at the age of 14 when he was a student at the Grand Lycée in Ashrafieh. A fan of French rap, Halwani was influenced by several bands such as IAM and NTM, who talked of graffiti in their songs. He says he just wanted to be cool and drawing graffiti had something of a gangster connotation. His talent swiftly caught the attention of his friends and he garnered a long list of requests to design them graffiti nametags. As his artistic journey evolved, he started experimenting with calligraphy, an artistic form he now includes in many of his pieces. Eventually his work went beyond arousing interest among his friends and was spotted by renowned German graffiti artist Tasso. In Beirut on a commission for the downtown nightclub The One, Tasso reached out to Halwani and spent a day working with him on a piece in Ashrafieh’s Abdel Wahab Street.
A costly endeavor
Halwani’s first outdoor piece was a flop. He underestimated how many spray cans he needed and couldn’t afford to complete the piece in the Jnah neighborhood. That’s when he realized that to undertake further street pieces — some of which cost up to $800 — he would have to find a way to fund himself. So, he started selling canvases and taking work on commission. Starting off with his friends, his roster of clients eventually expanded to include media group LBC and Kuwait’s Zain Telecom.
Last year he had his first, and thus far only, solo exhibition in Gemmayze’s 392Rmeil393 gallery entitled “Banana republic” — a reflection of his view of Lebanon, a politically unstable country with an economy largely dependent on the export of a single resource: human capital. On one of the gallery’s walls Halwani drew a smiling monkey wearing a tie representing the typical political candidate, with a banana in the background instead of the party’s logo. To poke fun at the quotes that go along with the electoral posters such as “For Lebanon only” he also modified one of Gibran’s renowned quotes. “If Lebanon wasn’t my country, I would’ve chosen Lebanon as my country” was replaced with “If Lebanon wasn’t my country, I’d opt for Canada as my country” to underline his frustration with politicians’ uselessness at curtailing youth emigration.
Sadly Halwani feels his creativity is not utilized within his CCE degree. “It’s all about ‘previouses’” — the exams of former semesters — he stresses. He has no sense of fulfillment as he doesn’t “create anything; he feels the degree lacks innovation and creativity. In computer engineering, you can always create something new and that’s missing” he adds. And so he diverts his creative energy to the city’s streets, making them prettier and hopefully influencing passersby to ignore the political figures that don’t matter, and focus on the cultural ones that do.