As a practicing artist and designer who converted to Islam in 2000 I have developed a new found fascination with the rich textures and history of Islamic Art, Architecture, and Arabic Calligraphy. I’ve learned that younger artists, bound not by the shackles of tradition (yet still deeply indebted to it) are increasingly part of modern Islamic art and calligraphy/graffiti movements around the globe.
Calligraffiti, as some of these artists call it, is a unique blend of traditional scripts and designs mixed with modern materials and techniques. Paper, brushes and bamboo pens have been replaced by spray cans, rollers, stencils, scaffolding, walls and other unexpected items like iPhone covers, skateboards and designer purses. Calligraffiti’s public existence also means that it is ephemeral, and all of the artists I spoke with explained how they have to let go of their babies once they are completed – knowing that the pieces may not be around forever.
It was with increased joy and fascination that I caught up with a few artists to discuss their backgrounds, art techniques, inspirations, current projects, and goals.
INKMAN (also known as Mkt Artwork) is a freelance graphic designer and calligraffiti artist from Tunisia. Taking me back to the beginning of it all he recounts how his passion and love for graphic art and graffiti began when he was just a kid. At the age of 10, impressed by the letters and forms of a tag on a wall of his classroom created by one of the boys in his neighborhood, he took a piece of white chalk and wrote his real name under a bridge.
That first youthful exploration aside, INKMAN explains that he made his professional entrance into calligraffiti through the graphic arts. “Basically, I’m was a graphic designer before becoming a street artist. […] My love for graphics took me to the world of typography and calligraphy. The techniques I learned from graphic design [taught me] how to work with different media.” He feels that the substrate – for example, highly textured or crumbling walls as opposed to more “traditional” media – doesn’t affect his style at all. Additionally, he explains that he now takes care to create only where he is invited and appreciated, and where they love his work.
For example, in September of 2014 INKMAN completed a series of walls for family houses in Tunisia as part of project Djerbahood – brainchild of Mehdi Ben Cheikh, founder of Itinerrance Gallery in Paris. Working alongside over a hundred other street artists from 30 different countries the extensive project required permission from the village residents – many who gave complete creative control to the artists, and others who worked collaboratively to choose different styles and locations to suit their needs. The works were completed in Er-Riadh, a village on the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia now claiming to be the world’s first large-scale permanent street art project of its kind.
However INKMAN sees his work as going beyond the visual. “What I do actually is not just art!” He explains that when invited to visit other cultures to contribute his talents he also writes his feelings, poems, and thoughts that come to him. He believes that every artistic style is a mirror that reflects the real personality of artists: something they have to cultivate by keeping in touch with their inner thoughts and having dialogs with their subconscious.
Permanence is also antithesis to street or graffiti art, and INKMAN describes that to be a graffiti artist means practicing non-attachment to his works. He explains, “To be temporary – this the nature or street art. Once you finish your piece you start thinking about all the ways it will disappear.”
This non-attachment philosophy has deep spiritual Islamic roots – a tradition from which Muslim artists like INKMAN and others draw their outlooks. From an Islamic standpoint earth and all that contained herein is an illusion. Our possessions and outputs are at best adornments of the life of this world, or at worst, distractions from spiritual growth. Creating small and large scale public art projects also means letting go and allowing their creations to become “for everyone,” or for no one, if in the future it’s painted over or knocked down.
Graffiti art advocates like Mehdi Ben Cheikh, the man behind the Tour Paris 13 project, specifically choose old or abandoned buildings on which to arrange for artists to leave their impermanent marks – knowing that they are scheduled to be shortly demolished. INKMAN also recently approached a derelict building – but with an eye to bring it back to life by capturing, through calligraphy, the stories of those walls’ past.
INKMAN’s USINA tribute project (also called The Story of Brave Men) was dedicated to the memory of the many limestone production workers who joined the Tunisian Boukornine mountain factory when it opened in 1928. Many of them – like INKMAN’s grandfather – toiled away parts of their lives on the now abandoned grounds. As some of the ex-factory workers began to pass away INKMAN felt that he needed to commemorate their work and efforts by adding his mark to the buildings – an homage to the time spent and pieces of themselves the workers left there many years ago. Many of those men’s experiences are already lost and forgotten in time and INKMAN wasn’t able to stop himself asking…what happened there?
INKMAN’s recent collaborations include projects with fellow Tunisian street artists Va-jo and Sk-one; French artists Zepha, Brusk & Nilko White and Germany’s Hombre SUK. INKMAN is one to keep an eye on as he plans additional collaborations, visits abroad, and participation in various street-art events.
Another artist of French-Tunisian decent, who goes by the name “eL Seed” speaks about his introduction to graffiti art at the age of 16. Even though he was born and raised in France the immigration policy as it was kept him from feeling fully “French.” Undergoing a bit of an identity crisis he decided to get back to his “roots” and began studying Arabic in addition to French and dialectical Tunisian. Through his Arabic studies he was introduced to Arabic calligraphy and immediately started integrating it into his works. He explains that without knowing the classical “rules” he started to play with the letters – and even brought them into his graffiti practice. “I took the Arabic alphabet and made it mine and started constructing my own style without noticing it.” He adds, “My art has developed out of two worlds colliding – with these two cultures clashing and blending into one another – to form a new identity, and [my] distinctive style. […] “I have a deep respect for traditional calligraphers because they are an inspiration.”
I asked eL Seed how he feels about breaking the “rules” of traditional Arabic Calligraphy. He responded: “At some points I’ve been criticized by classical calligraphers telling me that I need to learn the rules [in order] to break them. I always reply that I can’t break the rules because I don’t know them.” He’s inspired by complex ‘western’ wildstyle graffiti and he brings Arabic script into it in his own way. Intricate Graffiti wildstyle includes various overlapping and interwoven shapes, is known for its illusion of depth and space, and incorporates 3D letters and other decorative elements like arrows, starbursts and spikes. It is often very hard to read by people who are not familiar with it. But el Seed doesn’t mind if it’s not accessible to everyone – and he hopes that they are drawn into the work and that their intrigue makes them look closer. eL Seed’s art is deeply rooted in the ancient art of calligraphy and he sees his current work as part of an ‘Islamic Art Renaissance’. He reflects, “Our generation is reviving the traditions with a twist of modernity and I think it is a necessity today in a world where differences [and] specificities are being erased.”
Speaking on the similarities and differences between street art and art on canvas (or otherwise meant to be displayed in a gallery setting) eL Seed explains that street art is, at its essence, ephemeral. The only way to immortalize it is by taking a picture. He explains that as soon as he is done with a piece, it doesn’t belong to him anymore – it belongs to the public – so anything can happen to it. He says, “This is part of the game.” In contrast his other more permanent works are inspired by his practice in the street but they are not ‘street art’ they are art made by a street artist.
Somewhat ironically his work on the streets is really clean and his work on canvas is rough. About his canvas work he explains, “You can see drops of paint, drippings. [Adding back in] the rough aspect is a way to bring the essence of the street into the artwork,” though he laments that many canvas pieces lack context. “My work is inspired by the Arabic proverbial tradition, so I write messages. There is always a meaning in each piece. Those messages are always relevant to the place and people where I paint – but with a universal dimension so anyone in the world can relate to it. By painting in the street you bring art to the people – a message addressed directly to them in a beautiful and esthetic way. It is a generous act, I believe. That’s what makes street art powerful.”
While many contemporary Islamic artists may draw upon their religious and spiritual history of their ancestors, converts to Islam are also finding joy in connecting more deeply to their religion through Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art elements.
Central Californian (USA) artist Gabrial Garay was introduced to art at a young age. Growing up as a Chicano in California he witnessed a lot of Graffiti and gang writing on the walls. He also remembers, as a child, watching his father tattooing a cousin with one of the traditional Mexican Old English fonts. That early exposure to typography and Saturday cartoons inspired him to start drawing characters, but once he saw graffiti he says, “it engulfed my everything.” He started by drawing low rider cars and bikes, progressed to spray painting his name, and at 10 years old he remembers seeing some local kids in his town painting a mural. Then, in his teens, he got his hands on a copy of the graffiti magazine Can Control and tried to duplicate a piece he saw in it. He explains; “from there I was hooked as an artist, you can say.”
As a young kid Gabriel freely admits that his main goals with graffiti was to vandalize property with his name in an artistic, creative, and individualized manner. He wanted to leave his mark on the world in a very literal sense. Looking back now he recognizes that graffiti was also a way he dealt with much of the trauma he experienced as a child – it was a therapeutic outlet that allowed release. The respect and notoriety he received from other community members also appealed to him. Gabriel explains; “My goal at one point […] was to become famous graffiti-wise and […] I was making progress in that [direction] before all my plans came crashing down in what would be the biggest challenge in my life.”
After a long break he’s recently returned to graffiti as more of a hobby, he enjoys painting and accepts opportunities that provide some income to help support his family – whether it be a mural or custom canvas. Trying to make art a career is, at the moment, one of his biggest challenges. Calligraffiti doesn’t necessarily pay as well as he would like and seeing his family struggle financially really crushes him. Gabriel doesn’t have any type of trade to fall back on so the art he creates, and the t-shirts he sells, brings in some income. Gabriel explains, “I’m nowhere near overcoming these obstacles, but currently trying. I [have] decided to go to college for a graphic design degree. Insha’Allah this will allow me more opportunities in the future.”
As an artist, Gabriel still feels unaccomplished and muses that he most likely will never feel any different, and never be fully satisfied in with his abilities. He also believes that any accomplishments are not actually of his own doing and explains, “Just as the bird knows that it’s not their wings that allow them to fly they never-the-less flap them, so in that sense [when] I push my brush or control a spray can [it’s the same as] the birds motion with their wings.” Gabriel believes that any notoriety he gains for his creations are blessings bestowed by his Creator – Allah.
Gabriel explains that, as a Muslim, Islam plays a major role in his everyday life and is the prism through which he views the world. Islam affects his art tremendously. Gabriel didn’t grow up Muslim, and after converting in 2002 he had a rough time learning and adjusting to the injunctions of Allah. He didn’t have a support system after his conversion and he ran into trouble with the Law. While he was incarcerated, however, he was able to learn more about Islam. It was in there that he started painting Arabic Calligraffiti and images that reflected the rich artistic history within Islam. Gabriel relates that he creates his art to help others remember Allah and says, “I refer to these pieces as […] ‘visual dhikr.’”
Gabriel is thankful to Allah that his art is appreciated. He explains that it’s very humbling to know that what he started as an attempt at an art career (after having a hard time finding jobs as a convicted felon), and the notoriety he’s gained, means he now has people wanting to collaborate on projects with him, he says, “All I can say is Alhamdulillah.”
Mudassir Zia (AKA Artistan) is an artist and community activist living in Lahore, Pakistan. In Pakistan, most every available wall space is used for advertisements, political rhetoric and other invitations. One of Mudassir’s main goals as an artist is to bring the walls into a different dimension by beautifying them with culturally relevant murals, images, and positive messages. Mudassir explains, “The images we make on walls show positivity – whether they are related to our country or a public service message – for example […] murals promoting blood donation or education.”
Aside from beautification one of the main goals was to create awareness among the people about this often overlooked aspect of city-life – the so-called “talking walls.” He believes that his religion, Islam, stresses cleanliness, and that by beautifying the city calls by painting over the wall-chalking, divisive political slogans, and mobile phone advertisements Mudassir believes he is following the teachings of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Unfortunately, launching new ideas in Pakistan is difficult and it can be hard to get agreement from government officials or convince them to let artists do their work. That’s where community mobilizing efforts can help to get things done. More than just creating art pieces or murals, Mudassir engages other artists and activists who are good at what they do and motivates them to participate in his activities. He dreams big and wants to achieve even bigger.
Mudassir especially enjoys working with youth. Art has been a part of his own life since childhood. He says that, although handling youth in large groups is a bit difficult at times, young people are full of energy and creativity, are naturally co-operative, and sincerely enjoy doing art-related activities. His current projects include the Street Art Competition and the Tape Art Competition. Mudassir’s plans for the future include inviting professional foreign artists to Pakistan so they can collaborate with and work alongside the locals and expose Pakistani artists to new and innovative trends and ideas.
sAnki (AKA Sanki King) is another Pakistani calligrafitti artist who daily strives to overcome not only the harsh and dangerous political climate of Karachi, but grow in his craft as well. He explains, “living in Karachi makes you very rough and tough because this city is […] unpredictable – you never know what’s gonna happen next and every day when you go out you experience […] hardships.’ He thanks Allah that he has, until now, not been involved in any dangerous situations or mishaps while art-making outside.
When sAnki first started his calligrafitti journey there was no awareness about graffiti in Karachi and he wasn’t sure whether or not he would be able to continue making his art and pursue it as a career. But over the years he’s taken his art from amateur drawings on paper to 50ft long murals. It’s only his ceaseless dedication that propelled his success. sAnki muses, “I don’t sleep much because there is always so much going on. When I’m not painting I’m sitting and thinking about painting.” He brags, “It’s a very big thing to pioneer a whole art form in a country, and not just a town or state, but my passion is what [keeps] me going.”
Growing up, sAnki’s family frequently shifted around Karachi so he developed friends in many areas and intimately learned the ins and outs of its boroughs. This awareness helped when he decided to pursue graffiti as a career: spreading his art on the streets was easy because he knew the right spots. At times though he still has to explain the difference between graffiti art and vandalism. It can be hard to convince locals that his actions are for beautification – and not political – purposes. There is a conception that all people with spray paint are evil destroyers of public and private property. Unfortunately, it’s with justified distrust that Karachites give him the side eye when he sets up to paint. Wall chalking and vandalism is out of control in Pakistan to the point where government officials, and average citizens, are fed up of it because it just won’t stop. Local skepticism usually melts into respect though, once people understand that sAnki is out there creating art for the people with his own money
He recalls, “There have been many times when I was painting something and cops or rangers would come around and actually watch me paint. [They usually] ask if I’m doing something political and once I would tell them what’s up they leave without causing any trouble.”
sAnki has also made his peace with the impermanent nature of outdoor graffiti art. He reminds, “Well everything is temporary [anyway], and I believe that whether it’s humans or things, aging has its own grace.” There is beauty to be found in aging outdoor art – exposure to dust, smoke, rain, or pollution adheres the artwork to its place in the city. sAnki knows that there is always risk that his art might be permanently removed, but that he plans for that – and always takes several HD pictures and sometimes a short video before he leaves for home. He says, “I know either [the artwork] would stay there for years or it would be removed tomorrow and I’m ok with that as long as I’ve the HD pictures as record.”
sAnki was born in Jeddah, KSA and was a diehard fan of Islamic Art since he was a kid, the love for Islam and its influences runs in his veins. He still has sketchbooks filled with calligraphy dating back to his early teens. Like most artists, sAnki’s work is constantly mutating and evolving. In 2013, he had a spiritual awakening which gave an unbelievable boost to his imagination and creative energy. He now creates a lot of work related to Spiritualism and Oneness. He sees his accomplishments thus far as “the beginning” and considers himself a student of art for life. sAnki is greatly influenced by verse 39 of the Quran’s Surah Najm, “That man can have nothing but what he strives for,” and he considers his art skills a gift and blessing from Allah.
Whenever sAnki speaks to art beginners or youngsters he tells them, “Your existence is not an accident and each one of you has a hidden quality, a talent that no one else in the world has. It’s your duty to work hard and find that special quality, show it to the world, and become the best example of yourself.” sAnki has similar lofty goals for himself. He explains, “Islam means peace, and Islam talks about love, unity, and peace more than any other religion. My sole purpose [in making art] is to spread colors, happiness and much needed peace among my people. I expect nothing in return from anyone except Allah.”
As for what more he has in store sAnki shares, “My current project is an international project called 2047: The Future is Calling which is Pakistan’s first-ever trans-media project based on a true story and it’s headed by Pakistani-Canadian creative producer Avi Hudson.” He launched the project on IndieGoGo in 2014 and is getting an amazing response from people. He also recently had his first-ever group exhibitions, one in London in October, and the other in Karachi in December, 2014. His only goal is to spread his work as much as possible in and out of Pakistan and make the hip-hop culture of Pakistan strong – strong enough to compete with other countries.
To learn more about the artists highlighted please visit their websites:
INKMAN (Mkt Artwork): www.behance.net/mktartwork
eL Seed: www.elseed-art.com
Gabriel Garay: www.facebook.com/gabrilsart
Mudassir Zia (Artistan): artistan.pk
sAnki (Sanki King): www.sankiking.com