Spray Can Messenger: Aerosol Arabic Brings Ornate Islamic Graffiti to Urban Walls

Aerosol Arabic is the handle for Mohammad Ali, a graffiti artist who incorporates beautiful, ornate Islamic script into street art all over the world. In addition to displaying works in his home nation of Great Britain, he’s traveled to the Middle East, America, and New Zealand to create his own unique style of urban graffiti for public display. He uses his art to highlight social issues, such as the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, or the divide between rich and poor in Morocco.

He was recently invited by the government of Oman to teach youths the techniques for creating street art. His blog reveals he is a thoughtful, introspective artist with views of Muslim youth diaspora in the West and the Middle East. Ali has been featured on media outlets including BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. He delivers public lectures about the power of the arts to transform society and how the arts can tackle some of the difficult issues that we face in multicultural societies.

Ali tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton that graffiti art has mushroomed in the Middle East, particularly after the Arab Spring, when walls in Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a canvas for protest. "A lot of street art is cut and pasted into different locales. I find that doesn’t really make sense for me to do that," he says. "At the end of the day, you have to absorb and be influenced by the ideas and surroundings and the thoughts of the people there."

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You’ve said, "Graffiti art has the power to change the world." How can it do that?

Mohammad Ali: I think graffiti is like the voice of the people, bringing art to the concrete jungles we live in. Graffiti is unlike any other medium or art form in that it’s the voice of the people, spilling outside the conventional art spaces virtually out on the streets around us. It brings the message of the people with their ideas and thoughts in free form into the public domain, into the streets, into the public spaces.

Street graffiti art is bringing the art into the public space and bringing it back into the hands of the people. In a way, it’s turning around on its head the way we are bombarded with advertisements for products and ideas and visuals that we have no control over. In fact, these products or ideas or messages that are put upon us, let’s face it, have no real connection to the people. We are taking ownership of the public spaces. We are putting out thoughts and messages and ideas that are an alternative to the billboards we see out there. We’re reminding people of values and ideas that are disappearing and fading away from our society.

I know it’s a bold statement: can graffiti art change the world? I know it can’t literally change the world but it can be powerful and transformative in changing our public space, influencing the everyday person that might be going to work at the rush hour, seeing these messages. It might be unusual for a concrete jungle. It’s something we need to see more of.

Why are our cities so gray? Why are we permanently surrounded by these concrete jungles, these blocks, these concrete slabs? Why can we not bring color? And not something that is only of color, but that something that has substance and meaning.

During all the hours we spend, traveling in the cities, going to school, going to and from home. This is a powerful means of communicating. By that I mean, graffiti art is bringing something very powerful to the public space that no other medium can. You put art in an art gallery or a film in a cinema or a performance in a theatre; you’re confined to a space. You’re connecting to a specific audience to see the art who probably isn’t your general audience. Graffiti art is bringing art to the people quite naturally, as opposed to bringing people to the art.

In that way, it can change the world. I’d say that murals that I’ve been blessed to be able to paint deal with messages and injustices around the world, highlighting certain plights and bringing awareness to some people who would’ve never, ever thought about [some issues]. They’ll see something on television in Newcastle [England] or pick up a newspaper and they’ll think it’s far away in the distance and they can’t identify with it. If you see something on a brick wall, it’s almost an in-your-face style. You’ve taken that message directly to people and they have no choice but to interact or engage with that piece.

I’ve seen how murals in one neighborhood can influence how people see or feel about something, the way they think about something, a question they might ask from something they see in the murals.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You mention that your artwork can bridge communities and change perspectives of how people view a situation. Can you give examples of how your art has been able to do that, particularly in the Middle East?

Ali: First of all, I’d like to discuss changing the community here concerning the Middle East as opposed to in the Middle East. Back in 2009, I painted something in the city of Birmingham, which is the second city in the U.K. It was a message in Arabic as well as English, which talked about the situation in the Middle East to viewers in the U.K. People in the streets of England might not be aware of the situation in the Middle East. They might say, "Hang on, what’s the purpose of painting something about the Middle East here in the U.K.?"

For me, it was raising the awareness of people here to think maybe we can do something about the situation in the Middle East from here. It’s encouraging people to be at least aware of it and take action, whether it’s about educating one another about the injustices that are happening in that part of the world. At the same time, using viral media like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, the murals painted in a British city has and does reach people in the Middle East.

I had a friend, who does charity relief work, return from Gaza. He said, "The kids in Gaza came up running to me asking me if I lived anywhere near the walls painted by Mohammed Ali in Birmingham?" They saw a mural and from that, it made me think about those who question what good does it really do [in the U.K.] Surely, if you paint something, you need to be out [in Gaza] painting these kinds of murals. And I thought, "No, not necessarily. Actually, there is a job that needs to be done here."

It’s also a way for people out there to see, via YouTube, Facebook, video, and photography, that their message is coming through even on the streets of Great Britain. That’s one example I’m giving you.

Another message is educating people of different faiths about what’s going on out there, whether it’s Gaza or another issue. When I’ve painted in that region, whether it’s Oman, Emirates, Qatar, or Morocco, it seemed like not a lot of street art and graffiti existed in the Arab world before. I started using Islamic script and Koranic images about 10 years ago. There were a few things here and there but there wasn’t really a scene. The idea of street art and color wasn’t there. There might’ve been messages scrolled on the walls but there were not so many images.

I remember going to Egypt about eight or nine years ago. I didn’t see any real artistic narratives, if you like. Not many people were using spray cans to create elaborate murals. I’ve been seeing the explosion of the street art in Arab world in the past five to six years.

It’s been very interesting to observe because when I was starting out 10 to 11 years ago, there was little out there. I would Google all the time for Arabic graffiti art. There were a handful of people but you could not find much online. I was contacted by a lot of journalists at the time because from their research, not a lot of people were doing it.

I thought it was interesting that the feeling wasn’t expressed until very, very recently. So the question is why is that then? Graffiti has evolved from America to Europe to Australia to New Zealand, even to South Africa. There have been hip-hop influenced graffiti scenes. We’re not talking about political slogans using the spray cans. That’s something different. That can go back to the 1960s with political messages on the walls.

I’m not saying that it didn’t exist anywhere at all before. We’re talking about the hip-hop influenced graffiti art, from the 1970s onwards. Why was it common everywhere else, except for the Middle East and parts of Asia? I used to really question that. It’s only started emerging in the past five to six years. So I’m curious if it has to do with the emergence of the MTV generation, Internet, satellite TV. Why have these types of movements, whether its urban culture, skateboarding, hip-hop music, or graffiti, spread through the Western world, and only are now starting to permeate through the Middle East?

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think with the recent unrest, in a lot of instances started by the youths, changed the graffiti art scene? Have the previous regimes repressed the creative juices of its people?

Ali: Well, it’s big now. There are big scenes developing now. It’s happening now. If you look at Egyptian street art, it’s exploding in a big way. I think the revolutions that have been happening have almost led to a street art movement. It’s only recently happening and people have found their voices in the street art in places after the Arab Spring. Things are changing for sure. I think the recent revolutions have contributed to young people picking up the spray can. I don’t think it’s been the other way around where the street art has led to the Arab Spring but I feel the Arab Spring has led to people picking up the spray cans.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You were just in Morocco recently. What were you doing there?

Ali: It was a project funded from Holland — a program called "Three Artists Three Cities." Two other artists, besides me, are involved. It was pretty much the first leg of the tour, where we go to Casablanca, Birmingham, and Amsterdam. It was painting a wall really. It was the three of us interacting with the local people, making connections and bringing a message that has resonance with the local people. We were exploring the issues of the people, like "what do people feel, what are people thinking, what’s going on?" A lot of street art is cut and pasted into different locales. I find that doesn’t really make sense for me to do that. At the end of the day, you have to absorb and be influenced by the ideas and surroundings and the thoughts of the people there. So we spent a week in Morocco, where we made local connections and talked to the local people. We took drawings and pictures and merged them together to make this piece of artwork.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of issues were people talking about in Morocco that might be different from what you’ve heard in Birmingham?

Ali: The primary message is not always something politically motivated but it might be their unrest or issues. The message of this mural is about dignity and struggle and pride in where they’re from. If you look at the backdrop of the mural, there’s a mosque, which must’ve cost millions to make, with the foreground of the slums that exist over there. There are these horrible slums over there. It captures the struggles of the people, if you like. The divide between the rich and the poor is quite vast. You’ve got extreme wealth, and at the same time, you’ve got little shantytowns with houses made of tin. These [two categories of] people living side by side like that. People can really identify with the contrast shown in these murals.

The message was the word "dignity," which was about being proud of whom they are. I think it was more of an assertion of their identity in the mural. It was using patterns and influences from their own culture. The key things were the influences of patterns we incorporated in the art, local landmarks, buildings, and tin houses we captured in this mural. What we tried not to do was we use images like a New York City skyscraper or Roman script, like written English. I felt that by using their own patterns, their own heritage, their own creativity and Arabic roots, incorporating all of that is an assertion of their own identity. Saying you can be proud of who we are and what we have rather than depicting something that’s not a part of who they are.

I think that’s something that artwork always encourages. Be who you are and don’t imitate something that’s not from your culture. Be proud of your identity and don’t be insecure about who you are. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned that I try to share with people.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You were also recently invited to Oman’s capital of Muscat to give youth seminars. What was that about?

Ali: Muscat was a government initiative. It has such a large youth population, something like 30% of the population is under 16. So the government has to provide something for the young people, otherwise there will be big trouble. So it was quite refreshing to see this government initiative with the Omani government sponsoring an annual youth summit. It’s where young people get together and talk about ideas, social conditions and strategies for the future. They really empower the young people to embrace the future. They bring in professionals from different parts of the world. They brought in someone to discuss urban regeneration. They bring in people equipping youths on the knowledge to use social media for social change. They brought me in as an urban artist to talk about how to use the arts as a means for social change.

It’s about educating over 300 young people in an intensive period, and it’s not just the techniques of spray painting. Many of them have never, ever had the opportunities to do this. There’s so little graffiti in Oman. It was quite refreshing that the government encouraged such a thing, to embrace the street art. It’s just about the techniques but also explaining why I do what I do. It communicates something about why it benefits society; it’s not just about your name. A lot of graffiti is about that; it’s a very ego-driven profession. I want them to understand the importance of communicating something of social benefit if you see that wall every day. I was trying to share that skill in visual arts. You use that to benefit society at large.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You also have a video of you spray-painting a wall around a park in Dubai. Was that a government initiative as well?

Ali: That was commissioned by Tashkeel Gallery, a large art gallery and art resource center, run by Lateefa bint Maktoum. She’s big on the arts scene. That was about getting me some walls, working with the local people in Emirates, giving them the skills to create similar art. It was about educational programs and working with young people. It was about the development of the [creativity in the] local people there. If I’m able to contribute and inspire some people to continue in that work, that’s the most important thing. One man can’t change the world. It’s about connectivity, spreading ideas, so we can collectively work together to change the [social] conditions.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In the video of your work in Dubai there were women also painting with spray cans. You don’t see a lot of women doing graffiti art.

Ali: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think there is anything that stops them. It’s not like it’s something that society stops them from doing, creating this art. If you look at Dubai and the Tashkeel Gallery, there are many women involved. It’s a misconception, if anything, that women are being restricted from being creative or painting graffiti. I’ve been to Oman, Morocco, Qatar, and the UAE. A lot of women are ready with spray cans to paint. There isn’t anything to stop them. They just never had the opportunity to work with a street artist, but it’s the same for guys.

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