A War of Colors: Graffiti and Street Art in Postwar Beirut by Nadine A. Sinno

Excerpt from A War of Colors by Nadine Sinno

Over the last two decades in Beirut, graffiti makers have engaged in a fierce “war of colors,” seeking to disrupt and transform the city’s physical and social spaces. In the book A War of Colors, Nadine Sinno examines how graffiti and street art have been used in postwar Beirut to comment on the rapidly changing social dynamics of the country and region.

She argues that graffiti making can offer voices to those who are often marginalized, especially women and LGBTQ people. Copiously illustrated with images of graffiti and street art, A War of Colors is a visually captivating and thought-provoking journey through Beirut, where local and global discourses intersect on both scarred and polished walls in the city.

Read an abbreviated excerpt from the introduction of the book below, and get your copy of A War of Colors: Graffiti and Street Art in Postwar Beirut; it officially publishes this month!

Praise for A War of Colors

Nadine Sinno’s narration of graffiti in post–Civil War Lebanon is a testimonial to the irrepressible creativity, voice, and activist politics of youth in Lebanon.  Captured by the artful conversations intersecting the political spectrum, she empathetically calls for understanding that graffiti is a form of layered commentary, analysis, judgment, and forecasting. In Sinno’s telling, graffiti, a venue of youth, visually manifests their will, their anxieties, their commitments, and their hopes for Lebanon. Her story calls for youth to be seen, graphically.

—Suad Joseph, general editor of Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures

A rich and moving account of graffiti-makers, who range from sophisticated artists to everyday scribblers, all engaging with the multiple tragedies that have beset Beirut over the last few decades. As we learn about the struggles of these graffiti practitioners to rehabilitate the city’s injured public space, we also gain great insights into Lebanese culture, society, and politics writ large. A real tour de force.

—Ted Swedenburg, author of Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past

Abbreviated excerpt from A War of Colors

Introduction

Streets, as spaces of flow and movement, are not only where people express grievances, but also where they forge identities, enlarge solidarities, and extend their protest beyond their immediate circles to include the unknown, strangers. Here streets serve as a medium through which strangers or casual passersby are able to establish latent communication with one another by recognizing their mutual interests and shared sentiments.

—Asef Bayat, Life as Politics

The Lebanese Civil War left its mark not only on the bodies and psyches of the Lebanese people but also on the visual landscape and cultural ethos of Beirut. During the war, and for years following the cessation of armed conflict, the city’s walls teemed with political posters, sectarian slogans, and the logos of various militias who fought to control Beirut’s streets, literally and symbolically. While the visual culture of wartime Beirut remains generally understudied, Maria Chakhtoura and Zeina Maasri have contributed pioneering studies of graffiti and political posters, respectively. Chakhtoura’s La guerre des graffiti (The graffiti war, 1978) offers an annotated survey of the ubiquitous graffiti slogans that prevailed in Beirut’s streets from 1975 to 1977. Risking her personal safety amid bombings and kidnappings, Chakhtoura aimed her camera at the city’s walls and documented the acerbic visual battles in which people of all political affiliations participated. Her collection documents the overwhelmingly dehumanizing rhetoric produced and circulated by Lebanon’s various political factions. The derogatory scrawls collected in Chakhtoura’s study include expressions such as “The Phalanges are dogs. Their leader is a pig”; “Jumblat birthed a mule”; “Jisr el-Basha is the graveyard of Palestinians”; and “Arab = Animal.”1 It is no surprise that Chakhtoura lamented the findings captured by her camera, which, according to her, reflected the spirit of “delirium” and “orchestrated fanaticism” permeating Beirut at the time.2

In a similar vein, Maasri’s Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (2009) offers an insightful study of political posters that were ubiquitous during the Lebanese Civil War. Maasri’s study reveals the power of these discursive tools in commemorating sectarian leaders, intimidating and demeaning perceived enemies, and advocating for each political party’s version of truth and its vision for Lebanon. Arguing against the reductionist conceptualization of political posters as mere propaganda, Maasri demonstrates that political posters “are inscribed in the hegemonic articulations of political communities in Lebanon’s war” and that they serve to “articulate the discourses, desires, fears and collective imaginaries pertinent to the various political identities being formed and transformed during wartime.”3 Similar to sectarian graffiti, political posters served as a weapon of war—one that sought to elevate sectarian leaders, dehumanize rivals, and assert the real or imagined dominance of local and regional actors.

In addition to bearing the marks of sectarian graffiti and political posters, Beirut’s walls have endured the impersonal, sterile touch of urban revival in the postwar era, as Lebanese leaders have sought to reintegrate Lebanon into the global market and to reinvigorate its tourism sector. After the end of the war, reconstruction efforts swept the country, and signs of change appeared in some parts of the city: freshly painted walls, shiny storefronts, newly paved streets, renovated sidewalks, and striking high-rises. As many Lebanese artists, scholars, and activists have contended, however, such cosmetic changes have been alienating and exclusionary in their own way. Upscale development projects—including Solidere’s infamous reconstruction of Downtown Beirut—do not truly reflect or honor the Lebanese people’s struggles, local talents, or unique history.4 While the reconstruction projects did alter select public spaces, rendering them more habitable, such projects have been largely reserved for neighborhoods deemed worthy of resuscitation because of their potential market value. As Rasha Salti notes, “When a public domain was deemed potentially ‘marketable,’ it was rehabilitated and swiftly auctioned off. When it was not deemed potentially commodifiable, it fell into malign neglect.”5

After the war, around the mid-2000s, Beirut’s walls would be transformed by the hands of emergent graffiti makers who sought to reclaim the streets from their alienating wartime and gentrification-era conditions by producing colorful, thought-provoking visual artifacts. This new form of graffiti making initially took place in the city’s lesser-loved alleys, bridges, and streets and gradually spread into more visible parts of the city, including main thoroughfares and highways. By summer of 2014, these innovative graffiti pieces started to resemble a substantial and constantly expanding corpus of work rather than isolated works here and there. Walking the city, residents might come face-to-face with a portrait of Lebanon’s renowned late composer and singer Wadih El Safi or encounter an Arabic speaking rat bouncing off the walls and inviting them to partake in its abundant feast—a reference to the trash overflowing from garbage bins all over the city. Recognizing the potentialities of graffiti and street art in forging an intervention and presenting an alternative discourse to sectarianism, Beirut’s graffiti makers have reimagined the streets as a space for creating community-centered artwork, engendering civic engagement, and voicing social critique—sometimes in aesthetically pleasing ways and other times in a raw, acerbic manner, depending on the sociopolitical moment. By transforming the physical and social landscape of the city, graffiti makers have reclaimed the streets, albeit partially or temporarily, from the hands of political factions that monopolized them during the Lebanese Civil War.

It is important to emphasize that artistic stencils and murals do not stand alone in the streets in postwar Beirut. Rather, they exist alongside casual doodling, political posters, partisan slogans and scrawls, antigovernment messages laced with obscenities, and militia logos. In other words, aesthetically pleasing street art, which can be political in its own right, has not replaced other types of inscriptions and visual symbols but rather competes with them in the production and interpretation of space. Furthermore, in Lebanon, as in other places, the production of (implicitly or explicitly) political visual symbols tends to wax and wane depending on shifting sociopolitical conditions. For example, the Cedar Revolution protests, which erupted in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, were supplemented by the creation of on-site graffiti by aggrieved civilians. Sune Haugbolle notes that the fence around Hariri’s mosque in Downtown Beirut “had been overwritten with graffiti that revealed the multiplicity of interpretations and standpoints generated by his death.”6

Similarly, Marwan Kraidy observes that as the Syrian uprising intensified, Beirut’s walls were transformed into “battlegrounds between friends and foes of the Syrian revolution.”7 In the summer of 2015, antigovernment graffiti filled Downtown Beirut in the wake of the #YouStink protests, which were sparked by Lebanon’s garbage crisis. Multilingual slogans such as “H. ukūmit zbāleh” (Trashy government), “You stink but you don’t do shit,” and “Anā bitnaffas h. urriyeh” (I breathe freedom) remained visible on the walls of Downtown Beirut for years, thus transforming the usually spotless commercial area into a multitextured canvas of crude obscenities, witty remarks, and poetic dictates for a more just society. More recently, the 2019 protests inspired another surge in graffiti and street art, ranging from amateur scrawls that speak of the Lebanese people’s heartfelt frustration and agony to exquisite murals that voice antigovernment dissent and people’s solidarity, demonstrating the porousness of art and politics, particularly during times of turmoil.

For me, the crude scrawls, the minimalist stencils, and the painstaking artistic murals represent equally valuable artifacts that reveal complicated affects, thoughts, states of being, and material realities of individuals and groups who have decided to inscribe their grievances and/or aspirations on the walls of the city. A serious study of Beirut’s visual culture necessitates attending to the different types of graffiti and street art—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as well as examining the ways in which these different artifacts evoke, advance, or critique broader sociopolitical narratives and cultural practices. Analyzing graffiti and street art involves exploring actual objects (stencils, murals, scrawls, and walls) as well as the numerous (intangible) matters and discourses they engage with, such as political events, cultural beliefs, daily practices, national or international crises, and mundane and grand affects.

Figure 1.1. Ashekman, “Briefly, the street is ours,” mural in al-Barrad al-Younani area. Photograph by Nadine Sinno and William Taggart.
Figure 1.1. Ashekman, “Briefly, the street is ours,” mural in al-Barrad al-Younani area. Photograph by Nadine Sinno and William Taggart.

Presenting a Contribution

The growing body of scholarly and creative work focused on the visual culture of the Arab world attests to the increased production of public visual artifacts in the region and demonstrates the crucial need for documenting and critically examining these visual artifacts in their complexity and diversity. Chakhtoura’s and Maasri’s aforementioned books on Beirut’s wartime graffiti and political posters, respectively, emphasize the spatial dimension of the Lebanese Civil War, demonstrating that bullets and grenades were not the only weapons employed in dominating the streets. It is important to note that because the deployment of graffiti to reclaim and transform physical and social space, to protest oppression, or to “enlarge solidarities,” to use Asef Bayat’s expression,8 has always existed in Palestine, the journey of Palestinian graffiti is instructive, especially as it demonstrates graffiti’s malleability and adaptability to changing sociopolitical realities.

In the context of the West Bank, Julie Peteet’s pioneering study of the graffiti of the First Intifada demonstrates the instrumentalization of graffiti works as “weapons of communication, assault, and defense.”9 Peteet asserts that “the sheer ubiquitousness of graffiti was a constant reminder both of the abnormality of everyday life under occupation and of the mass uprising [Graffiti] encouraged resistance, cajoled, demanded, critiqued, and provided running political commentary on the progression of the uprising.”10 In Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics, Mia Gröndahl persuasively argues that graffiti has consistently served as “a barometer of the political situation in Gaza.”11 Gröndahl explains that the inscriptions and images on the walls of the city often offered invaluable insights concerning ongoing political events, the general mood of the residents, planned protests, and even the availability or scarcity of material resources—including spray cans and paint. She demonstrates that whereas the first year of the peace process resulted in “happy and more hopeful” graffiti, the city’s walls articulated the “disappointment, frustration, and anger over a peace process that had not kept its promises” in the autumn of 2000.12

Craig Larkin’s nuanced study of the graffiti of the separation wall— which Israel purportedly erected to stop Palestinians without permits from entering Israel through the West Bank—explores the ways in which the (in)famous wall has been transformed by local and global graffiti artists into “the world’s largest canvas for oppositional protest art, global critique, and local resistance.”13 William Parry acknowledges that while some Palestinians are opposed to beautifying a wall that has caused them tremendous pain, most appreciate the “international show of solidarity the artwork and graffiti represent, and the foreign interest it generates.”14 Importantly, Parry argues that protestful graffiti is “another example of the growing number of ways in which civil society is leading where leaders—for decades—have failed.”15

The collected essays in Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl’s edited volume show that Arab graffiti makers have utilized graffiti and street art as a means of contesting authoritarian regimes, sending transnational messages of solidarity, and memorializing key figures of the Arab uprisings.16 More recently, Sabrina DeTurk’s Street Art in the Middle East demonstrates the growing presence of street art in the Arab world in both stable and tumultuous countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain, Oman, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. For DeTurk, both prosperity and strife “can influence the landscape in which contemporary street art is produced and received,” as street art is often driven by private and collective memories that are “positive or negative, real or culturally constructed.”17 Mona Abaza, examining the territorial wars that erupted amid the 2011 Egyptian revolution between graffiti makers and the military junta’s security personnel (whom she refers to as “professional whiteners”), depicts an emergent public culture rooted in graffiti making that has engendered “a novel understanding of public spaces as spaces of contestation, of communication and debate.”18 Building on Abaza’s work, John Lennon states that graffiti “is part of the revolutionary conversation that exerts opinions; it is a tangible display of the political complexity embodied by those inhabiting the streets.”19 In his most recent study of graffiti in areas of conflict, Lennon persuasively argues that graffiti is essentially “messy politics” and that any study of conflict that precludes graffiti “tells only part of the story.”20 In her visual memoir of the Egyptian revolution, Bahia Shehab, an artist and a professor who was inspired to design and place her own stencils in Tahrir Square, writes:

The artworks range from scribbled slogans and sprayed stencils to large scale murals. They are all beautiful. I feel like I’m walking in an outdoor museum It’s so refreshing to see all the different skills and ideas appearing next to each other. I feel like the street has all the ideology of the revolution painted on its walls and I finally feel at home. The street belongs to us all.21

Shehab’s memoir attests to the ways in which graffiti making enables average people to reclaim their sense of agency and belonging—even if temporarily—by transforming the cityscape through writing graffiti or by simply gathering in the streets and enjoying the graffitied cityscape before them.

Ultimately, as Lina Khatib reminds us in her analysis of visual cultures across the Middle East, the region “has become a site of struggle over the construction of social and political reality through competing images.”22 Following Khatib, I am interested in what Beirut’s locally produced and globally circulated graffiti and street art can teach us about the real and symbolic struggles of the contested city—as seen through the eyes of its inhabitants, most notably young people with brushes, spray cans, stencils, pens, and the commitment to make an intervention. In her study of Beirut’s 2015 trash protests, Dina Kiwan invites us to constantly seek “competing forms of knowledge,” which appear in different permutations, including film, performance, cartoons, and graffiti, and which constitute important “acts of citizenship.” Kiwan argues that these “emotive knowledge forms redefine issues creating alternative discourses and forms of public knowledge,” which can enrich our understanding of everyday politics and give voice to marginalized populations and/or nonstate actors.23 Following Kiwan’s invitation to “explore social change through a focus on the things that people do,” termed “performative acts,”24 I want to approach graffiti making as an emotive and performative act that articulates the discourses and practices of Beiruti residents who wish to show and tell otherwise. In other words, we have seen and heard enough from political leaders. The time is ripe for engaging more seriously with street politics (and play), from the ground up.

Crucially, the study of graffiti contributes not only to illuminating the existing lived realities of people in the Arab world but also to bringing to the surface people’s aspirations for forging alternative realities. In other words, graffiti making does not simply reflect different political, economic, and social conditions. Graffiti and street art can also serve as vehicles for shaping these material and sociopolitical realities and calling for change on multiple fronts. The graffiti and street art of Tahrir Square, for example, presented a scathing critique of Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, commemorated key figures of the Egyptian revolution, and protested sexual harassment, thereby demonstrating the multifaceted and expanding role of graffiti and street art. Meanwhile, the anti-Assad graffiti scribbled by a group of Syrian teenagers in 2011 contributed to breaking down the wall of fears and possibly sparking the Syrian uprising. As Rana Jarbou rightly argues, “In a country where there was a common fear of merely having political discussions in public, the significance of visible censures could not be [overstated], especially when the streets were not short of abundant glorifications of the Assad regime.”25 In Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, womencentered graffiti and street art have articulated a clear message that the fight for women’s rights should go hand in hand with the fight for political and economic rights, rather than be deferred to more “peaceful” times. In sum, Arab youths are increasingly employing graffiti as a means of intervening by visually making noise. These daily interventions invite us to focus our attention on the stories of those who have decided that “a wall has always been the best place to publish [their] work.”26

I see this study as a contribution to the existing scholarship on visual culture in the Arab world. I wish to take the reader on a journey in which graffiti makers and the city’s walls—not pundits, experts, and political leaders—do the storytelling. The graffiti makers show and sometimes tell that there are alternatives to spending time on the street fighting, planting bombs, harassing women, or scribbling sectarian slogans. Young street artists provide community-centered ornamentation, commemoration, and constructive social critique. These individuals create sites that “can tell stories and unfold histories.”27 Teasing out the “stories” and “histories” embedded in artifacts of graffiti making is the key to ensuring that graffiti makers—not just warring politicians and religious zealots—are given the opportunity to share their interpretations regarding the past and present events affecting their country, as well as their visions and visualizations of the future. Importantly, in her study of the impact of assisted reproduction on the lives and subjectivities of Arab men, Marcia Inhorn offers invaluable insights regarding the ever-changing enactments of masculinities in the contemporary Middle East. She argues that shifting socioeconomic conditions, new technologies, and life changes contribute to shifting enactments of manhood, not just among different men but also within the person’s lifetime. Calling for a paradigmatic shift, she proposes an “emergent masculinities” approach, inviting us to critically examine the “ongoing, relational, and embodied processes of change in the ways men enact masculinity.”28 Inhorn’s reflections on embodied emergent masculinities provide further validation regarding the importance of studying graffiti and street art, in part because graffiti making can complicate dominant stereotypes about Arab masculinity (and femininity). Young graffiti artists are modeling alternative modes of being in the world, or being in Beirut’s streets. As I will show, some graffiti artists consider graffiti to be their weapon of choice against more lethal weapons, like Kalashnikovs, bullets, and bombs. For some, the “war of colors” is about creating more habitable environments and inviting young children to care for their city. These nonviolent warriors, whose stories rarely make it to the mainstream Western and Middle Eastern media, deserve critical attention.

Read the full introduction and preview more of Dr. Sinno’s book here.

Nadine A. Sinno is an associate professor of Arabic and director of the Arabic Program at Virginia Tech, as well as a literary translator. She is the coauthor of Constructions of Masculinity in the Middle East and North Africa.