Looking into Grafitti art, what it means and how it is currently practiced in the UAE to determine whether there is an actual graffiti movement.
Just like any other term, “graffiti” can be perceived in several ways. Some might see it as an impressive form of art while others might see it as a practice of vandalism. However, there is much more about graffiti than what initially catches the eye.
The main divide in the graffiti world is that some believe graffiti is meaningless while others believe it is a way of expression. I believe that there is always an impulse behind grafitti being seen in public, whether it was meaningful or not. If we looked at some of the world’s most recognized graffiti artists like Banksy and Keith Haring, we realize that there is always a message that they wanted to deliver through their art. This brings me to the UAE and how I believe that the scribbles we see whether a family name, a particular sports team or even curse words, are all there for the public to see because of a certain urge.
Now I am not saying all the writings or drawings we see around convey a certain message but they all are expressive. However, it is publicly known that grafitti is illegal in the UAE. Grafitti vandals, as mostly referred to by the local media, can face up to one year in prison and can be fined up to AED 10,000 in Abu Dhabi, AED 500 to AED 1,000 in Dubai, and AED 1,000 in Sharjah. The law of banning grafitti is mainly aimed towards paintings and writings that deface buildings and do not beautify the city in any sense. However, the current law also includes any type of public grafitti, even the ones executed by artists if done without permits.
I suppose the reason we are not witnessing any noticeable rise in grafitti artists is the common knowledge that public grafitti is banned in all its types. An example of one grafitti artist who managed to grab the attention of Dubai residents is known as Arcadia Blank. Him being a resident of Dubai, Arcadia Blank understood the culture and the rules of the city. As a result, he decided to express himself through spraying phrases on temporary construction elements. His phrases shortly became popular among Dubai residents and visitors as they all seemed relevant and fitting to the surrounding environment. He was able to spray a good number of phrases around Dubai by avoiding private properties and being extra cautious not to be caught.
Even though public graffiti is banned in the UAE, it is still allowed under certain circumstances. Most common condition is designated public spaces in which Grafitti artists are brought to work together. An example of this being done is during the 43rd UAE national day celebrations where the world’s longest grafitti scroll was created by more than 150 artists from around the world. Another example would be when art foundations commission grafitti artists to work on a piece displayed in public after getting the necessary approvals. Grafitti in the UAE is also supported through live grafitti in which artists execute a piece in front of an audience and this usually takes place during events. Now back to my title question, would you say graffiti as it is globally known is picking up in the UAE the way it should be or not? I personally think that there should be some sort of public distinguishment between public graffiti as a form of art and public vandalism. The cross cultural environment of the UAE and the magnificent change it went through during the years, reassures me that graffiti art will eventually pick up. Once graffiti is recognised and encouraged by the related authorities, we will hopefully start witnessing the beginning of a locally-rooted graffiti movement in the UAE.
Latifa Al Azdi (@Latifazdi )
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