Graffiti has a long and colourful history as a means to express an eclectic range of talents, be it artistic prowess, personal bravado, or political expression. While we know that graffiti existed in many civilizations—including Pharaonic Egypt, the Roman Empire, and ancient Greece—it reemerged as a significant social phenomenon in two of the Western world’s foremost cities: Paris and New York City. The artists CORNBREAD and COOL EARL are frequently credited as being the U.S.A.’s pioneering tagging artists, leaving their mark throughout 1960’s Philadelphia by providing the spark for the explosion of the movement in NYC. In Paris, the student protest and general strike of May 1968 brought with it revolutionary daubings such as “L’ennui est contre-revoluntionnaire” (“Boredom is counter revolutionary”) and “Lisez moins, vive plus” (“Read less, live more”).
Graffiti has now become a key feature in numerous revolutionary movements, from Palestine where it appears in defiance upon Israel’s Apartheid Wall, to the graffiti that helped spur the revolutionary movement that would go on to bring down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Given the significance of graffiti and the defiance that it embodies, it is unsurprising to find that one of the key moments that sparked the Syrian revolution was an incident centered around graffiti.
“Your turn doctor”
On the morning of February 16th 2011, Syria’s draconian police force began rounding up children in a school in Daraa, Syria’s southern province. The alleged crime being investigated was the painting of a statement on a schoolyard wall: “Your turn doctor”. As benign a statement as this might seem, consideration of the context reveals its revolutionary nature: the doctor in question was Dr. Bashar Al-Assad, Syria’s President, and a London trained ophthalmologist. Dictators were falling like apples during harvest; Egypt’s Mubarak had fallen, Tunisia’s Ben Ali had fallen, and now it was Bashar’s turn, according to this statement. While this was an unquestionably loaded statement, the fact that those who were blamed for the incident were 14-year-old school kids leaves open the door to this being merely the spontaneous act of some pesky students. A group of children were taken by the police and tortured in a way that would have destroyed the steeliest of men, including being forced to sleep naked on a freezing wet mattress, brutal electrocutions and being forced into stress positions for hours. Word of the torture spread around the country and by the time the children were being released in mid March, Syria’s protest movement had been born.
The Syrian Banksy
While there are numerous artists who have emerged over the course of the Syrian conflict, one has excelled in capturing the attention and imagination of onlookers from both inside Syria and around the world: Abu Malek al-Shami, who is better known as The Syrian Banksy due to his insightful street art that has been likened to the legend that his moniker derives from. He is the 22 year old that has left a trail of incisive works that have added a little colour to Syria’s war ruins. Having begun his life in Syria’s revolution as a peaceful protester in 2011, by early 2013 he had joined the Free Syrian Army. In 2014, he painted his first mural in the Damascus suburb of Darayya that was under a crushing siege at the time. His first work featured a young girl teaching a seated soldier about love by way of her blackboard.
Another mural asks, “How are we celebrating Eid this year” with the accompanying image showing a soldier perched beside a mortar rocket that is firing out roses.
In besieged areas of Syria, getting supplies of any kind, including art supplies, remains to be a challenge. During his time in Darayya, Abu Malek heard of an art supply store that existed in the area. As the owner had left Darayya, he managed to find his phone number and get his permission to use his supplies. Abu Malek and his friends dug through the rubble to acquire paints, brushes and other art supplies.
Abu Malek speaks of the risks involved in doing his work, ever surrounded by danger, quite often in the form of snipers, “Sometimes we had to do it at night, so whenever there was a full moon, I used that time to paint murals. Sometimes I also used the light of my phone.” The dangers are real; Abu Malek was out of action for some of 2015 due to a battlefield injury while the man who encouraged him to begin painting murals, Majd, was killed in January of this year.
One of his murals showed an X’s and O’s game with the X’s being represented by Government warplanes, with the O’s being the tyres that were famously burnt by Aleppo’s children in a successful attempt to eliminate visibility and render the air forces temporarily ineffective, accompanied with the hashtag “game_over.”
Abu Malek painted more than 30 murals in Darayya, eventually having to leave as part of the agreement that saw the rebels relocate to Idlib, with the Government taking the Damascus suburb.
Like many artists before him, Abu Malek hopes that his art can serve as a reminder about the original goals of the revolution. “When we started the uprising, it was for freedom and dignity. We never wanted to fight. The need to carry a weapon was thrust upon us by the regime,” he said. “I want to show that there are many like us left in Syria, whose goals are pure and who continue to fight for those same values the uprising started with.” One of his murals depicts 4 stages of the revolution: 2011 characterised by a lady playing a violin, 2012 showing a Syrian rebel, 2013 an unknown fighter, and then 2014, ominously shown as a Daesh-type figure dressed in black.
Perhaps his most famous piece shows a young girl standing on a mound of skulls, hand outstretched and reaching up to the word “Hope”.