Arabic graffiti artist eL Seed shares his thoughts on the role of Tunisian street art, his unique mix of calligraphy and graffiti, and why contradictions are the key to overcoming difference. [View the photo feature, Graffiti, Meet Arabic Calligraphy.]
If you haven’t heard of Arabic graffiti, then you may want to re-consider your preferred news source. From the onset of the revolts that swept across North Africa and the Middle East from December 2010 onwards, street art from the region has been privy to much deserved global attention. Within this new wave of interest in unconventional, revolutionary art, one particular artist has been heavily courted by the media. His name is eL Seed and as of late he has been climbing the ladder of international recognition at an alarmingly fast pace. As one of so many involved in Arabic street art, what is so special about this particular artist? At once modest and ambitious, eL Seed has kept a steady hand and a focused mind throughout his turbulent ascent to fame. Driven by personal experiences, which he has transformed into a complex artistic philosophy, it is easy to see why journalists and art critics enjoy interviewing him. Travelling between continents amidst his many projects and exhibits, I was lucky to catch up with the elusive eL Seed to talk about Arabic graffiti, Tunisia’s street art scene, and the many contradictions that inform his unique message to the world.
eL Seed’s upbringing inevitably influenced where he is today. Raised by Tunisian parents in the suburbs of Paris, the young eL Seed was immersed in the early 1990s Hip Hop scene – meandering between breakdancing, graffiti, and calligraphy for the most part of his life. His first inklings of artistic direction stemmed from careful reflection on the nature of his identity as the son of migrants in a cultural climate of fear and rejection: “Identity has been always an issue for me, as is for most children of African immigrants in France. I never felt really ‘French’, and since I was young I've been trying to find this missing part of me in different cultures and subcultures.” eL Seed’s contrasting experiences, being at once rejected by the French zeitgeist as a foreigner and by Tunisians as an ex-pat, led him to experiment with supposedly opposing artistic styles. Modest as he is, eL Seed credits the beginning of his unique blend of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti to French graffiti artist Hest 1, whom he met and painted with upon his arrival to North America during a 10-year stunt in the business world. Although he never experienced any direct barriers to his transition to full-time artiste, as he says with his thick French accent, it did take time for him to transcend the “regular conformist way of thinking where you need to get a proper 9-5 job.” Overflowing with gratitude and partial disbelief, at age 31 eL Seed considers himself very lucky to divide his time between studio work, travelling for workshops and festivals, scouting suitable walls for his latest creations, and being able to devote more attention to his growing family.
As is clear from the way he expresses himself, eL Seed is not your typical pie-in-the-sky brooding artist: “I don't want to be put in a box; I’m not just a ‘graffiti artist’, or a ‘Muslim artist’, or an ‘Arab artist’. I don’t appreciate being marginalized just because I don’t fit into any mainstream concept.” In both his personal and professional life eL Seed thrives on contradictions, which he uses to encourage people across the world to reflect on the role of street art. “Even to me my art can seem quite contradictory, but I think this is what pushes people to think ‘out of the box’, like doing graffiti on a mosque. In Tunisia, if you’re an artist you’re automatically supposed to adhere to this bohemian image of a jaded anti-religion chain smoker.”As an artist, a Muslim, a down-to-earth savvy businessman, a Tunisian national, and a reluctant French citizen, it is not hard to see why many are left perplexed by eL Seed’s mish-mash of identities. “I try to break some stereotypes about my culture and my people, but I stay away from positioning myself as a victim and feeling as though I have to justify myself. I am more into affirming and presenting my identity and culture.”
Another surprising twist to eL Seed’s repertoire of bizarre is that he has never had any formal training in calligraphy. “The fact that I didn't learn classical Arabic calligraphy with all its rules gave me more freedom to play with the letters and appropriate them in my own manner.” Because of this, he prefers to define it as a form of ‘Calligraffiti’ in which the approach is much more visceral than technical: “Arabic script has this specific thing that gives you so much possibility in designing the letters, and I am in love with this ability to re-form and endlessly innovate.”
Although eL Seed began his artistic career years before the Tunisian uprising, it became a great source of inspiration for him – beckoning him to return and take part in the re-imagining of his home country. Being a street artist, this glued well with the revolutionary sentiments shared by his fellow compatriots, and he was swiftly invited to spearhead two of the country’s biggest mural projects. The first took place in December 2011 in the historical city of Kairouan, exactly a year after the first protests in Tunis. He explains how painting in this particular context opened his eyes to the power of involving whole communities in the artistic process: “The different regimes we’ve had, Bourguiba as well as Ben Ali, broke the self-esteem of most Tunisians and robbed us of our self-respect. Involving people in huge art projects is a way to bring back some form of self-confidence.” His natural gregariousness makes it easy to understand why people rally around his work so eagerly.
Six months later eL Seed landed back in Tunisia, this time to Gabes, to paint on the country’s tallest minaret. Standing at 57 meters high, this remarkable project was the very first of its kind. The sheer size of the mural is astounding, but even more admirable is the combination of art and religion in a city that is deemed one of the most conservative in Tunisia. This particular project was a turning point for for eL Seed, not only did it allow him to give back to his community in a tangible way and counter many misconceptions about art and religious belief, but it was also an opportunity for him to bring a shunned city back on the map: “Gabes had been forgotten by the different Tunisian governments and was repressed economically and otherwise for being a stronghold of resistance against dictatorship. The project in Gabes was a way to bring some spotlight to this city and open the door to a wider debate about why Gabes is so rich in so many ways, yet the people remain underprivileged compared to other cities.” From this analysis, it is clear that a very large part of eL Seed’s philosophy revolves around art as action rather than theory. He calls on other Tunisian artists to focus on the large spectrum of issues in Tunisian society rather than feeding bloated polemics about ‘Islamism’ and censorship.“There are no tensions in a general sense between religious sects and the art community,” he says, “the media in Tunis has made it seem as though Islam is against artistic expression, and that any form of religiosity is destructive to democracy – I wish that artists would help prove this wrong rather than feed into it.”
When I asked about the importance of street art in Tunisia post Ben Ali, eL Seed highlighted its role in the process of democratization: “The revolution has created new street artists, and I believe this is a good thing as it is a way to democratize art and bring it to everyone.” In his eyes, the ‘revolution’ also revolutionized art in Tunisia: “Before [the uprising] art was reserved for the bourgeoisie and the elite and to a large extent it still is today. But the fact that street art was appropriated and is associated with a grassroots movement has brought a brand new dimension to the role of art in mainstream Tunisian society.” As a very direct and public method of self-expression in a country that has witnessed more than it’s share of repression, graffiti and street art have quite clearly taken center-stage.
It may be that street art begins to lose its rebellious qualities as it becomes more accessible to different strata of society, but eL Seed remains positive about this shift in perception. To him, graffiti and street art will always embody different messages depending on the artist and the climate in which he or she works. “I don’t see a contradiction between making art on the street and art in a studio. Now that the art establishment has taken an interest in graffiti and its origins, graffiti artists have more choices in where to take their art – it doesn’t mean everyone in this movement becomes commodified.” eL Seed speaks from experience. In his early days, he would tag only his street name, ‘eL Seed’ – making him part of an underground lineage uninterested in the wider public. As his art evolved, eL Seed began to paint messages that he wanted others to heed. This meant leaving behind the narcissistic tendencies of classic graffiti and shifting toward the proverbial tradition associated to calligraphy – one in which the name fades but the message remains. Ironically, the name ‘eL Seed’ translates from Arabic as “the Master” or “the Man” – perhaps the most narcissistic tag he could have chosen for himself. eL Seed laughs as he acknowledges this contradiction between his artistic philosophy and the artistic persona he chose for himself at the age of 14. Through his long list of conflicting yet harmonious traits, this artist brings to light the similarities we might miss in our differences, and invites those who view his art to bridge cultures, generations, and beliefs. eL Seed’s story stands as an interesting microcosm for the journey ahead of Tunisia: how to develop an authentic and nuanced identity in spite of internal contradictions and invasive international scrutiny.
View the photo feature on eL Seed's street art here.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.