French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed on his Arabic roots, “Lost Walls” and reclaiming purple – interview

French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed rediscovers his heritage and strives to steer interest towards his homeland with his “Lost Walls” project. 

Graffiti artist eL Seed unveiled his first book, Lost Walls, in March 2014 during Art Dubai. Art Radar caught up with the artist to learn more about his journey to Tunisia’s most forgotten and remote areas, his re-appropriation of the colour purple and his run-in with Chewbacca on an abandoned Star Wars movie set. 

eL Seed, 'Taghouri Dassah (Authentic Clay)', Guelala, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project,  2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘Taghouri Dassah (Authentic Clay)’, Guelala, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed recently spent time travelling around his homeland Tunisia, with the intention of meeting people and bringing international attention to the monuments and cultural riches in this North African nation. Outside of Tunisia, eL Seed’s work can be seen widely throughout the world. His work was shown at Leila Heller Gallery’s “Calligraffiti: 1984-2013″ exhibition in 2013 and his designs are a part of Louis Vuitton‘s Foulards d’artistes project and Qatar’s Public Art Programme.

Art Radar spoke to the artist to find out what he learned about himself and his country during his month-long journey, and how Arabic speaks to the soul.

Please tell us about your transition from businessman to forerunner of the calligraffiti movement. How and why did you become interested in graffiti as a medium?

I graduated from a business school in France and have a Master’s Degree in Business. I used to paint on the side. I came from a community where people do not encourage you to go into art and culture, so I just followed the business line because that’s where people say you will make the most money, where you can make a living.

I’ve been painting since I was a kid. In New York, I stopped for a while. I was working like a slave. I asked myself, “What is the point? For the rest of my life, am I going to work Monday through Friday, 7am to 10pm?” It was crazy! The more I gave, the more the company asked of me. I didn’t feel useful to anyone and I didn’t feel useful to myself.

Step by step, my soul was dying. One day, the boss of the company called me and told me it was time for me to move on. Basically, they were firing me without giving me any reason. I think that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me! It made me realise that I don’t think anybody should live like that and not follow what you love. I don’t think money’s the most important thing. You should follow something that you love and if you really love it, maybe you can live off that.

When I moved to Montreal, I got back into painting. I found this job as a business consultant but the same thing [happened]. Then I talked to my boss and told him that I wanted to quit and follow my passion. He told me, “If I had what you have, I would have left a long time ago.”

I was born and raised in Paris. As a kid, I was into hip hop culture. Graffiti was the natural medium for me to express myself in an artistic way. It became more and more a case of [me finding my] identity and reconnecting with my Arabic roots.

eL Seed, 'The Original Source', Ksar Hadada, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘The Original Source’, Ksar Hadada, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

You’ve said that your calligraphy is different from the traditional Arabic style of calligraphy. For those who may not be familiar with Arabic calligraphy, what are some of its trademark components and how is it different from the style you use in your work?

When you speak about Arabic calligraphy, people refer to traditional calligraphy, which is an ancient art and has been there for more than fourteen centuries. You can never call yourself a calligrapher unless you get certification from a master, who got it from a master and so on. You go back like that 1400 years.

When I decided to start painting Arabic, I didn’t know that there were rules and conditions. Everything has a condition and you need to respect the techniques, such as the balance of the letter. It’s really like an art and science at the same time. There are different styles of calligraphy as well, [such as] naskh, thuluth, tawqi. [Some] people say that there are twelve, some say there are fourteen. Kufi comes from the name of the city Koufa in Iraq.

When I first discovered the rules governing Arabic calligraphy, I asked myself if I should learn them but I was scared. Now I’m not scared anymore, but there’s no point for me to go there and learn them, because I don’t want my work to be conditioned and put in a box. I don’t call myself a calligrapher. I am a graffiti artist, painting in Arabic. That’s it.

Do you think that learning Arabic helped you develop an authentic voice for yourself and your work? How?

I was born and raised in France. Until 2000, I didn’t know how to read and write Arabic. I used to speak a Tunisian dialect, which is not strictly Arabic. For me, getting there was a way to get back to my roots, my culture, my history. My work represents myself. It’s a real projection of me. Someone told me that if I was born and raised in an Arab country, I would never be able to do what I do today, because I would have been conditioned by the way people are taught to write Arabic.

I mix graffiti, which is a ‘western’ medium (although I don’t like to use this term) and Arabic calligraphy, which is an ancient eastern way of expression. Bringing both together is a way for me to bring together a picture that seems contradictory, but actually is not. I think that’s the power of calligraphy and art in general. [They] bring two worlds together and link them. That’s why I feel that my work speaks for me.

eL Seed, 'Times stop life goes on', Jerissa, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘Times stop life goes on’, Jerissa, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

Does your work speak to a global audience?

Of course. First of all, I paint in the streets. My main goal is to share with people, but I would never paint something in the street if it doesn’t speak to me. I always try to first say something that speaks to the people of the local community, that will have this universal dimension. Even someone who lives in China or the United States, when they see a wall painted in Tunisia, South Africa or Paris, the message will still speak to them. That’s what I am trying to do, but I cannot speak to people if what I’m saying is not relevant to myself.

Is it important to know Arabic (or have it translated) to understand your work? 

I don’t think you need to know Arabic or have it translated. I think that Arabic script, by its very nature, speaks directly to the soul before it speaks to your eyes. If you know how to read Arabic, you can read the phrase and decipher it. But even if you don’t read or you don’t understand it, even if you cannot decipher it, there’s still this dynamic in the Arabic letters that touches you and brings you a feeling or emotion. Most people think it’s an abstract piece or it’s just letters.

That’s the power of the Arabic script. I think this is true of other scripts, like Japanese or Chinese. They speak to people as well. A couple of years ago, I used to write sometimes in English or French or a small phrase. It was not a translation, but it could give you an idea about what was written. I think that when you write something, you break the dynamic of the piece because someone who doesn’t write Arabic will go straight to what they recognise. I will go straight to the translation. Another reason is that when I don’t put a translation, it’s a way for me to fight cultural imperialism, where you always need to translate for those in power to understand.

I get criticised by people who tell me that I am closing the door. For me, it’s more open because it’s not translated. If you are really interested in it, you can always go further and find what is written. People sometimes write to me, send pictures of my work and ask what is written. I reply to them. If they look on the Internet, they will always find the meaning of my work.

I think that Arabic calligraphy is like music. Sometimes there is a melody, in a language that you don’t speak, but it speaks to you and you can feel it. When we were young in France, we used to listen to Michael Jackson and none of us spoke English. We used to sing his songs. When I grew up and learned to speak English, I realised that I had gotten the words wrong. But the music still spoke to us, even though we didn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics.

eL Seed. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

Like the poets found north of Mecca before Islam, you do not sign your work. Can you speak about this creative tradition and how it inspires you?

Before Islam, there was this gathering, like a fair in a place north of Mecca, called Okaz. They used to have a poetry battle where people would come and compete. The best poems would then be embroidered onto black silk and hung in the Ka’ba in Mecca. When Islam was revealed, there were seven poems we know as Mu’allaqat, the seven hanging poems that became the roots of the Arabic language. When you start learning Arabic, you learn those poems by heart. The names of the poets have been forgotten. People try to research and find the names of the people who wrote them, but what’s important is not the name of the guy who wrote it but the message behind the poem. I was inspired by that.

[When] I was influenced by European graffiti, I used to write my name in Arabic. I think it’s a bit boring to always write the same five letters! I [decided] I would like to write a message and was inspired by this tradition to bring the message to the fore and erase the name. Step by step, I stopped tagging my name in Arabic or even signing my name below. Then, when I was travelling, I used to meet different communities and I would always say the wall belonged to me until I was done. By signing the wall, you are always keeping an eye on it — you don’t give it back to the community. That’s why I leave my mark as an artist and I don’t put my name, and so I leave the wall as a public space or public property.

Typically, do graffiti artists sign their work?

Yes. Back in New York in the 1970s, graffiti artists would pick a nickname and then, to become anonymously famous, they would tag their work. They would say “see in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, the Bronx, that’s my work.” You wrote your name, you tagged your name. That’s your signature. People know you. I used to do that. Now I go in the opposite direction, inspired by this Arabic proverbial tradition.

eL Seed, 'Abandoned', Gorouia, Jerissa, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘Abandoned’, Gorouia, Jerissa, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

Can art promote social change and provide a scope for dialogue – specifically in places such as post-revolution Tunisia? 

I’ve experienced it, so I can tell you, yes. It depends upon how you do it. From my personal experience, I went back a year after the revolution. I didn’t want to go back in a way that could have been very opportunistic or a really cheesy way of promoting myself. So I waited a year. It was a big wall, about forty by seven metres, in the city of Kairouan. The wall was not a way to celebrate the revolution, but to celebrate the unity of people at some point. A year after the revolution, it was still a mess and everybody was against each other. It was to remind people that at some point everybody was together and we made the change happen.

I started painting the wall and one guy came to me and asked what I was doing. I said “painting the wall”, and he wanted to help me. He called his brother, then another person came, a girl. She called her sister. Then another guy came, who was 45 years old. He did the same thing. At the end of the day, I had six people helping me on this huge wall. They ended up staying for ten days, from morning until night. I asked them why they were staying, even though I was not paying them and they were not getting anything out of it. They all replied that they wanted to be a part of something and say we made something for our country. I feel that art is one of the only things that can bring people together. We brought people pride and hope.

These six people came from totally different backgrounds. Some were more secular, some more religious. One of the girls was wearing a hijab. I’ve stayed in touch with one of them on a regular basis and now he’s a part of my team. When we met, he was sixteen. He came with me when I did the minaret, the “Lost Walls” project in Tunisia and last year for one of my largest projects in Qatar. Actually, he was not interested in painting. He told me he wanted to work with me, meet the people along the way, and film and document all my work. Now he’s doing his own thing. He’s nineteen and he created his own company. Just because this small project, a ten-day project, gave him the feeling that if you really want to do something and create change, you can make it happen.

I believe that art is powerful. I started with the minaret and “Lost Wall’s” projects. The minaret brought pride to the people because in my city of Gabès, nothing ever happened. I just knew I wanted to paint a wall in my city and it just so happened that the biggest wall in Tunisia was on a minaret. I approached the Imam and he said “You are free to do it. We have been waiting eighteen years for someone to do something with the space.”

People came to me afterwards and thanked me. Seriously, some people from my family told me that the fact that I painted on the minaret made them so proud. It lifted their heads up. Afterwards, the Imam said, “I hope that this minaret will bring people here to this city just to see it and it will become a monument.”

The point was not just the piece of art or just the building. It was a way to show people that they could create their own stuff. If you need help, there are always people who will help you, but at least take the first step. Take this jump – even if you cannot fly, somebody will catch you. This is how we need to look at our lives. Not just in art but in everything. We should really stop being scared of everything.

eL Seed, 'When you see the water, remember the source', Ksar Hadada, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘When you see the water, remember the source’, Ksar Hadada, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

Tell us more about your use of the colour purple and what it means in Tunisia.

This happened when I was painting that wall with the people in Kairouan. Every day people were coming and telling me, “Please, no purple.” I knew why: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali saw this colour as his. Every time you saw him on TV, you saw purple behind him. The colour of the Party was purple. I said “Sure. OK, I am not going to use purple.” Then I started to think, this guy made the colour purple his own. Why does the colour purple now belong to him? That’s why I made this piece called “استرجع البنفسجي,” which means  “Taking Back the Purple”.

I wish I could have made it bigger than just one piece. [It] would have been cool if we could have created a huge movement in Tunisia.

For structures such as the minaret at the Jara Mosque in Gabès, do you sketch out the design beforehand?

For the minaret, there were two sides. I did sketch on one side, because I had to make sure that the full verse fit in the space and the other side is what I call “liquid alphabet”, I just go with the letters and freestyle.

For a large project, can you still do freestyle?

It just depends on what I am going to do on it. Sometimes larger sizes are cool, but it’s also a challenge. It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

Calligraffiti on Jara Mosque, Gabès by Kafi Films and Da Fox in Da Box

What has been your most challenging project?

The most challenging was the minaret. It was challenging because it was in my hometown and because of the political context. I was getting a lot of pressure from people opposing me while I was painting it. Physically, it was tiring and it was during the summer, so it was forty degrees [celsius] every day. It was a mixture of so much stuff. It was actually the biggest wall I’ve ever done and not only my family, but the whole city was watching me. Everybody had something to say.

It was also an internal challenge. This was the first time that I was facing a block. I could not do anything. Even if I knew what I wanted to do, I could not make it happen. The colour was not working. The people forced me to paint the wall blue. So I painted the wall blue. Then I repainted it. Someone said later, “At one point, I thought you were going to give up.” One night, my friend asked me what I was doing this for, the purpose of it. Maybe it was for my ego. Then I questioned myself and I changed my intention. In our culture, this is something we talk a lot about. The most important thing is your intention. I changed my intention and I said “I hope that this project will make a difference in people’s lives.” After that, I finished the wall and everything was fast and smooth.

In the end, it was a success. Everybody loved it in the city. Everybody heard about the project. It was featured on CNN. It was crazy. That’s what’s amazing about this project. There are so many memories.

And your most enjoyable project?

I’d say the last project, the “Lost Walls” project. It was a quest of identity and I was discovering my country. The goal was to make people discover Tunisia and show them a different side of it. Every place I reached, I discovered something, met people and some became friends. They welcomed me. I think that was seriously the most amazing human experience.

eL Seed, 'Temoula land of my ancestors. There is no one like you', Temoula, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘Temoula land of my ancestors. There is no one like you’, Temoula, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project, 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

Talk about “Lost Walls: A Calligraffiti Journey Through Tunisia.” What was the impetus for the project and what did you learn about yourself, your art and Tunisia during the project?

Firstly, I learned about my people. I saw everyday life in different parts of the country. When you go to places where nobody goes, people welcome you. That was the point: to go to places that nobody talks about. There is history, there is a heritage, but it is totally forgotten. People welcome you and ask, “Why are you coming here? There is nothing here.” One guy told me “Sometimes you have to have someone from the outside tell you how beautiful you are.”

I am trying to show this beauty. It’s buried and the people have forgotten all about it themselves. You learn about history and what the previous government did in Tataouine, which in Arabic means the “Two sources”. It used to be a huge oasis, full of water and was green everywhere. Bourguiba covered all the wells to shut down the agriculture in this region in the 1960s to promote agriculture in the northern part of Tunisia.

Most people think Tatooine is from the movie Star Wars. George Lucas used the name Tataouine to create the fictitious city of the same name in the movie. When you check Tunisia’s tourism website, they tell you that the planet of Tatooine is a part of our heritage, even though there are over 100 Berber castles that are totally neglected by the government [in that area].

This is really sad. Our own heritage that has been here for centuries is not promoted, but a film set that has been built in the desert fifteen years ago is? I decided that I am going to go to this place. We arrived at twelve noon. I was expecting to find something huge and amazing, but the set was totally lost. The desert was taking over the place. I thought I would find Chewbacca waiting to meet me, as an attraction. There was nobody. This guy welcomed us and we started talking. He told me he paid the city EUR5,000 a year to run the place. He asked me what I did, since I had all my cameras with me.

I told him what I do and that I am trying to promote my country. I felt a bit shy to ask him, but did say “Do you think I can paint here?” He looked at me and said, “Do whatever you want!” I was like “No. Really?” He replied, “Do whatever you want!” It’s like going to Disneyland and asking if you can paint on the Princess’s castle and they say “Go ahead, do whatever you want!”

So, what I did, I painted in calligraphy in Arabic, “I will never be your son.” In response to Darth Vader’s, “I am your father.” The point was that when I arrived and after I left, I was two different people. I hope that my painting there will promote this place, bring people there and they will discover all the other things around this place.

I am trying to bring pride to people [in Tunisia] with my art. That’s what we’ve lost in the past sixty years. People lost their pride, their love for themselves and their self-esteem. Through art, when you go to people and do something for them, I think they feel valued and that they are worth something.

eL Seed, 'Ouahid; the wall: I will never be your son', Ong eL Jmel, Nefta, Tunisia, from the "Lost Walls" project 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

eL Seed, ‘Ouahid; the wall: I will never be your son’, Ong eL Jmel, Nefta, Tunisia, from the “Lost Walls” project 2013. Photograph by Ouahid Berrehouma.

As a Tunisian raised in France, do you think it is easier for you to see Tunisia with fresh eyes? How does this translate into the artwork you created during this project?

Yes. When you are out of the social, political and economic context of the place, it’s easier for you to come with a smile. When there’s a crisis, it’s easier for you say “Let’s do something,” because you are not in the everyday struggle. That’s why I am trying to do more stuff there and involve people in what I do. This project was totally financed by myself. I did not ask for help from anyone. All the proceeds from the documentary and the book are going to some of the organisations that we met during the road trip, such as those trying to preserve the heritage of Tunisia and change things over there. That’s how I can give back and thank the people for welcoming me when they didn’t even know me. That’s what’s cool about those people over there. For example, I met this man who was probably around seventy years old, who despite his age said “Let me show you around to find a wall.” There is a connection. Whatever you do, there is someone there who will help you. That was amazing.

How would you explain the Tunisian art scene to someone who is new to the country and its creative traditions?

I wouldn’t say the Tunisian art scene is a new art scene, as we have some old, famous artists, but we’re known more today for our contemporary art. Since the revolution, there’s more initiative to create. Some say that artists make a revolution, but in Tunisia I’d say that the revolution made artists, because now they have the freedom to express themselves. Before, a lot of people were afraid to express themselves. That’s how I would define the art scene in Tunisia. There are more and more young artists trying to make their work, both inside and outside of Tunisia. It’s been booming in the past three years. It’s a breath of fresh air. That’s just positive for everybody.

eL Seed. Wall at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

eL Seed. Wall at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell us about your recent workshop with the children at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai. How did the boys respond to working with spray paints and graffiti?

The funny thing was that they were very shy at the beginning. We didn’t start out with the wall. First, we sketched on paper and then practised on a fake wall. When we were done, we painted on the wall. It was a huge piece, twelve metres high. It was important for them to leave an imprint on their own city and in their school. I think it was flattering for them. It’s a school of maybe two or three hundred kids. There were only thirteen of them in the class. I try to do that when I get collaborative projects. That’s how you encourage kids. Maybe there’s this one kid who never did graffiti and this experience will encourage him.

What surprised me was that when I started teaching them the letters to use on the wall, these Emirati kids didn’t write in Arabic. They were painting in English, with Latin letters. To me, the switch was not to push the Latin to the side but ask them, “Why don’t you use Arabic and go back to your roots?”

When you see graffiti itself, you limit yourself to what you’ve seen before in New York, for example. Several years ago, I was in Saudi Arabia and I met several graffiti artists. They were painting in English, but didn’t speak English. I said “Why don’t you paint in Arabic?” and they said, “Because it doesn’t exist.” I said, “Why don’t you create it?”

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: African artists, calligraphy, graffiti, interviews, Islamic art

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