Gaza: Graffiti Messages from the Heart

Af Emilie Henriksen

The guide books warn about going here. The Foreign Offices tells us that there is a high threat of terrorism. Don’t visit any part of the territory!, they say. And if you do, there is no ‘our man’ there to help you out.

It is quite difficult to enter this part of world unless you are working for a NGO or is a journalist. Even for top politicians, entering can be quite a hurdle. Not more than a few weeks ago, the head of the Danish Parliament Mogens Lykketoft was going to visit the occupied territory. He was denied access by the Israelis. We are in Gaza, Palestine; the world’s biggest prison, as the locals like to call it. This is where the graffiti artist Mohammed Ayman is born and raised.

On Facebook, he is just an ordinary 18 year-old guy with a great talent for drawing and graffiti. In fact, he could be any random graffiti dude. But if you compare it with the everyday of any other young person, it’s beyond ordinary.

”I was born and lived in Gaza for many years. Everytime I try to travel and get out of Gaza, I find that I can’t! But why? Because of the blockade that has been made on Gaza. I can’t travel, I can’t have a good education, I can’t work,” Mohammed explains when I ask him about his life in an occupied country.

At the age of nine, Mohammed started to draw and proved to be really good at it. Since then he has refined his technique and developed his skills. But living in Gaza, Mohammed never had the chance to go to art school. Despite that, he never gave up. Mohammed wanted to use his talent. Not long ago, Mohammed created a Facebook page that he uses to share his art. In less than a year, the page got more than 15.000 likes.

Walls can Talk

In September 2006, Mohammed and his Egyptian mother were going on a trip to Egypt to visit family. The trip was supposed to be a short vacation. On their return trip to Palestine, they could not get back in Gaza. The borders were closed, so the two of them had to stay in Egypt. The short vacation ended up lasting five years.

A few years ago, he started doing graffiti. A friend of his spotted his talent and suggested him to use his skills on walls instead of on paper. Mohammed explains:

My first graffiti was in one of Alexandria’s (in Egypt, red.) events called “الحيطان بتتكلم” which means “walls can talk” , I wrote “حرية” in Arabic, which means “freedom” . Thereafter, I started to read about graffiti because I wanted to know what it was.

Mohammed decided to improve his skills by learning even more about graffiti and also by doing pieces on the walls of Gaza, when he managed to return to the Strip. But being a graffiti artist in Gaza can be a bit of challenge sometimes:

”In Gaza, we have witnessed a gradual shortage of art supplies. We have begun using colours that are not suited for painting and are not intended for artistic purposes. As a result, paintings are losing their quality, and the weather is affecting their lifespan. But you get used to it”, he says.

A lot of graffiti artists have been colouring the walls of Palestine with Banksy probably being the most well-known of them all. Banksy has a way of making political statements wherever he goes, and the Separation Wall is not an exception. In 2005, Banksy paid Palestine a visit, and during his stay he did a total of nine graffiti pieces stating his view on the Israeli occupation (see picture below). Since then, a lot of graffiti artists have expressed their political concerns on the Wall and in the streets.

Bird in a Cage

Mohammed also uses graffiti to express himself politically, but his graffiti is more than just ”a writing on the wall”.

”Nowadays, everyone seems to believe that graffiti always expresses political concerns. But I have never used graffiti to voice my political feelings only, and I probably never will!”, he says and continues:

I don’t just write “freedom” and walk away. Instead, I draw a bird in a cage that has guards to protect it. But these guards are not really protecting it. They are jailing it

In 2013, Mohammed had the chance to return to Gaza. Even though it was his own decision to return , the place still makes him feel imprisoned:

”The only thing one does in Gaza is to wait for Israel to allow entering food and medicine. So when you can’t travel and you’re only waiting for someone to allow you to get your food, it’s like someone is controlling you. It makes me feel like I’m a bird in a cage”, Mohammed explains.

The feeling of being caged is also the reason as to why Mohammed and his graffiti friends feel the need to express themselves through graffiti.

”When you walk through the streets of Gaza, you won’t find a clean wall! Everyone here expresses his feelings through street art and graffiti. I think Gaza has more graffiti than Egypt”, he says.

Struggling for Freedom

During the Egyptian revolution, street art played a crucial role. Everywhere you go in Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria, there is street art turning walls into visual testimonies of the struggles during the Arab Spring. Not only in Gaza, but in many cities across Palestine, graffiti tells the stories of the Israeli occupation. According to Mohammed, there is an explanation as to why graffiti and street art play such a role:

Street art and graffiti is simply one tool that we are using in our struggle for freedom. This is my message and other artists’ messages to both our occupiers and to our people here in Palestine and to everyone who sees our art. We are still here and our voices are still loud. It’s the voice of the Palestinian youth, who are struggling to change their reality every single day.

It is clear that graffiti artists like Mohammed use the street and its walls to convey messages as others would do by writing an article or by seeking influence through a political system.

”We’re using stencils and spray cans to send messages. One image at a time, we’re aiming to break the fear and lack of motivation of our Palestinian people and call them to rise”, he states and continues:

Not only graffiti, but any form of art can be considered a political weapon. Art as a whole is a strong force. Let me put it this way: Graffiti messages are genuine and come from the heart!

During a visit in Egypt, Mohammed was asked by Revolution Records to make some graffiti pieces in their new studio. It is great to see how the studio has been decorated by a talented artist from Gaza.

About the blogger: Emilie Henriksen is a communications volunteer at RAPOLITICS. She holds a master’s degree in Danish and Film and Media Studies from University of Copenhagen

This blog post’s cover picture was taked by Mia Grondahl, who is the author of the book Gaza Graffiti. Visit the Gaza Graffiti blog for more cool pictures and info about her project (in Swedish)