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Calligraffiti artist transforms the streets and alleyways of Gaza

Yazeed al-Talaa wants to create work that reflects the beauty and potential of Gaza in spite of the suffering caused by the siege
By integrating the beauty of Arabic letters with the modern art of graffiti, Talaa is able to convert a very old wall into a colourful work of art (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

GAZA - Under the scorching sun, calligraffiti artist Yazeed al-Talaa picks up a brush with his right hand and begins to paint. Using a vigorous arcing action from side to side, his brush moves across the rough surface of a wall. Passers-by stare at him wondering what he is doing to this wall in the middle of Gaza City, but Talaa knows exactly what he is doing. Three hours later the work is complete.

By integrating the beauty of Arabic letters with the modern art of graffiti, Talaa was able to convert a very old wall into a stunning work of art. 

"Calligraffiti is a fusion of calligraphy and graffiti; a growing, global art," he tells Middle East Eye, taking a break and stepping back from his latest creation.

Talaa uses calligraphy in his wall art in Gaza to bring the traditional art to a new audience (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

Embracing Arabic roots

The 24-year-old Palestinian artist from al-Maghazi refugee camp studied interior design at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza.

He began his artistic journey three years ago by using English letters, but then decided to embrace the use of his mother-tongue, Arabic.

"In the beginning, it was really difficult since the Arabic language is the hardest one to use in this art form. However, I feel as though, by practising consistently, I'm beginning to master the calligraffiti style," he says.

"Eventually I began to rely totally on Arabic letters, words and sentences, often trying to convey a message that I felt needed to be delivered through the art."

The Smiling Palestinian Child painting on Gaza Street has special meaning for Talaa, since he spent a great deal of time on its creation and considers the child's smile to be more impactful than any words. He explains that the portrait embodies the innate condition of Palestinian children who smile despite their pain.

The Smiling Palestinian Child embodies the status of children who smile despite pain of living under blockade, says Talaa (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

Vague portraits

On another wall of a building in Gaza, he has painted the image of a young girl holding a camera surrounded by concentric circles made up of Arabic letters. "Be yourself and your beauty will increase," the words read. 

"A few people can decipher my paintings' messages by themselves but others ask me curiously to explain exactly what I mean with each one," he says.

Talaa's innovation is not limited to painting on Gaza's streets and walls, but has extended into people's homes too. Several Gazans have approached him, asking him to create his artwork in their own homes after they've become fans of his work seeing it in the street.

"Be yourself and your beauty will increase," say the circular words of the girl in the painting by Talaa (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

More often than not, he is happy to oblige. "I try to draw calligrafitti so people can see the drawings and smile in spite of the suffering we are experiencing." He is keen to show the bright side of contemporary life in Gaza, he says.

"I try to draw calligrafitti so people can see the drawings and smile in spite of the suffering we are experiencing" (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

Messages and ambitions

The artist says he wants to familiarise people with the aesthetics of the Arabic language at a time when calligraphy is close to becoming a lost art.

The real challenge Talaa faces is the lack of resources and the lack of attention being given to contemporary arts in Gaza. Due to the ongoing blockade, many artists have had no alternative other than to be resourceful with the equipment readily available to them and to use natural resources such as feathers and twigs to create their masterpieces.
Talaa is lucky enough to have some basic painting tools available to him, but they are of a much poorer quality than he would like and he often has to improvise.
The image here says "Be thankful as long as you live" in Arabic script (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

Talaa hopes to one day have a permanent exhibition to showcase his art, so that he can teach people more about calligrafitti.

Gazans, in spite of tough living conditions and the lack of employment, are still trying to show their talents to the world in more than one field.

The Tamer Institute for Community Education is a non-profit organisation working primarily in Ramallah and Gaza, which aims to provide children and young people with an environment of innovation and learning, through various community initiatives.

Sobhi Qouta, a 25-year-old Gazan who has taken part in activities organised by the Tamer Institute, says: "The evolution of art at the community level, on the one hand depends on the aesthetic side, and on the other hand can deliver messages of love and life and peace to the world, showing that Gaza is a source of beauty and artists."

He says that it is not an exaggeration to believe that Gaza will one day become a hub to showcase artistic talent and display the beautiful paintings that reflect life and peace, created through individual efforts and through community-based initiatives undertaken by the Tamer Institute and others.

A boy squats in front of one of Talaa's paintings on a wall in Gaza City (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

The Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip for the last 10 years has been a major obstacle for Talaa - and other artists - as it prevents them from travelling abroad and participating in international exhibitions to present their special brand of Palestinian calligrafitti.

Talaa hopes to one day be able to participate in international forums and exhibitions to not only show the suffering of two million Gazans under Israeli siege but to also present the beautiful side of Gaza City.

Community art

Another young artist, Tahreer Barakat, also loves drawing on the walls of the city. She recently attended a community initiative to draw a mural stretching for 120 metres inside the Gaza port, intended to deliver messages of love and peace to the world, and to show that the people of the Strip are looking for safety, in light of the continued Israeli blockade.

"Despite the blockade and the devastation wrought by the past three wars on Gaza, the Palestinians are still looking for peace and life like the rest of the world," says Barakat, adding that she hopes to deliver messages of peace from artists in Gaza to the international community.

According to statistics provided by the spokesman for the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, there are about 18,000 unemployed youths who have completed high school, about 36,000 who have diplomas, more than 65,000 with BAs and also more than 600 who have masters degrees, as well as dozens who have PhDs.

In the face of this waste of talent, Talaa still has a positive message: "We always want to show the world that Gaza has beautiful art like the rest of the world, and despite all the pain and suffering, the people of Gaza are still resilient and full of life."

"Despite the blockade and the past three tragic wars on the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians are still looking for peace and life like the rest of the world," says Barakat (Baraa Khaled/MEE)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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