An Interview with the Tunisian Calligraffiti Artist eL Seed

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We sit down with eL Seed and Jeffrey Deitch to discuss the release of the Tunisian calligraffiti artist’s first book, Lost Walls.

When I walk into the ‘modern’ exhibition at Art Dubai 2014, my eyes instantaneously fall on a man wearing an azure-blue suit and hickory-colored round opticals. Befittingly, this man turns out to be Jeffrey Deitch, an active art critic, writer, exhibition curator, and art adviser, as well as one of the two people I’ve arrived here to interview. The other man, French-Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed, is far more understated in his dress, opting for a flannel top and worn denim jeans, preferring, I imagine, to leave the eye-catching colors for his spray can. eL Seed’s spray can is exactly what we’ve gathered in the heart of Art Dubai to talk about. Or more specifically, the release of his first book, Lost Walls, a tome documenting the artist’s calligraffiti journey across Tunisia.

Flip through the pages of Lost Walls, and you’ll first come across Deitch’s preface, which, written through his expert lens, contextualizes eL Seed’s work in the larger graffiti movements of the last thirty years – a movement Deitch has been instrumental in nurturing. You will also find a peppering of candid photos featuring the unsung faces and nooks and crannies of the artist’s home country. The rest of the hardcover packs a visual punch via its collection of expressive, polychromatic snapshots, which document the 24 walls eL Seed painted throughout his one-month road trip across Tunisia.

Read on for my interview with Deitch and eL Seed, during which we touch on the history of street art, Lost Walls, and the role of calligraffiti in culture.

Photo: Courtesy of eL Seed

So who wants to start? Who should I interview first? Jeffrey, I believe you got my questions in advance. I’d love for you to talk about the emergence of graffiti in the 1980s, how you think the craft has evolved in the last thirty years, and how relevant the movement is today.
Well, something really interesting has happened. After the emergence of “wildstyle” graffiti in New York, there was actually very little innovation for a long time. It was so strong that people imitated and did their own versions of New York wildstyle. If you are taking a train that is driving under a highway overpass in America, you’ll see variants of New York wildstyle. It spread immediately, like cubism, like pop art, or any other very strong art movement. And it had its involvement in music of course – hip-hop and dance, with break dancing. So it was a very important cultural movement that started in New York and spread all over the world. That was very interesting, its influence, but sometimes something is actually so strong that it inhibits innovation. And it took a long time for new approaches to graffiti and street art to develop. Within the past ten years or so, we have had a few new styles emerging, and one of the interesting things is that this didn’t happen in New York. It emerged in other cities in the United States, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and then it emerged in places all over the world. So, we’ve seen artists like eL Seed who connect with this tradition but add on their experience in a completely different capacity. Putting these different sources together, we are inventing something very new. So it is quite exciting that in the past couple of years we have a completely incorporative street art that’s international. Now, the best artists are coming from Paris in connection to Tunisia, as well as Italy, Germany, England, etc. There are great artists in Brazil, and now Singapore and South-East Asia.

The establishment tends to categorize artists who work in the street as graffiti artists, not real artists.

I read that graffiti originally started as more of a name-tagging movement, as opposed to exemplifying a deeper message that gets across some political or cultural ideology. Can you talk about this shift?
The best graffiti artists were always doing much more than just writing their names. The really good ones had connections with abstract expressionism, with pop art. They were doing something much bigger. The ones that began to really make an impact were always much more than just taggers; they were real artists. And the audience has yet to understand that the best artists could be street artists; street artist and artist are not separate categories.

Do you think people still don’t consider street artists as real artists?
Well, more and more do, but a lot of the critical art establishments still don’t fully understand. The establishment tends to categorize artists who work in the street as graffiti artists, not real artists. I remember when people were first talking about Keith Haring, and they were referring to him as a graffiti artist, something different than a real artist. So I’ve taken on as a mission, going back to the early 80s, through writings and exhibitions to explain that these artists were an inspiration for street culture, and that starts with the freedom of working on the street.

Photo: Courtesy of eL Seed

eL Seed, I wonder if you agree with Jeffrey? Do you find it challenging that you are categorized differently, you know, boxed into either real artist or street artist?
I am a street artist, because I paint in the street. I am a Middle Eastern artist, because I paint in Arabic. So I’m a Middle Eastern street artist. You always have to prove something. There are several levels of it. My point is to not get rid of that categorization; I know my roots and the roots of my art are the street, and the roots of my art are Arabic, but bringing it to a level where people don’t look at me as only this is the biggest challenge. Step by step, I am trying to work on that.

Jeffrey, I wanted to ask, do you speak Arabic?
No, I don’t.

Okay, I don’t speak Arabic either. eL Seed, how important is it for your audience to understand Arabic when they view your work?
Jeffrey: That’s a very good question.
eL Seed: There is something in Arabic street calligraphy that is amazing; it’s the fact that even if you don’t read or speak Arabic, there is this power in the script. The script reaches your soul before it reaches your eyes. Even if you don’t read it, it still creates an emotion for you. And for me that’s the point of the art. It can be seen as abstract. It is abstract in a way, but there are still the shapes of the letters. If you know how to read or write Arabic, you can decipher them. There was a point when I used to write the meaning in English or French, but I stopped doing that because when you don’t speak Arabic the first thing that you do, the first place your eyes go, is straight to what you recognize, and as a result you would lose this poetry that is there in the curve and everything. Also, it is a way for me to fight this kind of cultural imperialism where you always need to translate something to the language of the big powers so that everybody can understand it. I think that not doing that is a way to invite people to this language.

The script reaches your soul before it reaches your eyes. Even if you don’t read it, it still creates an emotion for you.

When people are interpreting your message – whether it might be pain, isolation, happiness – do you think they can tell what you are trying to say and understand the deeper ethos of the piece if they are non-Arabic speakers?
I think it creates an emotion differently. People see something differently. I call my work sometimes the liquid alphabet; my letters are just floating. Most of the time, people don’t look for the literal meaning. They come to me and say, “Is there a meaning or are these just letters that you form into a shape?” And then I say, “Yes, there is literal meaning,” and I point it out to them. But I think this is the amazing dimensional part of Arabic script; you can still create such beauty without writing anything that makes sense.

Turning to Tunisia, this whole book was about your discovery of the country. Can you please tell us something that you would want our readers to learn about Tunisia through your book and your experience?
For me, it was a way to show Tunisians in a different way. Because when you speak about Tunisia before the revolution, it was only about the coastal region like the beach, the sun, and the water. I went to Tunisia to show a deeper side to the country and to break away from the image the media has created since 2011. People only speak about Tunisia as a revolutionary country. When people say that I should go to this or that place where the revolution happened, I just think that the country is deeper than that. That was the point of showing another vision, of bringing back attention to the people of the country and showing that Tunisia has real history and real heritage that people have forgotten.

I read a lot about this Star Wars incident, wherein you painted one of the walls where the movie was shot in Tunisia. What that was that about and what did it mean to you?
You know there is a city called Tataouine in Tunisia, and when you speak of this city people say that it’s called Tatawin, because most of them still use the name George Lucas created for one of his planets in Star Wars. He used Tataouine as inspiration to create the name Tatawin. I was in Tatouine when I met this guy who was telling me that there were over 155 houses built for the film, with 11 of these houses being preserved by the government for tourism purposes. And when you check on the Tunisian tourism website, it tells you that this film set is part of our heritage. I got really angry about that. I got onto this Star Wars set, and there were no tourists, nobody. I found this guy who was laying down in one of the houses that George Lucas had built there, and he said, “Marhaba. Welcome. What are you doing here?” I said I was an artist doing a road trip in Tunisia, and I explained to him what I was doing here. I told him about the project and how I wanted to show people another face of Tunisia. I think that maybe he saw this as an opportunity for him; he thought that if I would talk about this place, maybe more people would come here. So he said I could paint wherever I wanted. It was like going to Disneyland and being allowed to paint on the magic castle. So, I painted. I made a joke, and I wrote, “I will never be your son.” The funny thing is the fact that when I posted it on Facebook, I got so much criticism from the Tunisian people. It makes me laugh actually, and I was happy to see that because it made my point.

You are in Dubai right now on residency with Tashkeel. How is Dubai? What do you think of it? Does it influence your work?
Artists here at Art Dubai are doing a lot. I love it. It is a good opportunity for artists to show their work, to bring their work onto the scene. The Middle East is active in these things. But the street art scene is still far away in Dubai. There is nothing in terms of street art, and people think that because they take a wood panel and paint it in the street that it becomes street art. Street art and art in the street are two different things. There is now a big effort in terms of education to show people that you can do street art and it can be a beautiful thing.

Street art and art in the street are two different things.

You recently did a collaboration with Louis Vuitton. How do you maintain your craft and your message and avoid becoming too commercial?
They came to me, and they asked me to do something. I was born and raised in France, so when such a big French brand comes to you, you do it. I thought about it before I did it. They gave me carte blanche to do my own thing. I put my message on the scarf, and that was the point of it. After that collaboration, I’ve had so many people approaching me, big commercial brands too.

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