Sorry, what is calligraffiti?

Check the contemporary art form mixing graffiti and Arabic calligraphy

Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman
Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman
Majid Alyousef Image #2
Majid Alyousef
Waroox Image #3
Haji Noor Deen Image #4
Haji Noor Deen

Calligraffiti merges the traditional forms of calligraphy with street art to create a potent mix of works in the first ever show devoted to this art form in the emirate. Sarah Harvey takes a closer look.

Cast aside those ignorant notions of calligraphy never being able to transcend anything more than a succession of swirly quill twirls and ornate penmanship. New gallery Street Art Dubai, located in Jumeirah, is set to turn that viewpoint squarely on its head in a new show that fuses calligraphy with street art.

Calligraffiti is, as the name suggests, a combination of calligraphy and graffiti. Calligraphy, or the art of writing letters or symbols, has many forms, from the most revered Chinese brush characters to Arabic scripts via the dramatic precision of Gothic scriptures. The result is a heady mash-up of this traditional handwriting form with the humorous and subversive attitude of street art.

The show treads new ground for Street Art Dubai’s founders Stephane Vallici and Thomas Perreaux Forest.And the style is gaining momentum. ‘Calligraffiti is becoming recognised as an art form and has grown in popularity globally in the past two years alone. Two big shows took place in the US last year and we are putting on the first exhibition of this kind in the Gulf.’

‘This is a writing show,’ adds Stephane. ‘Calligraffiti is essentially calligraphy done by street artists, depending on where they are from. The style is mainly based on Arabic and Chinese calligraphy or it can be European, too, where artists play with Latin letters.’

Stephane certainly has an eye for the form and has pulled off something of a feat in curating a show that weaves the delicate beauty of calligraphy with the frenzied energy of street art. The fifteen artists in the exhibition include works from Arabic calligraphers based in the UAE who interpret the script in a modern sense to a street artist who is considered to be the foremost innovator of 3D graffiti to a world-renowned master of Arabic calligraphy hailing from Shandong Province in China.

‘There are lots of calligraphy exhibitions that take place in Dubai but they tend to be calligraphy-based. Since we announced we wanted to do a calligraffiti show we’ve had lots of local artists coming to the gallery wanting to show their work. It gives them an outlet they’ve never had before, because Dubai has strict rules about how street art is seen here.’

Take a glance at these works in the flesh and you’re immediately gripped by what is aesthetically possible with calligraffiti; but do the words always translate into something? ‘A lot of the artists are just playing around with lettering, it often doesn’t mean anything,’ says Stephane. ‘Some artists don’t know Arabic calligraphy for example, but want to be part of the show because they like to meet other calligraphers to develop their writing.’

One piece that certainly resonates is by Saudi calligrapher Majid Alyousef. A prominent local artist, he has created calligraphy for the Islamic Art Museum in Doha and has contributed to books for HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Combining Arabic script, typography and digital art, he has created his own modern compositions using bold colours reminiscent of Picasso. One such work in the show is a piece, which literally translated, means ‘love’. Any which way you hold the painting, the word reads the same.

One of the most famous artists in the show is Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman. Hailed as a pioneer of calligraffiti, the Dutchman started out with just a spray can in Amsterdam in 1979. Tagging his name ‘Shoe’, he quickly gained notoriety. Today, he creates huge typographical paintings using a broom to create works that toy with themes of existence and outer space using his unruly brand of Gothic text that he has developed over the years. In one piece, he has taken a black and white photo of the singer Elvis Costello and placed his wholly distinctive lettering on the top. ‘It’s difficult to find original pieces from Meulman,’ says Stephane. ‘I had to call a friend in Paris to get him to send this one, we are lucky to have him.’

It is almost impossible to not be drawn in by this genre and it can’t be surprising that Stephane is excited about the realms of possibility the show brings especially to local artists looking to develop their own brand
of calligraffiti.

So what of the future for the art form in Dubai? ‘I had to dig to find calligraffiti artists through friends and contacts, then I found maybe 100 artists and I had to choose 15 to showcase. We want to do a calligraffiti show every year with more artists. We want to give artists a chance to put at least one piece on a wall.’

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Calligraffiti’ until 31 July, Street Art Dubai, Jumeirah (055 515 7976)
Artist: Various
Price of works: On request

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