Graffiti creates positive human rights narratives in Lebanon

The blue graffiti reads: "Oh, my wonderful country." Photo by Nohad Elhajj.

Since the 17th of October 2019, Lebanon has been witnessing widespread public protests against the dire social, economic, and political conditions of the country. A first in the country’s history, forevermore divided by sectarianism, the protests showed and continue to show a shared and entrenched anger among Lebanese citizens from different sects and regions. The protesters are holding the government accountable for degrading living conditions and demanding serious and drastic changes. Taking a tour around Riyad El Soloh square in downtown Beirut, the epicenter of the uprising, a common daily scene unfolds: young people are chanting patriotic songs, others are cleaning the streets, many food kiosks are selling street food, tents are set up for public dialogues, and army forces are watching from afar. But something, equally alive, captivates the place: graffiti. Building walls, stone barriers, wooden panels, even the asphalt ground are all covered with graffiti. With their diverse slogans, creative motifs, and direct, uncensored political and social messages, the graffiti artists collectively illustrate the people’s discourse demanding a full-fledged social and political reform.

This year, Lebanese citizens were not the only ones who took the streets. Protests erupted globally in response to failed economic, political, social, and environmental governing systems where, both the global North and the global South, basic human rights are either threatened or violated and human rights defenders are either prosecuted or killed. This is not surprising as a new report by CIVICUS Monitor shows that people living in countries where civic freedoms are being violated have doubled compared to a year ago. Thus, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 71 this year, reflecting on the present status of human rights and the human rights movement is of utmost need. More importantly, we need to consider questions about the future of those rights and this movement. In his 2019 article, Thomas Coombes offers a new way to address the future of Human Rights with “hope-based communication”, which not only relays facts about a “broken” world to the public but also shifts their perspectives to dare to dream about a better one. The power of this strategy is its ability to transcend the human rights “sector” to be adopted by other sectors as well. Elif Shafak, a novelist and women’s rights activist, mentions that “We have entered an age in which we all need to become activists for human rights.” Similarly to Shafak’s use of novels to shift public perspectives on several human rights issues, Banksy, perhaps the most famous example of a well-known graffiti artist on a global scale, also uses his murals to provide strong social and political commentaries, such as his newest stunt depicting a migrant child in Venice.

Graffiti, as a visual act, can be leveraged as a participatory and accessible medium to shift public perspectives on human rights issues.

Graffiti is defined as “a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group”. The definition by itself poses a duality; would unauthorized marking of public space become positive communication? Would it possibly shift perspectives? Maybe not all, but some graffiti certainly does convey political messages. The question here is not about authority per se but the disruption of this authority. The act itself is intrinsically disruptive and political whether graffiti is acceptable or not. Starting from this understanding, graffiti, as a visual act, then can be leveraged as a participatory and accessible medium to shift public perspectives on human rights issues. Yet, the human rights movement does not only need to shift the public opinion but also to shift the current governance structures, which is beyond the impact of graffiti. The graffiti in Riyad El Soloh Square is a good illustration of this.

Graffiti is not new to the Lebanese society, but revolution graffiti is particular and powerful because of its relevance, the messages it conveys, and the places it occupies to convey these messages. The graffiti artists practiced their right to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and association, while communicating, directly and clearly, human rights demands from women rights, LGBTQ rights, economic and social rights to civil and political rights. (Shown in Pictures below).

Already screaming politics, this outburst of graffiti is even more powerful simply because of where it is taking place. The physical space the graffiti occupied has been considered for years sanctified, new, upscale, and highly segregated. Up until the 17th of October, downtown Beirut was a monochromatic, soulless, and mute part of a vibrant Beirut. It was hard to imagine that in only a few days, it would become the place of such a defiant artistic expression. And this art brought along with it an aspiration that one day, public spaces in the country will be open to everyone, and they will develop to be the epicenter for social and human interactions especially downtown. While all the graffiti work has been celebrated in the news outlets, the graffiti marking Al Amin Mosque and Saint George’s Cathedral has been removed rapidly.

The graffiti imposes itself on the observer and on the spaces it occupies with wit and audacity. It overwhelms the observer with emotions of anger, despair, longing and revolt but also with hope.

The Lebanese graffiti artists have pushed and merged both boundaries of political participation and art. The graffiti imposes itself on the observer and on the spaces it occupies with wit and audacity. It overwhelms the observer with emotions of anger, despair, longing and revolt but also with hope.

Much of this street art offers a thought-provoking mosaic of entangled messages and images. The graffiti above shows a white pigeon (a recurring image) combined with a strong slogan about workers’ rights; this combination conveys that those rights, and other demands, will be achieved in the future.

Similar to that, the graffiti at the beginning of this article offers another perplexing combination. The whole piece can be read as: “Oh my wonderful country, sectarianism burned us”. As much as it articulates a cry of despair with hurt and agony, it also retains the image of a wonderful country before civil war and a political system that has crippled it for the past 45 years. The generation who lived the war is still lamenting it and the following generations were still living in the resulting divisions and sectarianism—up until the 17th of October 2019. Akin to the protests, the graffiti captured a future hope of a country that will regain its glory after necessary social and political change.

The artists’ urge to mark every visible surface around Riad El Soloh square with spray paint and brushes placed them right in the middle of an already contested political and social scene, and it placed the rights discourse in the middle and around this scene. This graffiti proved to be a strong visual expression of all the protesters’ demands and a way to engage the public with it, both inside and outside Lebanon. Through their paint, these graffiti artists created a distinctive, unprecedented, and positive narrative about human rights in Lebanon: a narrative that more and more organizations and activists are now hanging onto.