Make Art Not War

In Amman, street art gets a festival

By / July 2016

I stand in a parking lot with other gawkers watching three graffiti artists paint a six hundred square-foot mural about comical characters from outer space. From atop a hydraulic lift they deftly manipulate their spray cans to create a woman aiming a scepter at Saturn. She’s pregnant. Behind her is the head of snarling gorilla. Naturally he wears a baseball cap, a chain necklace.

And he’s staring intently at three fat space babies floating across a purple galaxy. I don’t really understand the meaning of the picture but like the other bystanders I find it entertaining, not least because I’m not in L.A. or New York but rather on Ali Nassau At Taher Street in Amman.

The mural is part of Baladk, a street-art festival that began in 2013. The purpose of Baladk (Arabic for “your country”) is to celebrate freedom of expression by beautifying the streets of Amman’s theater district. Mu’ath Isaeid, the festival director, told me that when he got the idea he didn’t know any local graffiti artists so he just bought paint and broadcasted an invitation for people to come spray the walls.

The one-off event erupted into a into an annual festival. It was so successful that Mu’ath started looking to bring in professionals. The second year he had budget enough to fund one professional artist. He brought two others who paid their own way. This year, Mu’ath says, he had to turn people away. They had seventy-five applicants for twenty-five slots.

As Mu’ath and I watch the artists move around the crane I see the stress on his face. He is overseeing projects in five neighborhoods around Amman. He moves from site to site delivering food, paint, brushes, ladders and anything else the artists need. He said the budget for Baladk remains small and that delays are expensive. The cranes cost $280 a day. The cost of importing the paint used by the artists is over $2,800, though donations from paint companies and business owners help stretch the budget.

Photograph by Danny Wright

Photograph by Danny Wright

In the lead up to the event, Mu’ath scours neighborhoods looking for the best venues and then asks property owners for permission to paint their walls. Most are receptive to the idea but sometimes the owners back out at the last minute. Occasionally, people will even paint over their murals soon after they are completed. “But we don’t quit simply because someone painted over a few pieces of art,” he said with a look of fierce determination. “We will find other walls! Art should not be confined only to museums and galleries. Art should be available to everyone.”

Mohammed Abu Hakem, one of the artists who worked on the space mural, says that his team loves to come to Jordan for Baladk because of the way festival-goers respond. “The thing that drives us crazy about coming to Amman,” Mohammed, who goes by Monsterain, says, “is how much the people appreciate what we are doing. We have had like thirty people approach us to ask if we will do a wall for their kids or for their business.”

Monsterain, a native of Philadelphia, currently lives in Kuwait. He travels with Kuz, a team of Middle Eastern architects and businessmen with a passion for graffiti. At the festival, they wear cutoff shorts, tee shirts, sporting earrings and tattoos. But up close I encounter articulate, educated men who, with a quick change of clothes, could easily blend into the corporate world. Kuz is the Arabic word for “cone,” as in the cone shape of the spray coming from an aerosol paint can. This is the second year Kuz has participated in Baladk.

Spray paint is the fastest way to create a mural but even then a team of three to four painters will spend as much as sixteen hours on each mural. Monsterain said the artists get so caught up in the work that they sometimes forget to eat and drink. “We force ourselves to take a break,” he said, “only when we start feeling weak and dizzy.”

When the members of Kuz collaborate on a project they start by comparing drawings from their sketch books. “I look at their sketches and they study mine,” Monsterain said. “When you collaborate you take bits and pieces of the other artists and by applying their ideas you improve your own art.”

Mike V. Derderian, aka “Sardine,” is a local radio personality, writer, and artist who works with some of Amman’s younger graffiti enthusiasts. It’s Sardine’s fourth year to participate in Baladk. “This is a rite of passage for the youngsters,” he told me. “We are passing the torch to them and giving them an opportunity to do what we have been doing for years.”

While Kuz is painting in the business district, Sardine and his team have been challenged with the task of beautifying a wall surrounding the Terra Sancta Catholic School near the center of Amman. The students attack the project with youthful enthusiasm as thumping rap music blares from the open trunk a black Toyota belonging to one of the painters. The influence of American pop culture is evident in their art but the richness of their Middle East upbringing also comes through.

Photograph by Danny Wright

They stand at their section of the wall surrounded by brushes, rollers, and spray cans. Every few minutes they stop painting to study their sketches and consult with other artists. Some of the female artists are dressed in the traditional Islamic hijab while other girls wear colorful bandanas. None of the youth seem to mind that their clothes, arms, and hair are splattered with paint.

In a barren section of the wall someone has taken a spray can and written “Make art not war,” a clear reference to the turmoil and fighting in neighboring countries. Drivers slow down or stop completely to watch. Several take pictures with their cell phones.

Sardine said feedback from the community has been very positive. Even the police, typically wary of graffiti, have been encouraging. In Jordan, Graffiti is considered vandalism if it is not approved. Some local artists have been arrested for unauthorized tagging. “There are a few who prefer the gray walls and have even painted over our murals,” Sardine said. “But most people tell us they love it.”

Baladk is sponsored by the Al Balad Theater, a multicultural community center that showcases local artists, musicians, writers and performers. Since its inception in 2013 the number of artist wanting to participate has increased exponentially. Amman has no shortage of art galleries, the most revered of which is the Jordanian National Gallery of Fine Art, which houses over two thousand paintings and sculptures, and yet artists here must balance freedom of expression with the expectations of decency befitting an Islamic culture.

Baladk is an event that exposes Jordanians to non-traditional forms of art. “Art,” Mu’ath said, “is not a luxury that can be taken for granted. With Baladk, we are reclaiming the walls and the streets with art and we are not hurting anyone.”


Danny Wright is a writer living in Jordan.