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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
            Back to Open Skies

Travel to Dubai


Painting a city

30 July 2018

Anathema to graffiti purists, street art has been embraced the world over, particularly in Dubai. But can it be pushed creatively?

It started, as most cultural movements do, with an act of defiance. Street art was born in New York City in the late 1960s, when kids would scratch their names into walls. Soon, those scratches became paint, and crude tags became works of art. Some of the early taggers in that chaotic period turned into world famous artists, like Keith Haring or Lee Quiñones, whose work now hangs in galleries rather than on street corners. Many New Yorkers at the time saw the burgeoning movement as nothing more than vandalism. They would be shocked at the global acceptance it has now won. The art has spread out from New York’s five boroughs to become a global movement, embraced everywhere from São Paulo to Shanghai. But it has been Dubai’s takeup of the practice that has perhaps been the most unusual.

From the relatively new City Walk to the long established streets of Karama, it’s hard to travel anywhere in Dubai in 2018 without coming across pieces of large scale outdoor art. Take the Dubai Street Museum, where sixteen large murals cropped up around 2nd December Street, created by a host of global artists including German maestro Case Maclaim, and the Russian Julia Volchkova.

City Walk, a hip outdoor complex in Al Wasl, has also embraced the art form. Its developer Meraas brought in 15 international street artists to produce work as part of another initiative, Dubai Walls. The breadth of the work showed the possibilities this art form offers – from Blek Le Rat’s whimsical stencils to D*Face’s large-scale pop art. One of the most interesting pieces is from American Beau Stanton. He described his lenticular mural, which used the angular blocks of a building to create three separate perspectives, as one of the most challenging pieces he has ever created.

The common thread running through these pieces? They were all commissioned. Aside from the odd tag here and there, street art in Dubai is very much a sanctioned activity – from the tourist board, perhaps, or brands hoping to to co-opt their coolness. For the artists, they get a blank canvas (how blank depends on the tightness of the brief) and, crucially, they get paid. It’s not just in Dubai that this is happening, and it can make for strange bedfellows.

In 2012, the European Central Bank gave €10,000 to a group of local artists to paint a fence that surrounded the renovation work on its new Frankfurt headquarters. Soon, the art began to criticise the ECB: outlandish caricatures of the ECB’s president and Angela Merkel appeared alongside critiques of the Eurozone and capitalism. Despite the inflammatory nature of the work, the ECB reacted positively, even buying one of the panels to hang inside its headquarters. The fence garnered huge media reaction, became a tourist attraction and showed the bank in a different light. Much of this, of course, is anathema to the purists, who still view the art form as something that should be a rage against the machine, rather than enabled by it. Listen to the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy, who in an interview with Village Voice, said: “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.” It’s easy, of course, to treat artists as somehow on a higher plane than the rest of us. But, like the rest of us, they need to eat too, and brands – in Dubai at least – provide a platform for artists to create and get paid.

You would be hard pushed to find an artist who didn’t welcome the city’s embrace of the art form. For Gary Yong, a Dubai-based, Malaysian-born artist, the city’s willingness to push street art makes sense. “Dubai has a strong consumer culture and it’s no surprise that brands will use street art to reach a certain demographic. It’s not a bad thing as it sustains artists, and they sometimes get to say something to the audience as well. It’s really up to both brand and artist to use the platform wisely.”

For Fathima Mohiuddin, a Dubai-born artist who runs creative artists services company The Domino, that means turning down a few jobs. “We do turn down a fair bit of work we get offered from brands. We try to avoid copying other artists’ work, painting just logos, working for free in exchange for ‘exposure’, that sort of thing. We try to make sure there is an actual original and creative requirement in the projects we take on. We do work to a lot of briefs but that isn’t always a bad thing because it does push you as an artist as well. So we look at projects that meet a client’s criteria but still inspire and challenge us creatively.”

And whether the work you see in Dubai was originally conceived in a brand manager’s office or the mind of a young spray painter, it’s hard not to be impressed. From City Walk to Satwa, Alserkal Avenue to Karama, street art serves multiple functions: at the most basic level it brightens the place up and helps keep the residents happy. It acts as a tourist attraction, and says to the world: we get it. A city that embraces street art (rather than simply painting over it) is a city that understands youth culture and the fact that what is defined as such, is constantly changing.

What hasn’t changed is the battle between commercial realities and the pure artistic sense of the people doing the creating. That, according to Mohiuddin, is inevitable. “In other major cities there’s public funding for local artists and projects around street art as part of community development projects. That hasn’t really happened in Dubai yet, though there’s talk about it, so the people spending the money on these projects are the corporates. What we try to do in working with commercial entities is to push for substance and integrity to stay intact.

According to Rollan Rodriguez of the Brown Monkeys, one of the region’s oldest street art collectives, it’s up to the artists to set their own boundaries. “Commercialism can be good in that it promotes artists and pays them, but usually the person paying decides on the subject matter. It’s up to each artist to decide what they are comfortable with and go from there.” The Brown Monkeys hark back to the graffiti crews of the late seventies and early eighties and, according to Rollan, “trust and brotherhood” drives the group. “When we get a new project, we instinctively know to whom the project will fall. We all select projects based on what excites us.”

It was inevitable that street art moved from the street to the gallery. Tucked amidst the white-washed villas and Bougainvillea of Jumeirah 1, the Street Art Gallery is the first in Dubai to focus on street art. Opened by StephaneValici, a fifty-something French entrepreneur in 2013, the gallery is filled with work by the likes of Mr Brainwash and prints by Damien Hirst. With work costing from $600 to $10,000 plus, it’s not cheap, but it’s a good indicator of how far the genre has come, not least in Dubai.

So what of the future? Mohiuddin believes that a focus solely on the bottom line isn’t healthy. “We have to ask what art can ‘do’ beyond money and that goes back to community development, outreach, education, awareness,” she says.

“Street art projects shouldn’t just be about flying in the biggest name or marketing strategies because it’s trendy. There needs to be more of an emphasis on what the community needs, and support for that, so there isn’t as much pressure to work with corporates and initiatives with more substance and social value can happen.”

Local players…

eL Seed
A French/Tunisian artist born in Paris, eL Seed is one of the most successful street artists in the Middle East.

Founder of the The Domino, FathimaMohiuddin is a visual artist and entrepreneur, who has created some of the most striking street art in Dubai.

Brown Monkeys
A seven-member collective hailing from the Philippines, Brown Monkeys have been bringing their own particular take on the world to Dubai since 2007.

Sya One
A graffiti rather than street artist, UK’s Sya One specialises in colourful old school lettering.

Art in the wild

Alserkal Avenue
The home of Dubai’s cutting-edge art scene, Alserkal Avenue hosts galleries such as Grey Noise, Ayyam, LawrieShabibi, The Third Line and Carbon 12. A great place to purchase work by the region’s leading street artists and soak up the city’s new breed of culture.

Dubai Street Museum
Twelve artists from around the world painted 16 huge murals on several buildings along 2nd December Street in Satwa, each highlighting the artist’s own culture.

Long known for its sartorial bargains, Karama is now known for its public art with 24 huge murals brightening the sides of 12 apartment blocks and shops in the district. Both local and international artists created the pieces, which reflect the diverse nature of the district.

City Walk
Fifteen street artists from around the world have created pieces for the City Walk development, from Ron English’s old school ‘wildstyle’, to RONE’s ethereal portraits or Blek Le Rat’s quirky stencils.

Sweat and tears

Our cover image this issue, The Greatest of Mysteries, is an immersive mural from artist Myneandyours that fills an entire carpark in design hub D3

“This was one of the most physically enduring and time-consuming pieces I’ve ever done. We decided it had to be a 360 degree experience, so we painted on the walls and the ceiling to really allow for that immersion.

The first hurdle was getting the massive scissor lift into the carpark. We had to work at night when there were less cars, so we did a 7pm-7am day – I’d have breakfast at 5pm. But it was kind of fitting, as we were painting the night sky. When it comes to a ceiling and painting above you for hours on end… it was super painful. We tried to calculate how many stars we painted and it was around 50,000. Having said all that, I think this is one of my proudest pieces.”

And the global

A trio of German artists who paste large, often manipulated photographs onto public spaces. They have created work across the world, often focusing on activism and they teamed up with Amnesty International for a series of work focusing on prisoners languishing on death row.

Hailing from Madrid, SpY appropriates the urban everyday. Witness his natural grass circle in the centre of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, or his large scale ‘Error’ painting in Norway. His work is filled with humour and he is one of the most exciting artists working today.

JR is a NY photographer who focuses on social change through the art he creates. He specialises in large-scale, spectacular projects. To give just one example, his ‘Inside Out’ project saw thousands of portraits of locals and tourists being erected on Times Square.

Anthony Lister
The Australian has gained a reputation as one of the most naturally gifted of the current crop of artists, using everything from spray paint to charcoal, oil to acrylic. Incorporating both high and lowbrow culture, a twisted sense of humour can be seen throughout his work.