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Tagging the World with Calligraphy and Hope: A Conversation With Street Artist eL Seed

By Alexandra Talty

Not many artists can claim an advanced business degree and a stint as a consultant. But for eL Seed, it’s just another part of the complex puzzle that makes him tick. Born in 1981, he was raised in Paris by Tunisian parents and started tagging as a teenager. Around the same time, he developed an interest in his family’s roots as he navigated the challenges of identifying as both French and Tunisian. He learned to read and write Arabic and even tried to study traditional calligraphy, but there weren’t enough other students interested to create a class, so he began to teach himself the sacred art form.

Today, eL Seed is one of the most innovative creators using the Arabic calligraffiti style, which melds traditional Arabic calligraphy with modern graffiti techniques. His projects have captured headlines and attention worldwide, in part for their provocative nature. “Perception,” his 2016 project with Cairo’s Zaraeb population, the Coptic Christians who collect and sort the city’s garbage, garnered headlines and awards like the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. It was both artistically challenging—he painted an anamorphic design over 50 buildings—as well as political in nature. With nothing more than a few spray cans, a message and the good will of the Zaraeb, eL Seed highlighted the plight of a relatively unknown minority community, shining the international spotlight on them, and, in turn, changing how they are perceived worldwide. Playboy caught up with the artist before he headed to Philadelphia for a mural project at Market and Preston Streets, which will be revealed to the public on November 18. In December, eL Seed heads to Miami for ArtBasel; he’s also hinted at a exhibition in New York City in 2018, but has not disclosed any more information.

You’ve built a career on going to places and highlighting issues that people aren’t talking about, like your project with the Zaraeeb, while maintaining the support of huge organizations. Is it hard to strike a balance between telling these narratives and not being too politicized?
I try to find a balance between people who like my work and want to pay me for it and then using that money to follow projects that I think are important. For example, my work with the Zaraeeb in Egypt, “Perception”—that was self-funded. Something called me there. I don’t know what. There is always a unique human emotion in what I do, but it’s always different.

If you follow that emotion, you can’t lose your balance because everything comes organically. I believe this. I don’t work for the praise that comes with big awards like the UNESCO prize. I do this because I think it is the right thing to do. If people like it, good. If people don’t like it, it’s good too.

In interviews you’ve said that Western media outlets will say you are “on an artistic campaign” or they will frame you as a “political revolutionary.” Do they treat Western artists that way? How does it make you feel?
It is a kind of neo-imperialism. I was born and raised in France. If I am able to do what I do today, it is because I am French Tunisian. As an artist, there are equal parts of the west and east in me. I’ve found a balance between those identities that makes people feel that I need to make a choice. They say, you can’t be over there and on this side. But you can do both. You can be east and west. You can be Arab and French.

My work has a political dimension because it is made in the street. When you make something in the public space, you engage the public. But even when I talk about topics, I still respect the opinions and culture of everyone.

That is the social responsibility I have. Create connections and dialogue because otherwise, we create war.

You recently worked with Shoe, one of the founders of the calligraffiti movement, at the city-wide graffiti installation in Lebanon, “White Walls Beirut.” What was that like?
I really believe there are no coincidences in life. I looked up to him when I was a kid and first interested in calligraffiti. You admire these people and you don’t realize that one day you’ll work with them. We met for the first time in 2013 in a show in New York and we had a long conversation about calligraffiti. Now, I don’t use that term for my work; I’ve moved on from it. It took a direction I’m not comfortable with.

You mean the connotation?
You say graffiti and everyone wants to put you in a box to define you by something. But that’s not all I am. I do sculpture, I do installations. They don’t consider these other definitions of art when they call me a calligraffiti artist. I don’t even write my name on the walls anymore. I write messages relevant to the people. I am an artist who wants to build bridges between people and culture and generations. I don’t like being called a graffiti artist.

You’ve said that outside the Arab world, when you write in Arabic script, there is a mistrust from a public that thinks you are writing about jihad. Have you seen that attitude change since you started your installations?
You can be hot-headed and not want to open your mind: you do that on purpose. Or you can you open your mind and try to understand the meaning behind that. I am not here to create a conflict. I want to open a dialogue to creates bridges between all of us. What is universal in my work actually is the beauty of Arabic script, not me. There is a universal beauty of the Arabic script so that anybody, even the most racist person can be like, okay this is really cool. A person’s intention matters. No matter what you see, you feel an emotion.

Traditional Arabic calligraphy is in decline in part because of modern inventions like the printing press and the computer. Do you see the interest in calligraffiti in the Arab world as a revival of this sacred art form?
You have this old-fashioned thing and that now has found itself, through graffiti, as being the language of the youth. It is not just someone in their workshop using old paper and old colors making some invitations for a wedding. It is something on the walls. That is cool. Graffiti is cool. And that’s why I think you have this revival.

How has social media has contributed to your success?
You put something on Instagram and you can have millions of people see it. That’s amazing, in itself. But for me, social media is not the purpose. It is the tool to share ideas, projects, art. It is a way to connect.

2017 has been a polarizing year for America. There isn’t a lot of dialogue between the left and the right. What role do you think street art can play in that environment?
In America, the people are from two different points of view. I think as an artist what you should do, no matter who you are, from which part of the side you are, you should be the tool to create the connection between the people who don’t speak together. Street art has a huge ability to create connections. For me, as an artist, that is the social responsibility that I have. It is important that we create connections and dialogue because otherwise, we create war.

In terms of creating a dialogue and having a social responsibility, which of your installations have achieved that the most?
My project in Cairo, “Perception.” We managed to bring back the life to a community that was totally segregated and marginalized. Nobody knew about them. One of the journalists that we were with, when she came to Cairo, her taxi driver didn’t even want to take her to [Manshiyat Naser, the neighborhood where the installation was.] People can change the perception of others. It is a project about people coming around the world, from the United States, to see it. It created a dialogue to bring people together.

Are your three-dimensional sculptures a new direction for you that you will continue?
I’m really focused on sculpture right now. It is an evolution. You always try to challenge yourself. It’s important for me to find new ways of exploring my art. Hopefully more of my work will be shown in the United States in 2018.