Even for those with little background in the graffiti scene, French-Tunisian artist eL Seed is a voice you need to hear. Combining Arabic calligraphic traditions with modern graffiti art, eL Seed’s ‘calligraffiti’ engages with contemporary world events to stimulate discussion about politics and art, and promote tolerance between cultures.
Born in Paris in 1981 to Tunisian parents, eL Seed began his career on a much smaller, more modest scale, drawing, sketching and spray-painting walls throughout the streets of Paris. Having grown up speaking French and the Tunisian dialect of his parents, he did not learn to read or write Arabic until his late teens, when he discovered a deep love of and connection to his Arabic roots, along with their art, history and contemporary legacy. The title eL Seed was inspired at the age of 16 by the French work Le Cid, or ‘The Lord.’
Combining his love of street art with traditions of Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed has created a vibrant new form of ‘calligraffiti,’ a style originating in the late 1970s which combines graffiti and calligraphy. Dropping a career in business, he converted his passion for street art into a full-time career which allows him to embrace his heritage. His art draws on tradition in the belief that it can prompt important questions about contemporary issues, affecting tolerance and bringing people together. Different works of his art now adorn walls, buildings, museums, galleries and mosques around the world, from the streets of London and exhibitions in Paris to the road tunnels of Qatar, and even forays into the fashion industry in collaboration with Louis Vuitton, for whom he contributed designs for scarves.
Perhaps his most famous, even controversial work was the enormous 2012 mural on the minaret of the Jara Mosque in Gabès, Tunisia which drew worldwide media attention. Inspired by a verse from the Qur’an, the work calls for tolerance and mutual understanding between individuals and nations, particularly in response to the growing power of extremist, ultra-conservative Islamist groups since the 2011 revolution in Tunisia.
eL Seed’s art seeks to celebrate communication, open-mindedness and freedom in opposition to such restraints on art. He says the project was ‘not about decorating a mosque,’ but ‘about making art a visible actor in the process of cultural and political change’ and that ‘art can bring about fruitful debate, especially within the uncertain political climate right now in Tunisia.’ His work thus challenged the inevitably less positive attention surrounding the Jara Mosque mural, which tried to present the work as ‘haram’ or blasphemous. While Tunisian blogs and social media lauded the project, major news channels and newspapers refrained from mentioning it, a fact which the artist finds ‘disappointing,’ reflecting a widespread ‘desire to divide and create polemics in order to feed the news channels, rather than promote an advancement of dialogue and fruitful national debates.’ Luckily, international attention surrounding the piece was far more positive, with newspapers and television all extolling the project.
For eL Seed, art becomes a way to challenge intolerance from both religious extremists and liberals. His goal for the Jara mosque was ‘to bring people together, which is why I chose these words from the Qur’an’ which declare “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other”.’ He enjoys the democratic potential of street art such as graffiti which ‘brings art to everyone’. ‘Before the revolution art in Tunisia was quite bourgeois, but if you put big pieces of art on walls it is for everyone.’ He discusses how street art has spread in Tunisia since the revolution, and proudly declares, ‘I hope it will inspire other people to do crazy projects and not to be scared.’
While the Arabic language used in his work might baffle all those who cannot read the script and thus mean that they miss the nature of its message, eL Seed is confident that the shape, colour and pattern of his art can be appreciated by all. Accentuating the complexity of calligraphy, he shows how each letter can be moulded in hundreds of ways, explaining how much of his work is ‘about letting the viewer interact with the letters without necessarily being able to read them.’
He emphasises the spontaneous, instinctual nature of his works, which he only undertakes when inspired by certain locations or ideas, and after minimal planning. He declares, ‘sometimes if I see a wall on the side of the road, I just paint it.’ ‘Whatever I write, I try to make it relevant to the place.’ With regard to colour, he states ‘sometimes I try to make it a mixture so it blends into the surroundings, and sometimes I try to clash with the surroundings. I want to make sure that it comes out.’
He also undertook his ‘Lost Walls’ project (now recorded in book form) travelling around lesser-known locations in Tunisia which, although they are rarely frequented by tourists or businesses, nevertheless hold historical or cultural significance. One of the stops on his journey was the small town of Akouda, where one of his designs painted on the steps of the old mosque was quickly vandalised, ripped from the wall. However, surprisingly, eL Seed explains ‘I was glad that it created this kind of reaction with some people,’ as it worked to prompt and nurture debate about the place of art in Islam. In eL Seed’s eyes, people’s reactions and comments were ‘not even a clash, more like a historical [conversation] and I loved it.’
For eL Seed, calligraffiti and street art represent not only the two extremely different traditions from which they are descended, but the possibility of a better, more integrated future. His art aims to open a doorway to communication and acceptance across cultures and nations through better understanding and mutual tolerance. He concludes ‘I hope to get across to people that dialogue leads to positive encounters. I always hope to break a few stereotypes or barriers each time I paint.’