Typographer and graffiti writer have their love for letters in common


Don Karl aka Stone ist Style Writer, Autor und Verleger. Er lernte den arabischen Typografen Pascal Zoghbi während eines Workshops in Beirut kennen. Sie wurden Freunde und in Kürze (Mitte April) erscheint ihr erstes gemeinsames Buch im Verlag From Here To Fame Publishing: “Arabic Graffiti”. Lukas Weber und ich haben im Januar mit ihnen über die Zusammenarbeit und den Stellenwert von Typografie und Graffiti im nahen Osten gesprochen.

Das Interview wurde im aktuellen Slanted Magazin #13 abgedruckt. Groteskerweise hat sich jedoch eine Textverkettung gelöst und somit beginnt das Interview sowohl auf Seite 112 als auch auf Seite 113. Aus diesem Grund präsentieren wir das Interview hier nochmals in voller Länge – und vorallem, weil es sich zu lesen lohnt!

Julia Kahl & Lukas Weber_Don, you’re graffiti writer and CEO of the publishing house “From Here To Fame Publishing.” In 2003 you travelled to Cuba with your group Cubabrasil to paint graffitis which was completely new to people living there. To what extend are you turning into a cultural or political task in being a publisher / writer?

Don_That’s a good question! Graffiti writing is commonly considered as non-political, I think that this is strange, considering that probably no other art movement in history has ever created such a fuzz with so many politicians or constantly caused new changes of the laws. The former mayor of New York, Ed Koch said: “Make your mark in society, not on society.” There are many graffiti writers that hold important roles in culture and art, and other areas of our society today show that both of it works instead.

During your stay in Cuba some dissident projects came into existence. Did you plan them from the beginning on? What about the Goethe Institute and UNESCO who financed your trip?

Don_No, we did not plan any dissident work in advance, this was a reaction of the artists on what happened to us there. We did not want to indoctrinate anyone, or pose as colonial masters distributing the blessings of Western democracy. But there was indeed from the beginning the subversive plan to introduce graffiti to Cuba with every-thing that comes along with it. And what that actually meant was something that did not reveal to the authorities when our spray cans arrived by ship. Goethe and UNESCO supported us, but the whole five year project has been almost exclusively been financed by the artists and myself.

Forthcoming the new book “Arabic Graffiti” will be published at From Here To Fame Publishing. You have been working side by side for that book. How did you get to know each other?

Pascal_In 2008 Don organized a graffiti workshop at Zico House, Beirut entitled “Bombing Beirut” and asked me to be the Arabic typographer assistant in the workshop. During the workshop I got to meet Don along most of the Lebanese Graffiti crews. Since then I started documenting the Arabic graffiti scene in Beirut and sharing my findings with Don who was visiting Beirut on a regular bases. We ended up as close friends and shared the thought of creating a book about Arabic graffiti in the near future.

Don_In 2008 I gave a graffiti workshop for artists and designers in Beirut, with the great name “Bombing Beirut.” I was already looking for people that did write graffiti with Arabic or wanted to. Pascal was a participant in the workshop. With his vast knowledge of the Arabic script he helped a lot and afterwards we became good friends.

Pascal is typographer and type designer, Don is a graffiti writer. How did your views (especially concerning types / fonts) differ from each other? How may I imagine the work-sharing?

Pascal_Since my graduation from Type and Media at KABK (Royal Academy of arts) I was interested in the urban type and underground graffiti scene. Don and I both understand the structure of the letters and respect their spirit. There was no difference in opinion but a shared value for type drawing and link between typography, graffiti and calligraphy. Calligraphy is the base for professional type designing and graffiti; hence both words stem from the same source.

Don_The collaboration worked perfectly. Typographer and graffiti writer have their love for letters in common. The work was divided along the content, especially when it came to the Arabic script, which I can not read nor write. Which is why, for example when selecting the artists for me it were more the abstract aesthetics of her work which were important, while for Pascal the message – what is written – was much more important. That was just perfect for this book. Like this we illuminated two areas quite wonderfully: The socio-political importance of the political graffiti, street art and graffiti writing on-site in the Middle East and the “State of the art” by artists from around the world, who integrate contemporary Arabic calligraphy into graffiti writing .

Arabic Calligraphy and graffiti seem to be two different things that don’t belong together. If I look at works such as “Calligraffiti” by Niels SHOE Meulman (the indirect forerunner of “Arabic Graffiti”), there used to be parallels. What do you think?

Pascal_Calligraphy can be directly spotted in some graffiti piece while completely absent from others depending on the background of the graffiti artist and the knowledge he / she has on the drawing of letters. During the research that Don and I did for the Arabic Graffiti book, we noticed that some graffiti artists inspire their writing directly from contemporary Arabic calligraphy while others base their work on pure experimental typography that have no link what so ever with traditional nor contemporary graffiti. It is directly linked to the educational and social background of the graffiti artist.

Don_You do not have to look for the parallels, they are obvious. Graffiti writing, especially in the form of tags is as much calligraphy, like any other traditional European, Asian or Arabic calligraphy. This does not mean that every tagger is automatically also a good calligrapher. But Hassan Massoudy, who is most likely the most famous contemporary Arab calligrapher loves to see tags in the street. In his chapter in our book, he says that the graffiti and Arabic calligraphy are two daughters of the same parents. The artists we present in this book explain this context as well, all alone by their work.

The Arabic graffiti scene appears to be very young and in our country nearly unknown. How old is that scene and how has it been developed?

Pascal_The underground graffiti scene started in Beirut around 2002 and grew stronger from 2005 till our present time. In Palestine, graffiti was used as a powerful tool during and after the intifada that started in 2001. Iranian graffiti artists rebel against the government and the socio-political situation with sarcastic messages and drawings in Tehran. In the other remaining Arab nations the graffiti scene is still very shy or completely absent. Hence Arabic graffiti in the Arab nations is still young but with a strong message. On the other hand, we can find professional European artist from Arab origins painting contemporary Arabic graffiti on the streets of Paris, London, Berlin, etc.

Don_Graffiti in the Far and the Near East probably has been around for much longer than in the West. After all, it was there where the alphabet was invented. It is important to understand that we do not talk about Arab countries, but about the Arabic script. The countries where this is used are numerous; this is a huge part of our planet. And many artists with roots in these countries live in the diaspora in Europe or North America. The international graffiti writing and street art movement in the Middle East is still relatively young, but everywhere you can find writers and urban artists. Tehran has an important and great street art scene and parts of Beirut are now as full of tags and stencils like Berlin. That nobody knows about this here, has probably to do with the ignorance and stereotypes about the Orient that are fostered with great care in the West.

How does it work exactly? Is it working pure typographic or is it resisting the veto of images?

Pascal_The most prominent are typographic, Arabic type is so flexible and fluid that it allows the artist to experiment internally with it.

Don_This is just one of those stereotypes, where does a ban on images still exist? In Beirut, an advertisment with a twenty meter bikini girl will sprawl beside a smiling Mr Hassan Nasrallah! I think in our book, you get a good look into what is going on. It shows examples of calligraphic art in public space: the marks and signs in the bazaar of Tripoli, writings on trucks and buses and beautiful religious graffiti from Bahrain. Just as political graffiti from Gaza and Palestine or the stencils of the militias in Lebanon. All that is traditionally written in Arabic script. A small but important part in the book is covering street art, for example with the Santa Ghetto Project by Banksy on the Israeli wall in the West Bank. And then the graffiti writers: they belong to a global movement, in which for more than forty years, thousands of artists have developed their styles and codes in Latin script. These are 
now being translated into the Arabic writing system, just as it has already happened in Japan and other Asian countries with their writing systems.

Pascal, as mentioned you are mainly working as a type designer. Among other things you designed the FF Seria Arabic with Martin Majoor in 2009 – the first Arabic font in distribution of FontShop. We have been wondering about the late acceptance of Arabic fonts in the western assortment. What do you think about that?

Pascal_Young contemporary Arabic type designers are behind the design of the FontFont Arabic collection that give the assortment a fresh feel and variety in style. The fonts are designed with a unique twist and reflect the present need of Arabic fonts whether bilingual Arabic / Latin or solely Arabic. Most of the fonts are drawn based on the traditional Arabic calligraphy but with a modern aspect to them.

Your blog 29letters is dealing with the confusion of Arabic fonts and the type style of the west. Your work is somehow an educating one, because this theme is really spacious, nearly unknown and less explored. Do you feel the Arabic world and the west are increasingly affecting each other?

Pascal_The Arab design scene is always influenced by its western counterpart. The Arabs always see the west as more advanced and consider the design styles more elaborated even though that might not be the case. It happened that in the past decade the awareness to the richness of the Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art grew and international recognition was focused an Iranian and Arabic typography and design. In my opinion the affect on the Arabic and western design is mutual and there is a higher collaboration between western and Arabic designers working on bilingual projects using the Arabic and Latin script. Personally I have collaborated with western designers based in Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Geneva, New York, Chicago, etc. for typographic and corporate identities project for companies in the Arab region especially the gulf Area.

What have you both learned from each other while working together?

Pascal_I learned a lot from Don about graffiti art. I learned a lot about the process of creating graffiti and techniques behind it during the workshop in 2008, and widened my knowledge about the international graffiti scene and artist during our work on the book in Berlin 2010.

Don_Without Pascal I could have never made this book, I have learned a lot from him on Arabic typography and script. Both of us have probably learned how relatively easy it can be to make such a complex project. This was also due to the many top-notch authors and artists that we could win for this book and who were enthusiastic about our idea. They all wait now to finally hold the finished work in their hands …

Das Buch “Arabic Graffiti” erscheint voraussichtlich Mitte April im From Here To Fame Publishing Verlag. Wir werden es dann auf dem Blog vorstellen.