The Impact Of The Beirut Graffiti Scene With Exist

Working as a graffiti artist and graphic designer in Beirut, Exist has been a practicing artist for 8 years now. ‘Growing up in a Middle Eastern surrounding that carries a language of intense depth, I believe that letters hold more than descriptions—they can translate situations, emotions and communicate with the underlying energy that they carry’ he says, introducing the basis of his craft. ‘It’s an experience of interaction whether it’s voiced out, written, or deconstructed and painted.’ 

Lettering graffiti collaboration with @spazuno and @gardpam
Collaboration with @spazuno and @gardpam

The attitude and philosophy of painting on public canvases is as important to Exist as the practice itself. ‘It uses public spaces is an open gate to interaction and influence—when a wall is painted, the artwork doesn’t only belong to the artist’, he explains. ‘It teaches so many lessons on expressing without expectations and lessons on detachment…we like to get attached to things and I don’t find that healthy!’ His inclination to create and express his ideas without holding onto too much control, ownership or attachment filters through from the diverse places he draws his inspiration and influences from—take Jazz, for example. 

‘I consider music a very necessary catalyst’, he tells us. ‘Being a visual communicator, it feels strange sometimes that my sensitivity to sound is stronger than to visuals! But Jazz has been a huge influence in the past couple of years—it being merged with Hiphop music, its strong aspect of improvisation, and it being a movement that feeds on change and evolution…Jazz stops evolving only when it becomes repetitive and stops changing over the years, and you know, graffiti is very similar. It has a foundation and a set of principles, but there is endless room for creativity and integrating other influences. That’s why we see an endless amount of styles and approaches in this field today.’ 

Lettering graffiti collaboration with @spazuno in Beirut
Collaboration with @spazuno in Beirut
Arabic Lettering, Exist
Arabic Lettering, Exist
Exist graffiti lettering, Belgium 2019
Exist Lettering, Belgium 2019

Currently part of two collectives or crews—REK, and RBK (Representing Bravest Kids/Reinventing Beautiful Kalligraphies)—Exist says Beirut’s graffiti scene is fairly small; there’s around 10 active artists he knows of alongside a few who started painting more recently, which he accounts to the impact of graffiti during the ongoing revolution. ‘This movement started in 2006, with a dedication to re-appropriate colours and the act of writing on walls that was used since the civil war in 1975 and even before, for marking territories of militias and political parties’ he explains. ‘Dedicated artists continue to carry this message generation after generation.’

With REK and RBK being the most active crews in Beirut at the moment, he says the two groups bring together ‘diverse styles and directions’ across cultures, with members from Lebanon, France, Germany and Switzerland to Brazil, Colombia and Australia. ‘What keeps the crew together is constant support and the ability to accept one another with a unified purpose; breaking cultural and ethnic barriers for the sake of sharing art and influencing our surroundings’, he says.

"Divine Messenger" lettering graffiti collaboration with @spazuno
“Divine Messenger” collaboration with @spazuno

Although embarking on a visual communication and graphic design major, Exist refused to finish his degree, instead deciding to purse his career through working in the field and gaining experience off his own back. ‘I found my potential and that of many others being drained by institutions, so I decided to do it differently’, he reflects. ‘After a few years of painting classic Latin graffiti, I started merging what I learned with Arabic language. My work revolves around constant experimentation on the thin line between repetition, and creating something new…There’s always a lot of room for the magic of improvisation.’

In the spirit of accepting movement, evolution and change, Exist is currently exploring different mediums and materials to express the philosophy behind his pieces in new and exciting ways. He describes his style as a fusion of Latin and Arabic characters, explaining that a lot of his works have an S instead of the Arabic س, which has a very similar sound. ‘With a fluid and exaggerated spirit, it is a process of creating visuals that break the margins of limitations and insecurities. Each curve, each corner reflects different specificities and tribulations belonging to both Latin and Arabic lettering traditions—using and exploring one another’, he explains.

Palestinian lettering painted at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.
Palestine lettering painted at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.
Al Kalima - The Word woodwork deconstructed lettering
Al Kalima – The Word woodwork deconstructed lettering

Recently, Exist’s been working with wood structures as his medium; woodworking based on ‘fundamentals of the Arabic alphabet merged with the loose nature of graffiti lettering.’ After the explosion in Beirut on the 4th of August last year, Exist tells us he began to realise how sometimes ‘a sentence—a set of letters—can’t always carry the amount of emotions that need to be expressed’, and so ‘the abstract way of deconstructing-reconstructing letters’ began to feel more expressive. ‘Words are tools that point to and describe something outside themselves—but language stays helpless too often’, he muses. ‘If we looked at it differently, could we extract what is not readable? Can we take a word as a whole, as this combination of letters that is not reducible to its meaning? Could it even be abstract and, through this abstraction, capable of capturing what cannot be said or read…?’

Fundamentally, Exist believes creatives have a responsibly toward their surroundings; ‘whether they act through directly tackling topics from their daily life, or through the way they navigate and practice their work’. And for him, it mainly comes down to the way he practices his work and the philosophies he lives by, shares and emulates. ‘Graffiti doesn’t ask the observer for permission, it’s just there whether you like it or not.’ 

Woodwork deconstructed lettering artwork from residency at Allee Du Kaai, Belgium, Brussels, through the @chemistrygraffiti project
Woodwork deconstructed lettering artwork from residency at Allee Du Kaai, Belgium, Brussels, through the @chemistrygraffiti project

‘At the end of the day’, Exist continues, ‘knowing oneself through a craft and expressing what’s real and true is translated accordingly in one’s actions; therefore affecting others, setting others free from boundaries, and allowing new paths. That’s where the magic is, it’s a collective mind—we just have to become aware of it. The unity it brings is massive. I owe this craft and culture, and it keeps me going.’

Thank you so much to Exist for chatting with us today! You can follow Exist’s socials to stay up to date with his work.