Art school roof in Rio de Janeiro Brazil covered with verses from Brazilian poet Gabriela Torres Barbosa
“O desert, o my mom,” from the Lost Walls project in Ong El Jemel, Tunisia
Promoting a style of street art which he calls “Calligraffiti,” the work of Tunisian artist eL Seed is everywhere. His art has appeared in places as varied as New York and South Africa, covered rooftops in Brazil, and adorned products by no less than Louis Vuitton. eL Seed’s pieces are composed of interconnected lines of Arabic text which are written in his own distinctive style of calligraphy. At first glance, they appear as fluid and colorful freeform shapes with geometric aspects, but upon closer inspection, the words and language become apparent and his artwork takes on a deeper meaning.
“Temoula, land of my ancestors. There is no one like you.” From the Lost Walls project in Temoula, Tunisia
“Taghouri Dassah” (authentic clay) from the Lost Walls project in Guelala, Djerba Island, Tunisia
Although eL Seed refers to his work as Calligraffiti, he did not coin the word, nor is he the first artist to create works in this style. The term Calligraffiti was first used by art dealer and critic Jeffrey Deitch as the title of a New York art exhibit in 1984 which he curated. When Deitch held an updated version of his show in 2013, it included work by eL Seed and more recently, Deitch wrote the forward for eL Seed’s first book of graffiti called Lost Walls: a Calligraffiti Journey through Tunisia.
“Alone” Lost Walls, Tunisia
“Open Your Heart,” Paris, France
While eL Seed’s style is a representation of Arabic words done in a linked and free-flowing style of calligraphy, it does not follow any of the structured and accepted forms of calligraphy. As he did not learn proper Arabic until his late teens and he never studied or learned the rules of proper calligraphy with a master, eL Seed refuses to refer to himself as a calligrapher. He acknowledges that many conservatives believe that his work shows disrespect to the traditional Arabic art of calligraphy, but as he points out, “…I wasn’t breaking any rules because I didn’t know the rules. You need to know the rules to break the rules.”
“Ambition is the flame of life and the essence of luck. If beings aspire to live, then destiny must obey,” Paris, France
Although eL Seed acknowledges the sacredness of calligraphy in the Arabic language and the fact that it is an integral part of Islam, he believes that his work should instead be viewed as a part of a larger renaissance in Islamic art as it a direct fusing of the modern and traditional. In fact, he has said that it is not even necessary for one to understand Arabic in order to fully enjoy his work. He feels that the emotional and abstract aspects can still be appreciated even if one cannot decipher the concrete meaning. In regards to the subject, he says, “I think that Arabic script, by its very nature, speaks directly to the soul before it speaks to your eyes.” He also compares Arabic calligraphy to music, as he states, “Sometimes there is a melody, in a language that you don’t speak, but it speaks to you and you can understand it.”
“The sun rises behind the centuries, “ from the Lost Walls project in Tunisia
While some critics may feel that eL Seed is trying to exclude non-Arabic speakers, instead he sees his approach as a reflection of his anti-Imperialist attitude. Instead of bowing down to the forces that be and spoon-feeding them his message in a language that they understand, people are invited to either interpret his work from their own point of view or try to learn more on their own. In this way, the foundation of the work remains clear; it is a meshing of cultures and in today’s global society we are all a combination of many things and our comprehension is not always complete.
“The shape of the city is changing faster than the heart of man,” Paris, France
“The sea is not a gift from our parents, but a loan from our children,” from the Lost Walls project in Kerkennah, Tunisia
eL Seed’s work is also a true representation of who he is as a person and his multi-cultural background. Born in France to Tunisian parents, eL Seed grew up speaking a Tunisian dialect of Arabic. Although he was interested in art from a young age and began doing graffiti as a teenager, he received no encouragement and instead was pushed to pursue a career which would result in financial success and stability. He succumbed to the pressure placed on him and graduated university with a Master’s degree in Business. However, after obtaining a position in his relevant field, he soon found that the endless grind of an office job was not for him. After being fired, he finally turned his focus to his art. With the influence of graffiti artist Hest, eL Seed began his attempts to mix graffiti and calligraphy and soon his specific style emerged. Today, he feels that creating graffiti is a representation of the importance that art has for him as a person; by producing it in Arabic, he feels bonded to his roots as well.
“Civilization,” Toronto, Canada
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
This importance of being rooted to a culture and identity is apparent in eL Seed as it is mirrored in the name he has given himself. He came across the name in a book he read in high school called Le Cid de Corneille. According to his teacher, the name Le Cid came from the Arabic “El Sayed” which can be translated into English as “the master.” As a sixteen year old boy, he was enthralled with the idea of calling himself the master of something. He later changed the spelling to reflect his interest in connecting to his origins, or the “seed” of his existence.
New York, USA
“You will win, but you will not convince,” Frankfurt, Germany
It is interesting to note that many of eL Seed’s pieces are created freestyle; often there is no stenciling or drawing out the design on the wall beforehand. At most, he may create a small sketch on a piece of paper to aid in determining the structure of the piece. He pays particular attention to composition and layout and chooses his colors carefully. For eL Seed, the emotions that a piece evokes are significant and if he doesn’t feel a connection to the space or idea that he has conceived, then he won’t paint it.
“Multiple Identities,” University of Exeter
“Give back at least what you received”
Most of his pieces contain lines of poetry or quotes made by well-known people, and they typically have a connection to the location of the art, often focusing on a political or social message. For example, his work in South Africa is a quote from Nelson Mandela which says, “It is impossible, until it is done.” With the messages he tries to impart and the emotions he hopes to evoke through his work, eL Seed’s goal is to democratize art and create something beautiful and meaningful that is available to everyone. That’s why he prefers to paint on walls and in public. In his opinion, when he is creating a piece, the wall belongs to him, but once it is finished, it belongs to everyone.
“It is impossible, until it is done,” Cape Town, South Africa
“When you see the water, remember the source,” from the Lost Walls project in Tataouine, Tunisia
eL Seed’s most noteworthy piece is probably the minaret of the Jara Mosque in his hometown of Gabes, Tunisia which he completed in 2012. At the time it was his largest creation, and despite obtaining permission and encouragement from the mosque’s imam, eL Seed was the recipient of a great deal of criticism. His goal in creating the piece was to unite the people of Tunisia. In keeping with that target, his message on the minaret comes from the Quran, Surah 49, verse 13, and is about tolerance. It says, “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made people and tribes so you may know each other.”
“Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made people and tribes so you may know each other.” Jara Mosque, Gabes, Tunisia
Lost Walls project in Chott el Jerid, Tunisia
Although he regards his work on the mosque as a groundbreaking moment, it is another project, also completed in his home country, which he finds to be the most meaningful on a personal level. In his “Lost Walls” project, eL Seed spent a month travelling around Tunisia and connecting with the people of his country through his graffiti work. His goal was to present a different side of Tunisia than what is typically portrayed in the media in an attempt to promote a more positive side of the country and bring pride to the people there. Along the way, he also learned more about himself and deepened his connection to the country of his origins.
“History,” Kairouan, Tunisia
“Love you Mom,” Tunisia
eL Seed has also taken part in a mural project in Qatar at the behest of the Qatar Museum Authority. Located on Salwa Road in Doha, eL Seed’s 52 murals stretch for about one kilometre and cover the inside walls of several tunnels and include pieces of poetry and even lines from the Qatari national anthem. He also completed a significantly sized work in Paris at the Institute du Monde Arabe which shares a quote from the French writer Stendhal that says, “Love is the miracle of civilizations.”
“Love is the miracle of civilizations,” Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris
His work with Louis Vuitton began with an invitation to design a scarf for their Foulards d’Artists collection and he was later asked to customize several of their iconic monogrammed trunks for a charity auction. The proceeds were used by the non-profit organization START to provide art courses and cultural education for children with special needs in both the Middle East and in India.
Scarf for Louis Vuitton with lines from the poem “Venice Carnival” by Taha Mohammad Ali
eL Seed is also known for his educational initiatives and has completed several projects with children and university students that provided instruction on the creation of graffiti art in an attempt to encourage and inspire young people in artistic endeavours. These included a workshop at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai and a month long mural project at Zayed University, Dubai campus. Each project offered hands on instruction and resulted in a collaborative piece of art.
Rashid School for Boys, Dubai
“As big as you dream, the earth expands,” Zayed University, Dubai
Recently, eL Seed participated in the street art project Djerbahood which invited 150 artists from 30 countries to create art on the walls of Erriadh, a village on the island of Djerba. This project, along with his invitation to the Art Rua 2014 Festival, a yearly celebration of street art in Rio de Janeiro, have firmly established eL Seed as a popular and respected artist in the world of graffiti and street art. While it is exciting to imagine what eL Seed might do in the future, we can be sure that whatever he does, it will be both inspirational and meaningful.
“The more you go to the West, the more you reach the East,” New York, USA