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Following examples set in other Arab Spring countries like Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian activists have taken to arming themselves with cans of spray paint and stencils to peacefully protest against embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime via a very public and artistic medium – graffiti.
Activists have called for “a week of graffiti for freedom” from April 14 – 21 not only in Syria, but across the Arab world. The campaign invites everyone, tagger or not, to pick up a can of spray paint and peacefully express their feelings in a public place. The project, which was launched on social networking websites by a Syrian activist living in exile and several of his peers still in the country, included an online tutorial and printable stencil models.
Create a stencil and paint it safely.
Several towns across Syria have already begun to bare traces of the project. Works of graffiti have also been spotted in Tunisia and the Palestinian Territories. The campaign’s organisers hope that other countries will soon join their ranks, in particular Egypt and Lebanon, where some professional graffiti artists have already expressed their support for the Syrian people in recent pieces.
"The choice to do graffiti inherently contradicts the overwhelming ambiance of violent speech - one that has even been adopted by parts of the opposition"
Activist and former political prisoner, Tarek Alghorani, helped bring the idea of graffiti art as protest to Syria. He fled the country last year to seek refuge in Tunisia.
"The idea of devoting an entire week to graffiti first appeared in Egypt. Graffiti artists baptised the project 'a violent week of graffiti'. Because graffiti art is illegal in Egypt, those who participated faced up to three years in prison if caught. Not long afterwards, a similar campaign was launched in Iran where graffiti artists painted the faces of those who had died during the ‘Green Revolution’ in public spaces. [The ‘Green Revolution’ describes the wave of demonstrations sparked by allegations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election in 2009 as the result of vote fraud].
"I decided to get in contact with the organisers in both countries. I asked them loads of questions and they suggested the idea to create tutorials in order to make the project more accessible to everyone. As a cyber activist, I think it’s really important that online mobilisation crosses over into the real world. I also found the project’s artistic element very interesting – Syrians already use spray paint to write messages on the walls but what we’ve been doing is more than words, it’s creating something.
"After having discussed the project with other Syrian activists, we decided to launch the campaign throughout the Arab world. In contrast with Egypt’s theme, we decided to focus on the idea of ‘graffiti for freedom’. Messages of violence are completely displaced within the Syrian context. And the choice to do graffiti inherently contradicts the overwhelming ambiance of violent speech. There are even some factions of the opposition who have called for the Syrian Free Army to be armed. We feel that an armed uprising like the one in Libya would ultimately fail here. The way that we choose to defend our cause will ultimately have consequences on the future of the country after Assad’s regime has fallen."
“To avoid getting caught, there’s always one person who stands guard a few metres away, armed with a mobile phone. If he senses even the slightest risk, he calls to tell us to disperse”
Ahmed Abdullah is an activist with the non-violent opposition movement “Iyam Al Hourriyé” (Days of freedom). A resident in Damascus, Abdullah and his friends have embraced the idea of graffiti art as a form of protest and have done a number of pieces in the neighbourhood of Kafr Sousseh.
"The methods we use to graffiti different areas depends on the situation in each town. In Damascus, for example, the biggest challenge is obtaining cans of spray paint because the majority of salespeople ask for a piece of I.D. As a result, we try to only go to people who we trust or who attach the name of a foreigner to the purchase – someone who is complicit but would never be suspected of doing graffiti art.
"We also had the idea of asking carpenters that we know well to transform boards of wood into stencils. It takes too much time to follow the tutorials to the letter and over time stencils made of laminated cardboard get worn out.
"We work under the cover of night and mostly in neighbourhoods that are poorly lit or have been hit by electrical blackouts. We also stick to places that are rarely patrolled by police. We scope out the situation a few days before taking action. The group that carries out the project should never be more than four people, so as not to attract attention but also because it’s easier to escape if ever the police catch us. To avoid getting caught, there’s always one of the group who stands guard a few metres away, armed with a mobile phone. If he senses even the slightest risk, he gives us a call and we disperse.
"We’ve already organised a number of actions in Damascus, such as painting a statue of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, red to symbolise the blood of those who have been killed by the regime. But graffiti has allowed us to reach out to a portion of the population that won't risk joining the opposition movement. Some people are terrified by the messages of violence some in the opposition have begun to spout, such as calls to arms or the death of Bashar al-Assad. We hope that these people will find the artistic and peaceful nature of our approach more appealing."