Graffiti in Tunisia: From an act of defiance to a life-changing artform

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A visitor to Tunis is immediately taken in by the city’s graffiti-covered walls, adorned with colourful sketches and slogans in French, English and Arabic.

The country’s graffiti scene has evolved and flourished since the political uprising in 2011, which led to the fall of Tunisia’s long-standing dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and brought in a new political and cultural era.

The political slogans on the walls became more outspoken, and artists took on new daring projects.

While there has always been graffiti in Tunisia, many of the bolder and bigger paintings emerged after 2011.

Despite graffiti being illegal under Tunisian law, it seems authorities have allowed various artworks to remain up across the country, with some becoming fixtures of Tunisia’s urban landscape.

On Djerba island, authorities allowed a youth project to turn a part of the old neighbourhood of Houmt Souk into a walk-through gallery of graffiti by local artists.

The project, now called Djerba Hood, has become a popular tourist attraction.

Graffiti’s reputation as a simple act of vandalism started changing and people’s views shifted in support of the messages it carries and the colour and life it can bring to otherwise dull architecture.

Sociologist and street art specialist Eya Ben Mansour says Tunisians have always used the walls of the public space as a canvas for their thoughts.

“We find the first roots in the nineties with writings on prisons’ walls,” Ms Ben Mansour told The National.

She said the scene evolved further with the rise of football ultras and political groups who were opposed to Ben Ali, who was toppled after widespread protests in 2011.

Ultras and protesters found the walls of their home cities, often in marginalised neighbourhoods, as their only places to express their thoughts.

“There was no place for these young people to express themselves,” Ms Ben Mansour said.

“Whenever they find themselves cornered, graffiti on the wall has always been their way of expression.”

Graffiti allows the artist to remain anonymous yet public, reducing the risk while maximising exposure.

The founder of the graffiti group Blech Esm (Without a Name, in Arabic) and entrepreneur, Khalil Lahbibi, told The National that the artists have higher aims than just leaving random sketches on walls.

“It is all about the education, graffiti possesses the capacity of changing a place and creating new things that could actually leave an impact,” said Mr Lahbibi, 29.

He believes graffiti could be an alternative to the state’s traditional form of cultural and educational activities.

In recent years, government institutions that used to provide spaces for children to learn started losing and support as the country experienced socio-economic difficulties.

Tunisia has suffered from a worsening economic crisis, with high foreign debt and the devaluation of the dinar leading the government to slash public spending in sectors including education and culture.

Many Tunisians are also struggling with an increase in the cost of living, with some cutting back on cultural activities to save money.

Youth and culture clubs, where young people could create art or learn new skills, have been hit by a lack of funding due to the economic crisis.

Meanwhile, other forms of cultural output, such as music festivals, are not regarded as cutting edge, said Mr Lahbibi.

“In the past eight years, we have been trying to create something new that would leave a local impact and become the alternative to a mainstream culture that have neglected culture and art for too long,” he said.

Aesthetics, resistance or both?

A newer generation of artists are also using graffiti to beautify public spaces and tell personal stories.

“It is, after all, an expression of a specific social experience of a specific individual … without it necessarily having a political connotation,” said Ms Ben Mansour.

Mr Lahbibi agreed that Tunisian graffiti should not be limited to just one idea.

“We can mix art, commitment, impact and aesthetics all together through graffiti,” he said. “We no longer need to stick to one thing or the other.”

Mr Lahbibi said that graffiti that is considered vandalism can also be positive if its used to make a statement, referring to the recent pro-Palestine writings on the walls of the French Institute in Tunis.

“Sometimes, it could only be vandalism, [but] it is a fight for territory and a cause,” he said.

Today, graffiti artists in Tunis are using it to repaint cracked city buildings, bridges and alleyways that are otherwise grey, not necessarily to push for change, but for the act to become the change.

“We have seen other countries such as Scotland and Colombia use graffiti to counter organised crime in certain communities,” Mr Lahbibi said.

“In Tunisia, the situation is far less worse than that, so why can’t we do the same here? We want our Tunisia to become beautiful and colourful, and by 2023 we want it to become the capital of graffiti in North Africa.”

Updated: February 16, 2024, 6:00 PM

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