All my life I have been hearing the adage of “the walls have ears”. I lately realised that sometimes, walls can have mouths as well and can tell you stories if you look deeply into them.
Since ancient times, walls symbolized strength and protection. People believed that if they have a roof on their heads and 4 walls surrounding their houses, nothing can hurt them. These days the walls share untold stories. Graffiti are surrounding the walls of Amman, filling its streets with countless stories of people living there, painted in youthful bright colours. While street art was once considered an illegal act of vandalism, it’s now being viewed positively as a crucial tool to build peace and transform conflicts in the Jordanian society. Here’s some insight on the history of graffiti and how it evolved in the country.
Not long time ago, in the early 2000s Amman was called “the white city”, a metaphor for its white buildings. It was not until a few years ago that the city became a colourful art exhibition providing streets with a much-needed dose of positivity. Undoubtedly, living in a busting metropolis such as Amman can sometimes be challenging. At times tension is filling the air, everything seems grey and people need hope to overcome the hardships they are going through.
Attempting to spark vitality and joy in the city, a group of volunteers and friends of Al Balad theatre started a project called Baladak (your town) in 2013. The project aimed to foster a connection between street art, primarily murals, and the community. Before 2013, the art scene had a limited scope and pull in the country, and people misperceived art as an exclusive luxury for the society elites. As a mean to emphasize that art is a right for everyone regardless of their societal or cultural backgrounds, Baladak at first targeted Amman’s impoverished neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods in Amman’s Downtown, Weibdeh and Al-Hashmi were full of limestone and concrete walls, which were the perfect empty canvases for street artists to start an art movement, to leave their creative footprints, and give the city an artistic makeover.
In its first round, Baladak succeeded in reviving the targeted areas. People all across Amman raced to view the new masterpieces. Everyone admired the colours, the energy and the creativity coming out from the new phenomenon, the neighbourhoods were proud to show their new attractions, and soon Baladak became an annual festival that brings together local and international artists, art groups and community members all believing in art as a powerful tool in making a positive change.
Besides modernizing Amman’s old neighbourhoods, street artists used their talents to make important social issues that are usually overlooked more visible to the public. In doing so, artists have succeeded in delivering powerful messages that transform how the community understood certain topics; such as: Gender inequality, diversity, discriminating against minorities, bullying in schools and mental health.
Day by day, streets became a safe space for people to freely express themselves, voice out their issues and find concrete solutions. It is amazing how such a simple and spontaneous act like creating art in the streets opened endless doors of communication, fostered understanding, developed empathy, and stimulated doing a positive change, which are all attributes of peace building.
When Allaa’ addin, street artist and the founder of Amman underground tour (a walking tour that tells people stories about the city’s street art scene), was asked how street art effected his life, he answered that street art changed the way he viewed things around him. “Since I was a little boy, everyone was constantly repeating a very popular poem written by Al Motannabi, that indicate to people that they won’t get everything they want in life. One time, I was walking in one of the rainbow streets alleys when I saw the same poem rephrased nicely, but this time indicating that we are in full control of our destinies, and if we work hard we will get whatever we want. The moment my eye caught that calligraffiti (a form of art that combines graffiti with calligraphy); I was filled with positive vibes. I realised that day that street art can give people countless possibilities, give them hope, and encourage them to create their own conclusions”.
“Street artists around the world share the same values (Love, Peace and Unity). I am happy and proud that now street art is becoming increasingly popular in Jordan. People now see and understand the value of street art”, He added.
As Graffiti continue to seep the alleys of Amman’s neighbourhoods, it is slowly becoming a cultural practice that visually communicates the Jordanian struggles in a bona fide artistic way. While graffiti remains illegal in many countries around the world, Jordan was one the first countries to legitimize and appreciate murals in the region. As long as an artist has an approval to paint a mural in an agreed-on location, that the message the mural delivers is non-violent and considers the cultural values, anyone can beautify the streets of Amman with his/her art.
As a peace-worker, I learn every day that we don’t need sophisticated tools to do our jobs. We can build peace, resolve and transform conflicts with the simplest of things, including a spraying can and a painting brush.