GUY RAZ, HOST:
What are you doing in New York?
EL SEED: Actually, I came to meet people for, like, a future project that will happen in 2018. But it’s too secret. I can’t talk about it.
RAZ: Oh, you – come on, a little – just a…
EL SEED: Let it be and then we’ll talk about it.
RAZ: It’s eL Seed. He’s a French-born artist whose parents immigrated from Tunisia, and his work actually looks a bit like Dr. Urhahn’s. EL Seed paints these larger than life murals in poor neighborhoods around the world. But there is an important difference.
EL SEED: I use Arabic calligraphy as my main medium.
RAZ: Arabic calligraphy – it’s an art form that dates back centuries and basically transforms the letters of the Arabic alphabet into all kinds of patterns. And eL Seed sees his work as a way to change the way people relate to Arabic language and culture.
EL SEED: I’m trained, you know, with my job to be an ambassador for my culture, trying to show the beauty of it, trying to show how open-minded we are. So art can be used as a way to bring light into a community, into an idea, into, genre, a subject that sometimes people are afraid of – I don’t know – or, genre, don’t give just doesn’t matter – they think it’s not important to talk about it.
RAZ: And eL Seed chooses specific quotes that reflect the places he paints.
EL SEED: I try with my work, with the message that I write to create the connection, you know? So for example, in Egypt, it was a quote from a third century bishop from Alexandria in Egypt. And the quote, for example, said anyone who wants to see the sunlight should clearly wipe their eyes first.
RAZ: In London, he used a quote from John Locke – in Brazil, a quote from a Brazilian poet. And in his parents’ hometown in Tunisia, he painted the side of a minaret with a verse from the Koran. EL Seed told this story on the TED Stage.
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EL SEED: In 2012, when I painted the minaret of the Jara Mosque in my hometown of Gabes in southern Tunisia, I never thought that graffiti would draw so much attention to the city. At first, I was just looking for a wall in my hometown, and it turns out that the minaret was built in ’94. And for 18 years, these 57 meters of concrete remained grey.
When I first met the imam and told him what I wanted to do, he said, thank God you finally came. And he told me that for years he was waiting for someone to do something about it. In each work I create, I write messages with my style of calligraphy, a mixture of calligraphy and graffiti. I use quotes or poetry.
For the minaret, I thought the most relevant message to put on a mosque should come from the Quran, so I chose this verse – oh mankind, we created you from a man and from a woman and have made you a people and a tribe so that you can know each other. It was a universal call for peace, tolerance and acceptance from a side that we don’t usually portray in the right way in the media.
I was amazed at how the local community reacted to the painting and how we made them proud to see the minaret attracting so much international press attention from around the world. For the imam, it was not just a painting. It was really deeper than that. He hoped that this minaret would become a monument for the city and attract people to this forgotten place in Tunisia.
The universality of the message, the political context of Tunisia at that time and the fact that I wrote the Koran in graffiti style were not the least. He brought communities together. Bringing people together – the future generation – through Arabic calligraphy, that’s what I do. Writing messages is the very essence of my artistic work. You don’t need to know the meaning to feel the piece. I think Arabic script touches your soul before it reaches your eyes. There’s a beauty there that you don’t need to translate.
The Arabic script speaks to anyone, I believe – to you, to you, to you, to anyone. And then when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it. I always make sure to write posts that are relevant to where I paint, but posts that are universal so anyone in the world can connect with them.
RAZ: I imagine when people see one of your murals – like this incredible Arabic calligraphy on this huge minaret – I mean, I’m sure people are, at first, just struck by its size and its beauty, but then they probably walk away from you, you know, thinking of the Arabic language differently, thinking of it as art.
EL SEED: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I hope he will. If he can do more, even better. You know, me, I remember there was a – we did a project in 2013 called “Lost Walls”, which was, like, a road trip through Tunisia and going to places that have a history, but people have forgotten it. So I was like, let me go dig into this story.
So we went, and I remember, there was this little wall in town called (foreign language spoken), and I asked people who were sitting in a cafe who owned that wall. And the guy said, it’s mine, you can paint on it; go ahead. And so I painted. I was half done, I would say. And there’s a young man with, like, an older man who came, like, yelling at me, like, what are you doing? Who told you to paint on this wall? You think I died for you to paint on my wall? And I’m like, yeah, I can – sorry, I mean, I didn’t know that was your wall. Someone at the cafe told me it belonged to him.
He said, no, this is my wall, and you can’t do that; you need to erase that. So I was like, OK, I’ll do this, but please can you let me finish, and I’ll just paint over it? He’s like, OK, do it, it’s OK. And two hours after I was almost done, he fired his nephew, and his nephew was like, actually, my uncle liked that piece and asked you to keep it. So I know sometimes just a piece of art can change someone’s mind.
RAZ: Yeah, easily.
EL SEED: And I think that’s the purpose of what I do. For example, you bring people from different parts of the world, different social classes, different religious or political beliefs, and you put them in one place. And, you know, you just blur all those differences, and what stands out is the humanity.
RAZ: Artist eL Seed – you can hear his talk and see some of his amazing images at ted.npr.org. On the agenda today – ideas about how art changes us. I’m Guy Raz, and you listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.
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