The emirate's omnipresent aerosol artists, couple Sya One and Steffi Bow, offer their insights into street art in the city
Explain your names. Bow: Sya’s his graffiti name.That’s not his real name. It came from school reports. Sya: Sya came about because my art teacher wrote that one day I’d be a superb young artist. I didn’t use Sya for many years. I had all manner of different tags before I came to it. B: My stuff has always been Bow after my grandmother, who always wore bows.
So they’re separate from your working professional identities – like an outlet? B: Totally. S: Less so for me. It’s not that far detached from what I do for a living. I’m a sign writer by trade – free-hand sign writing. I’d see graffiti all around me where I grew up, so it seemed like the same thing to me. I was doing it with a paintbrush, learning how to build letters up and put colours in and stuff like that. Graffiti is pretty much the same thing but with a spray can.
What are the sorts of things that influence you? S: Everything around me, as a writer, inspires me. I look at buildings and how they’re structured and I try and build up my letters based on how things are structured. Artists and writers that inspire me… there are loads. B: I’m quite inspired by commercialism in the sense of some of the things in our ordinary, everyday life. There are always things – I quite like the humorous stuff. I’m not into the super serious stuff like what Banksy does.
What are your thoughts on Banksy? S: Robin [alleged true identity] Banks. It’s too much of a joke. B: What you should see is the [UK] Channel 4 documentary Graffiti Wars. It’s all about this guy called Robbo. It’s brilliant and it puts Banksy into context. Basically it’s all about the other side. Banksy’s a street artist and uses stencils. Real graffiti artists would never use stencils.
But you use stencils yourself? B: I use stencils, I’m a stencil artist. But [Sya’s] work is more free hand. S: If you see a lot of the pieces I paint up, you’ll see ‘Team Robbo’. It’s a crew of writers but it’s not like a determined crew. It’s a loosely affiliated crew. Robbo’s the one that’s in Graffiti Wars and Banksy went over a piece Robbo did 25 years ago. It had never been touched – it put Banksy in a bad light.
So you both got married last year. We saw that you have works where you’re both represented by silhouettes. Has that changed the way you do stuff? S: Nah, not really, it was something we just did for fun. When we first met we made a piece together and then Bow came up with the idea of us doing a silhouette with us both holding hands, because we wanted to show the other writers and artists in Dubai that we were together. We did the first one two years ago. There was one in Lebanon and one on a rooftop in London as well, so it is around. There’s a new version of us, still holding hands, but we’re a bit more funked out. B: I think as time goes on we’ll try and make them more complicated. I think it would be fun to do them throughout our lives. S: Actually, we’ve done three, but one of them only lasted a week before it was painted over. It was at Dubai Festival City [DFC] and it was me giving Bow a bunk up and her reaching out and spraying a heart. The heart was only half finished and still dripping. Someone took offense to that and painted over it.
If someone offered you an inordinate amount of money to paint something, would you happily accept it? S: Of course, anyone would – it doesn’t matter how hardcore you are or what you’re about, if someone offers you a stupid amount of money, everyone would sell out in a heartbeat. To do commercial jobs, I don’t enjoy it as much as if I’m sitting at home and smashing it on a wall – music on. With clients you’re kind of restricted with what they want you to paint. It takes the fun away from it – when you’re painting for yourself, you can go as big as you want – you can take your own sweet time with it.
Where do you paint and place your own stuff? B: We’ve just moved into a villa and we’ve got a huge garden where we’ve built a 20-metre wall. It’s like a monster basically – when you get that feeling you’ve got to go and paint. S: We had DFC and that got taken away from us. We had another spot which has now been taken away. B: What we would like is a proper wall of fame. Somewhere that people can go mental and do whatever they want.
Where would you like it to be? B: By Jumeirah on the beach – like Venice Beach. S: There are so many big parks in Dubai, like Safa Park and Mushrif Park, with trees and grass. But it doesn’t have to be for writers; it can be for ordinary kids.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘writer’? S: Graffi ti is a media name. A writer – you write your name. They may not be writing their name all the time but what they’re doing is writing stylised versions of their names. But I’m not an artist – hands down – all I do is write versions of my name in spray paint like other aerosol writers.
But do you not think there’s a level of skill to it? S: It’s an art form, but I’m not an artist. B: I disagree. Especially, when I see his work and the work of the other guys. To me it’s the best form of art there possibly is. I know you won’t call yourself an artist but I’d rather see someone who’s done a well executed tag – a beautiful tag in a hard to reach place, than go to a gallery with a load of minimalistic modern art.
If everyone did actually relate to what you do and wanted to do the same thing, would that not dilute what you do? B: The more spray paint, the more colour, the better. S: It depends how they go about it. If they go about it and start destroying the streets… As long as they’re willing to learn, and learn the history of what it’s all about, then by all means… But we think that one of the main reasons DFC got shut down was that kids were going down there and then painting over the pieces – just drawing swear words and things like that.
We saw your big G Shock illustration on your website. What do think about that (honestly)? S: Good. They were down with it and they knew what we were about. There are certain things we won’t do – we were approached by Hello Kitty… B: We don’t say yes to everything. There’s another guy we paint with, who’s from the Netherlands. He does Head & Shoulders… No way.
So it’s a mood-based thing? S: I always seem to end up using ice-creamy and bubble-gummy colours. I can’t do dark, evil pieces. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t do anything illegal. I’ve done the whole train thing and destroying cities and all that kind of stuff. I’m just now quite happy with my nice, big, fat, rounded, lazy, colourful letters.
Have you ever written anything about someone else? S: To the side of the pieces, there’s always the people you respect, the people you write with (ie. the Team Robbo thing) and the crews that we’re in – Deep Crates Cartel and the ACK Crew in Beirut. They don’t necessarily have to be artists. They can just be someone who’s your friend and you’re just giving them a shout out.
So you’re involved with Deep Crates? S: We’re friends with [DJ] Lobito. The Deep Crates Cartel is like a big family of DJs, MCs, B-boys and writers, so it’s not just about the music – it’s about everything. Our house is like the cartel clubhouse (everybody just comes round). We’ve got decks, the wall out the back and we’ve got a platform for the B-boys. We’re supposed to be painting today, but I don’t think it’s going to happen because it’s raining.
If there’s one thing in Dubai you’d like permission to paint, what would it be? B: The Metro S: Any graffiti writer will always want to paint a train and – hands down – it’s like the Holy Grail of what you do as a writer. B: They call it a runner, when you get a runner – it’s when you paint a train or a bus or something and then it’s moving around the city. It’s running and everyone can see it. Train painting in London has cut down completely. The movement that painted trains came from an era when they didn’t have cameras and the police didn’t know how to deal with it. To see more of Sya and Bow’s work, visit www.syabow.tumblr.com or www.dubai-graffiti.blogspot.com.