Is it vandalism or artistic expression? Either way, graffiti is not something often associated in the UAE, outside of the occasional exhibition in a city art gallery. But a subculture of the street art exists in some of Dubai’s oldest districts. You won’t see huge colourful spray murals of the type associated with a New York City subway; in fact, you will be lucky to see graffiti at all – unsurprising; it carries a maximum three-year jail sentence for adults in the UAE. But political protests, gang allegiances and expressions of love can all be found scrawled crudely onto walls, signs and lampposts before they are quickly scrubbed or whitewashed away.
Photographer Jalal Abuthina spent months searching for and documenting graffiti in District 333, the municipality code for a small corner of Al Badaa, hidden away – like the graffiti within it – between Satwa and Jumeirah 1. District 333: Beyond the Surface is the uncensored account of his findings. Published with the help of the Tashkeel Gallery, who sponsored the print and design, just 100 copies of the book were printed, all signed by Jalal.
He says: “All over the world, cities usually have some kind of record or publication related to graffiti from their own streets. In Dubai, however, I think local graffiti has been completely overlooked because the majority of people living and working here don’t see any value in it, even those working in the cultural sector and the arts. It’s a huge shame because the majority of the real graffers in the city are the Emirati youth, and some of the poetic scrawls and epigrams they come up with are as impressive as those you would find in cities with an established graffiti scene. Graffiti, in whatever form, and whether it’s through one word or a giant mural, can sometimes have something important to say or can tell a certain story.”
After moving to Dubai in 1992, Jalal, 30, the son of an Irish mother and Libyan father, spent his teenage years frustrated by the lack of exposure for Dubai’s youth culture. It fostered in him a determination to show young people in the UAE were capable of original artistic expression. After a decade, he left the UAE to study studying international business in Montreal, Canada, where, in his final year, he fell in love with photography.
“There were two main inspirations behind the book,” he says. “I have been living in Dubai since 1992 and, in a way, it’s home to me. Growing up, my friends and I always used to complain about the fact that there were no books on the city that related to its true youth culture and that gave tourists, especially, some true insight into that culture. The majority of books on the shelves in bookstores in Dubai are either about the history of the city or the popular hotels and buildings. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but there’s also nothing wrong with providing more options to people who are looking for something a little deeper and that is more focused on the lives and thoughts of the people living here. District 333 isn’t about showcasing graffiti skills or artistic talent, it’s about trying to promote a deeper understanding of the city and the people who live here through that medium.
“The second reason has to do with the fact that many people don’t think that graffiti exists here. And people who do, almost always associate graffiti in Dubai to commercial or corporate events and dedicated walls that are really only focused on promoting the spectacle of graffiti to help mould a corporate image. I’m not trying to take away from any of the graff artists here that are involved in that, but that aspect of graffiti is almost entirely commercial, and has absolutely no ties to the actual city beyond being a corporate ‘underground’ spectacle. Some of the graffiti art pieces are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a separate thing to graffiti that is found on the streets and neighborhoods, and by people who take risks to do it. True graffiti is a byproduct of a city’s people, their thoughts, their art, their lives, and the social and political conditions they experience, it’s not a spray-painted corporate logo on a dedicated wall out where nobody can see it. But in Dubai it’s hidden and other than the Emirati and Indian youth here, only a handful of people actually seem to be doing it.”
In Al Badaa, cultural groups who so often live separate lives in the rest of the city co-exist alongside one another. European and Arab expatriate families live in new villa compounds across the road from an Emirati freej, or neighborhood, which is more than 30 years old. Blue-collar workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines walk side-by-side with western and Emirati children. Some areas in which graffiti is often found are those that many of Dubai’s police officers call home. In the ever-changing Dubai landscape, neighbourhoods like this will not survive as villas and towers continue to rise from the sand. The economic downturn has seen much of the planned development put on hold, but it is only a matter of time before many of the districts are torn down to make way for more modern developments.
“I’m actually relieved that plans to tear down some of these neighbourhoods will be put on hold for a while due to the recent recession because it does sadden me,” says Jalal. “I hate to see old neighborhoods disappear, especially those that truly define a place or city. Just because we are building something newer and prettier over something old and outdated doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a positive step forward. To me, preservation goes hand in hand with progress and you can’t have one without the other.
“Graffiti is a very broad thing and many different forms of it exist. I do consider it a viable art form if it’s used in a positive way. What I mean by positive is graffiti that enhances a space, either through mindful words, pictures, murals or anything else, as opposed to degrading a space through mindless tagging and pointless profanity. But you can’t really have one without the other and although it has the stigma of illegality and vandalism attached to it, to me there is no denying that it is its own art form. Graffiti has been around since people could write, and I think that it will always exit. As far as painting-over of it goes, I think it can be censorship, definitely. It can also be because property owners simply don’t want it on their walls. It’s expected though. And it happens in Dubai just as it happens in other cities like Cape Town, Ottawa and Paris where graffiti is considered a serious offence.
“I’m not really as interested in igniting a reaction as much as I am interested in providing some kind of record or account of it. If there is any reaction I’m interested in igniting, it would have to be helping provide a deeper understanding of how Dubai really is. The graffiti in District 333 is just from one area of the city and the book doesn’t focus on showcasing the best graffiti writings or work in Dubai, it’s rather an introduction to the different kinds of graffiti that exists in the city by its residents and tries to present the whole spectrum of it and how it is used. It has comedy in it, poetry, political commentary, territoriality warnings, controversy and some very interesting surprises, amongst other things.
"The pictures were taken during Ramadan last year so the streets where practically empty and nothing exciting was going on. Since almost all the writings are anonymous, I can’t really credit anyone, but I would like to give a shout out to all the kids, and maybe even adults, whose words and writings were featured. This book was made by them and we are thankful to them.”