Thessa Lageman is a journalist, copywriter, photographer, and Arabist, based in the Netherlands. She has written for Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Age, and Middle East Eye, among others.
Artists in and around Tunisia’s capital walk a fine line between self-expression and caution.Street art is
Eighteen-year-old Sarrah Laajimi points at a woman’s face she painted on the wall of a youth center in Ezzahra, one of the southern suburbs of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital. The high-school student is part of 4 Street Family, a group of 25 graffiti artists, dancers, beatboxers, and filmmakers.
“I used to only draw on paper,” she says. “But then we saw street art abroad on social media, and decided to try it, too. The great thing about it is that everyone who passes by can see it.”
relatively new in this North African country. But over the past few years, more and more colorful pieces of graffiti, “calligraffiti”—a hybrid of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti—and other forms of art have started to appear on the walls of cafés and schools, alongside roads, and even on the domes of mosques. Young street artists aim to brighten up the suburbs and at the same time deliver a message.
Ezzahra, where the 4 Street Family members work, is a middle-class suburb on the edge of the city and is part of the greater metropolitan area of Tunis, known as Grand Tunis, which has a total of about 2.7 million residents. In the north are the wealthy suburbs of Carthage and La Marsa bordering the Mediterranean Sea, with their white-washed villas and palm and orange trees.
The populous Ettadhamen and Douar Hicher suburbs to the west are a different world. Riots broke out here last month, and some young people are escaping high unemployment by migrating to Italy or joining the Islamic State.
“There are so many things we’d like to change in our country,” says Arbi Mejri, another teenage 4 Street Family artist. The artists’ political messages are often hidden, he says, especially when they’re criticizing government officials or religious leaders, because this is not without danger. Other topics they address include pollution and women’s rights. Tunisian artists cite a range of well-known street artists such as Banksy, Berlin’s 1UP Crew, and Miami-born Tati Suarez as influences.
The 2011 revolution brought high hopes for a better Tunisia, but five years later, the mood is somber, with poverty, unemployment, and corruption still rampant. A series of terrorist attacks have kept tourists away, and freedom of speech is becoming restricted again.
The street artist and graphic designer VAJO can find a silver lining, however: “If there are no problems, there is no art,” he says, sitting in a smoky café that has paintings with Arabic calligraphy by Sami Gharbi on the walls. “This is why most street art can be found in the lower- and middle-class neighborhoods.” The 27-year-old artist, whose real name is Jawher Soudani, says one of Tunisia’s main frustrations is the large gap between rich and poor.
VAJO started making street art in his hometown of Gabes in the south of Tunisia around 2001. “I was the first, together with Meen One from the northern city of Bizerte, who now lives in France,” he says. “Nobody had heard about it before.”
During the dictatorship, it was dangerous to make graffiti; after president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled, many artists took advantage of the temporary freedom to express themselves. VAJO, Electro Jaye, and ESKA-ONE adorned the inside and outside walls of a house that had belonged to one of the dictator’s in-laws in the wealthy northern suburb of Gammarth.
VAJO has joined several recent street-art projects in the country, such as Djerbahood on the island of Djerba, where 150 international artists were invited to paint a village (other participants included the Tunisians eL Seed, The Inkman, and Shoof). Last summer, a group of artists painted an old Boeing 727 in El Mourouj, another of Tunis’s suburbs.
Passersby usually react negatively when they see him working, VAJO says. “Luckily, they often change their minds when they see the result.”
Back in the southern suburb of Ezzahra, 4 Street Family’s artists say their work often gets immediately painted over or damaged. “Graffiti is not acknowledged as a form of art here,” according to Houssam Ben Salah, who founded the collective because he thought there was not enough art in the country. “Making art isn’t encouraged because it doesn’t usually earn you any money.” Laajimi notes, however, that street art is becoming more and more common.
Many locals have told the artists that Islam forbids the painting of portraits. “But we’re not harming anyone,” says Laajimi, who uses the artist name Strix. Last summer, she and other artists were arrested when painting a wall near the railway station. The police don’t know the difference between street art and vandalism, she complains.
Elyess Guesmi, another member of the collective, says he has been arrested and beaten by the police on two occasions when he was not making graffiti or doing anything else against the law. “This is why we prefer to ask for permission first,” he continues, “but it takes ages, so sometimes we take the risk.” He adds: “Unfortunately, we often don’t have money for the spray cans or paint, because that’s very expensive here.”
One of the few female street artists in the country besides Laajimi is Dalinda Louati, who lives in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city. She started a Ph.D. on street art in Tunisia and says she received permission from the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Sfax to paint on public walls anywhere in the country, on the condition that she promised to erase everything after she finished her research. Despite this, she says she was shortly imprisoned last month, after painting a picture of a pistol on the wall in front of a phosphate factory, out of protest at the pollution in her town.
“It’s important that street art and other forms of art are given more space in Tunisia,” she says. “Art can cheer people up, encourage them, and give [them] hope. There’s much need for that here.”