Basharat Bashir

Calligraffiti: A blend of Tradition and Urban Expression

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Islamic Calligraphy

Calligraphy is an intricate form of fine arts involving design and execution of letters. In Islam the art of calligraphy is revered and its practice is widely appreciated. Islamic calligraphy can be described as the art of lettering in Arabic or the languages which use Arabic alphabet or the alphabets, including, Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu calligraphy. Islamic Calligraphy is mostly based on verses and chapters of Islamic Holy book and its development is strongly knotted to it. Traditionally Islam does not encourage the use of pictures and hence instead of pictures artists adopted letters and it became an ideal source of expression in Islamic art. Apart from calligraphy Islamic artexploreddecorative patterns and designs with minimal use of figures and pictures. In Islamic art calligraphy gained a unique reputation and it was even considered as a moral good. An ancient Arabic proverb illustrates this point by emphatically stating that “Purity of writing is purity of the soul.”

Islamic calligraphy, however, is not limited strictly to religious subjects, objects, or spaces. Calligraphy, like all Islamic art, includes a diverse range of works created in a variety of contexts. The popularity of calligraphy in Islamic art is not due to its non-figural tradition; rather, it reflects the importance of writing and written text in Islam.  And in Islamic tradition it is believed that the pen was the first thing God created.

Calligraffiti on the other hand is described as an art form that combines calligraphy, typography, and graffiti. It can be classified as either abstract expressionism or abstract vandalism. It is defined as a visual art that integrates letters into compositions that attempt to communicate a broader message through writing that has been aesthetically altered to move beyond the literal meaning. Simply put, it is the conscious effort of making a word or group of words into a visual composition.

As such, it is meant to be both an aesthetic experience and provocative art—mixing tradition and precision with modern unbridled self-expression.

The emergence of calligraffiti

The emergence of calligraffiti coincided with the rise of the abstract art movement in the Middle East during the 20th century. This period marked a significant shift in artistic expression, as artists began to explore new forms of abstraction and experimentation, breaking away from traditional styles and techniques.

In the context of the Middle East, calligraphy has long been revered as a sacred art form, with deep roots in Islamic culture and spirituality. However, with the advent of modernity and the influence of Western art movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism, Middle Eastern artists began to explore new ways of interpreting and reimagining calligraphy.The introduction of abstraction in calligraphy was initially pioneered by artists including Hassan Massoudy, Hossein Zenderoudi and Parviz Tanavoli.

In recent years and in the wake of Arab uprisings Calligraffiti emerged as a strong means of expression in the Middle East. While graffiti has never been widespread in the region, Calligraffiti proved to be earnest form of protest that was a blend of tradition and modern. Arabic calligraphy and graffiti are interrelated, asesteemed calligrapher Hassan Massoudy, who influenced a generation of calligraffiti artists, referred to them as “two daughters of the same parents.” “Obviously, both are about the use of letters and their alphabets, and their focal point is the beauty of writing. For both, a letter is more than just a letter; it evokes feelings in them. Another thing they have in common is the use of white space and composition within it. The two art forms coexisting in the same area naturally evolved into calligraffiti”.Artist and activist Janet Kozak, characterizes calligraffiti artists in the Middle East as being “not bound by the shackles of tradition, yet still indebted to it”, as they use “a unique blend of traditional scripts and design mixed with modern materials and techniques”.

Tools and techniques:

The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the kalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo. The ink is often in colour and chosen so that its intensity can vary greatly, creating dynamism and movement in the letter forms. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.For centuries, the art of writing has fulfilled a central iconographic function in Islamic art. Although the academic tradition of Islamic calligraphy began in Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic empire during much of its early history, it eventually spread as far as India and Spain.

As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well-established calligraphers. In the Islamic tradition, calligraphers undergo extensive training in three stages, including the study of their teacher’s models, to be granted certification.

Calligraffiti is not bound to a particular instrument. Calligraffiti artists use brushes, graffiti cans or any other tool on any surface. Calligraffiti like graffiti is not necessarily supposed to remain permanent. It does not follow any specific rules and unlike calligraphy where artist spends years to master the technique calligraffiti artists do not go through such training. Most Calligraffiti artists, like El Seed, do not consider themselves calligraphers because they do not know, nor do they follow the many rules of calligraphy. Calligraffiti is characterized by its freedom, diversity of mediums, methods, and instruments,each individual artist uses and sometimes designs his or her own tools.

Purpose :

Calligraffiti stands apart from Islamic calligraphy in its underlying purpose and societal role. While traditional calligraphy in Islamic art primarily served as a means to preserve and propagate the sacred words of Islam, revered for its religious significance and decorative appeal, calligraffiti has evolved with a distinct socio-political agenda.

Islamic calligraphy, esteemed as high art, was historically celebrated for its religious reverence and decorative allure, devoid of overt political connotations. Conversely, calligraffiti emerged as a response to socio-political issues, particularly in the Middle East. Artists embraced calligraffiti as a means to reclaim their cultural identity while addressing pressing social concerns, often bypassing legal boundaries to express public opinions on walls.

This fusion of calligraphy and graffiti has become a potent mechanism for socio-political protest, evident in movements ranging from the Palestinian intifadas to the Arab uprisings. Notably, calligraffiti played a pivotal role in the reappropriation of public spaces during the Arab Spring, serving as a visual embodiment of dissent and collective expression.

Many calligraffiti artists across middle east disagree with the idea that their art is political. One of the calligraffiti artist Askar insists his calligraffiti pieces in Palestine do not make him a political activist, he says “I protest in colors, my activism consists of bringing art to the streets and allowing the public to express themselves”; similarly, El Seed has said “I don’t have any political agenda. I don’t believe in politics”. But by nature, calligraffiti is meant to express a message, and so it has unavoidable social and political consequences.

Most of the contemporary graffiti has been a meansof political protest, and calligraffiti hasn’t escaped this trend. A significant portion of the anonymous calligraffiti that resulted from the Arab Spring is intricately entwined with a political conflict. It is impossible to separate the political context in which El Seed’s 2011 mural in Kairouan, Tunisia, which depicts a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Husayafi about oppression and injustice, was created. Like this, Askar’s piece, “Palestine,” cannot be divorced from the political significance that the word “Palestine” carries. Likewise, his piece, “salaam,” which is shaped like a key and says “peace,” cannot be divorced from the significance of the key in the Palestinian occupation. Because of its setting, anonymous calligraffiti on the Israeli wall in Bethlehem is necessarily political.


Calligraffiti originated from the blending of calligraphy and Western abstraction. As calligraffiti evolved, it greatly influenced artists worldwide and inspired the works of many Western artists. The adoption of Arabic calligraffiti by non-Middle Eastern artists has increased beyond the borders of the Middle East, leading to the development of Arabic calligraphy into a global art form. This expansion can be attributed partly to the richness of Arabic calligraphy compared to other scripts. Many artists seeking to reinvent aesthetics have chosen Arabic calligraphy as a typographic choice.







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