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The art of painting walls

Meet Steffi Peichal. Although the energetic 30-something brunette was born and bred in Frankfurt, her long dark hair and full red lips betray something of her father’s family’s origins: Iraq. Co-founder of the artists collective Studio 68, based in Mannheim (Germany) and specialized in street art, Steffi took off for a radical change some four years ago. Her initial plan was to move to Damascus to learn the art of Arabic calligraphy. But after six months in Syria, she eventually fell for Beirut’s attractive sirens. Steffi is now settled in the Lebanese capital as a full time art trainer where she contributes to help expanding the art of graffiti − however strongly she denies her own influence on this. If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into her during one of her wall-painting marathons in Hamra, be it for a street festival or a hip-hop contest. If not, you can always ask around: everybody knows her.

How was the graffiti scene in Beirut when you first arrived? How is it now?

When I first came to Beirut in November 2007, I had the feeling that the city was lacking a graffiti scene. But after spending some time sight-seeing in various areas, I discovered pieces of wall paintings scattered around the area called Karantina. After a while, some of the local graffiti artists took me around and showed me a couple of ‘halls of fame’: places where sprayers practice and bring their graffiti-friends from abroad to paint together.

Stencil art was much more widespread than actual graffiti as you might know it from European cities or New York.

I remember that stencil art was much more widespread than actual graffiti as you might know it from European cities or New York. The stencil works I saw in Hamra were political or war-related slogans and symbols. Then, within three years, I witnessed a vast development of the graffiti scene in the country. With an increasing interest of foreigners for Lebanon, and the cultural exchange resulting from it, the graffiti movement started to grow accordingly.

Is Beirut’s graffiti and street art scene in any way comparable to the one in Damascus where you’ve lived ? Or Germany, where you come from?

These three countries have nothing in common when it comes to street art. Syria is an Arab country like Lebanon, but is still floating in another time era. Back in 2006, I was unable to find graffiti or any other big art scene there, except for traditional arts like jewellery crafts, oriental paintings and the typical calligraphy paintings. In Germany, especially in the main cities, it’s quite the opposite. You can find almost every art direction and fashion there. This is mainly due to the high standards of tools and material that the European countries are able to provide. Lebanon is a mix of both. You can get pretty good spray cans and acrylic paint in specific areas of Beirut, which is where artists go to buy. That’s how the market started to expand.

I liked the idea of spreading whatever I had to say, or had in mind, on a big scale, so that others could see it. On trains, walls, bridges!

How did you initially start doing graffiti? What triggered your passion for it?

I started early to sketch and copy comics. Slowly, it became a fusion between the story of the comics and my own interpretation of them. The trigger for me picking up graffiti was the idea behind it. I liked the idea of spreading whatever I had to say, or had in mind, on a big scale, so that others could see it. On trains, walls, bridges! It’s always a weird feeling to go back in daylight to see a painting I made the night before. Thousands of people can pass by and see it while I’m standing there too, looking at it and observing them. I always wonder: What could they be thinking?

How does your practice as a graffiti artist in Lebanon differ from your practice in Germany?

At first, I had the feeling of going back in time. The range of spray can colours was limited to 10-15 choices. That doesn’t leave you many options if you want to work on shadings and dimensional painting. So, I started to mix medias and use the brush to help me out instead. But exactly one month ago, I met with an Armenian businessman from Beirut’s Jal el Dib. He’s been spraying on his own for eight years, and somehow managed to get a deal with the main spray can producer in the world, Montana. They provide more than 140 colours in all nuances you can think of. This is a gigantic change for me: for the first time in three years, I’ll be using the right material. It gives me my full artistic confidence back.

I met with an Armenian businessman from Beirut’s Jal el Dib. He’s been spraying on his own for eight years, and somehow managed to get a deal with the main spray can producer in the world, Montana.

How did you start organising graffiti workshops in Lebanon?

Shortly after I settled in Beirut, I was introduced to the world of Lebanese NGOs. I met somebody who wanted me to be the coordinator of a new program around graffiti. I was asked to run a one-week workshop on mural painting with refugee kids from Iraq in Chiyah (Southern Beirut). The point was to show these kids how to express themselves in a new way. I was extremely touched by their stories. And I discovered how gifted they are. If somebody lets them extricate what’s inside their little heads, beautiful things start happening.

If somebody lets kids extricate what’s inside their little heads, beautiful things start happening.

With which NGOs have you been involved so far?

I started to work with the Amel Association, one of UNHCR’s partners, through Sahar Assaf. At that time, it was only the beginnings of graffiti. Many other organisations became aware of this new tool of expression later on, either through the work of NGOs or simply through encounters with friends I made there. I’ve also been collaborating with several other associations: Norwegian Refugee Council, Mercy Corps, Search for Common Ground, Action Contre la Faim, USAID, Alternative Initiative Network and so on.

Sometimes though, these partnerships take a darker color. I was stunned to discover some of the regulations of such well-known organisations. At the end of a workshop in one of the Palestinian camps for instance, I was asked to paint a huge logo bearing the name of the organisation in red letters on a wall. In a small space like the camp, it was shocking. It looked like pure propaganda! But eventually, I had to do it, so that the NGO coordinators wouldn’t get in trouble with their hierarchy. Now, I’d rather do my own thing, which is to focus on the target group of youth – no matter who they are, refugees or not – and run my own movement. I don’t want to be one of those who claim to work for aid while the kids don’t even get a glass of juice during an eight-hour workshop on a burning hot summer day.

What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Starting next week, I’ll run a summer mural making workshop with AIN (Alternative Initiative Network) throughout Lebanon. We’ll gather youth from different communities and make them exchange their stories. This month, I’m also doing a program at Hamra’s Houna center where I’m offering graffiti and mural making classes.

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