I have just returned from the great city of Muscat in Oman, invited by Brand Oman Management Unit – a government-run organization responsible for helping raise the Sultanate’s profile on the international stage. I have spraypainted in many great cities such as New York, Melbourne, London, Dubai and Toronto, but my experience in Muscat was very unique. Invited to the Muscat Youth Summit, i was told that i would be staying in a sea-resort for 4 days work along with nearly 300 young people from 15-24. I was asked to deliver an ‘Urban Art’ program, which, upon arrival, i noticed as being very prominent in a lot of the branding. Urban Art? Graffiti? At a summit, supported and run by the government? I checked out the marketing for this summit online and saw video messages from H.H Saeed Al Faisal… wow this is real endorsement of street-art on a level i’ve never witnessed before! Street-art globally is not often endorsed on an official level, and is often associated with vandalism and urban-decay. This is what makes this project unique for me. A government that really cares for its youth. I mean it has to – the future is the youth, with 40% of its population being 15 and under! They understand the appeal of the spraycan and recognised the need to develop its youth and speak their language. I have seen how truly the spraycan is the icon for these generations. I have seen the dazzle in the eyes of youth around the globe upon sight of a spraycan. Its universal i tell ya!
I discover there really isnt much of a urban-art scene in Muscat. Most cities I have been to, all do have some kind of scene, or network of artists, whether established or up-and-comping, there is always something going on. I find here there is almost nothing, i was provided with two of the few local artists Taher Al Batashi and Salim Al Busaidi. They were to be my support artists for the program. Excellent! I love connecting with local artists, it doesnt make sense otherwise, i never like to be parachuted in and out of places, if there isn’t a local connection where i can connect and leave something tangible behind, then i’m happy (even if its my left-over spraycans for them to paint more murals with!) They tell me about their struggles in obtaining quality aerosol paint in the country, and almost dribble at the sight of hundreds of cans of Spanish-made Montana 94 which i had flown in!
So what do i offer to Muscat? I have recently been experimenting by building cubes that i paint onto, instead of a flat canvas. In the past i’ve asked for flat surfaces, almost fake-walls to be constructed – that are usually made from wooden boards. This is done to simulate a real-wall or a canvas, which is quite 2D in nature, so i’ve been developing this concept where the art travels across a 3D structure instead, where the wall or canvas actually comes out at you.
Art on a cube behaves quite differently to art on a flat surface, in how it can travel around the cube, and engages the viewer in a very different way to how one would engage with a flat surface. The viewer has to move around the cube. On previous cubes i’ve painted, i’ve noticed people – for some reason – naturally gravitate to walking anti-clockwise around the cube, in a zombie-like fashion they kind of drift in that direction, and walk around it once, twice… without me guiding them to do so. Its quite exciting to watch how one engages with these 3D structures! So we build two cubes, and paint them black in preparation for the big day! Thanks to the local team on the ground working tirelessly to prepare the cubes, i am sent pictures of the gorgeous black cubes. I’m always tempted to leave them plain as they are at times, very minimal and mystical. Upon arrival i jokingly mentioned that we should not do anymore to them and keep them black and minimal as an artistic statement. Don’t think they found it very amusing!
Okay, i’m kidding of course, of course i’m going to paint them! We have shipped in spraycans from the other side of the globe, with plenty of headache along the way, with couriers refusing to take them onto flights due to their flammable and explosive nature. This has to be worth it!
We had one-day only to paint these cubes. At least 25% of that day was spent indoors planning, discussing and sketching, so we had little time to paint such a huge space. It was going to be a challenge! With the added pressure that The Wave – Muscats premier leisure and residential complex had expressed a keen interest in offering a permanent home for these cubes, it was a massive challenge. This was a workshop where mistakes can and should be made by first-timer spraypainters, i mean that’s how you learn. But the art also had to be of a quality that could be displayed as refined pieces of art in a public space….No pressure then!
So i had to get my military boots on, and educate the young people about process, and in particular – teamwork. We had a mission, to express ideas that are coherent, and powerful enough that should resonate with the public. This is public art so it needs to communicate effectively, to the very public. This for me is the purpose of Urban-Art. This isn’t art for art’s sake, but art with a purpose. Art to change the world!! Okay, lets start with Muscat first….
Before any spraying took place,I told the story through visuals of how mankind has expressed himself through carving or scratching his story into public spaces, going back to ancient rock carvings, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. No-one should ever suggest to them again that urban-art was just mindless youth letting off some steam with some paint! This ‘public-art’ dated tens of thousands of years, and we are merely updating the tools in which to continue with that legacy… the spraycan. I shared with them some of my own thoughts and my ethos, of how art can be used for social change. How art can be an alternative means for dealing with difficult problems. And then the issues came forward… What do they want to paint on this cube i asked… What are those messages? What do you feel passionate about, and what do Omani people feel right now….. The ideas came pouring out and sketches filled their paper. I always say everyone can draw, everyone is a graffiti artist. i mean EVERYONE. When you are on the phone, and you have a pen in your hand, what are you doing? Doodling (i.e Graffiti!) To prove the point i asked everyone to turn to their back-pages of their notebooks….. and lo and behold, what do we see?? Amazing designs of cubes and spirals and shapes……that had been crafted without them even realising it. They had been empowered! They truly are graffiti artists, but just didn’t realise it! So lets begin!
Outside we gained momentum quite quickly.. before you knew it, the black surface was disappearing, being engulfed with vibrant colours. I wanted them to release themselves and create a crazy collage of their concepts With the help of my support artists Taher and Salim, the cube was radically transformed. While they used the smaller of the two cubes to be more experimental upon, the larger cube became something more refined. With the help of a smaller group of students we got to work on intiricately developing a geometric pattern across the big cube.
The over-riding message of the larger cube became: The Future Belongs To Those Who Prepare for it Today – a quote from Malcolm X. A quote that was rather befitting for the Summit, especially as surrounding us were banners with the MYS logo, alongside the slogan ‘Investing In the Future’…
This is exactly what this session was about. investing in the future of these young people, developing them in extraordinary ways. Through the wide-range of workshops they had been involved with topics such as photography, digital activism, sustainable cities, and now graffiti-art, it was extremely refreshing to see how the youth had opened themselves up during these few days. They had extracted vital skills from the presenters flown in especially, and it was very exciting to be a part of it, knowing that the seeds we plant today, would make a difference in their lives – and ultimately the lives of others, injecting something back into the society they live in.
A short video made by SBTV on some of the workshops..