Exclusive Interview with Dubai Graffiti Writer Arcadia Blank
So some of you probably read our article a couple of weeks back about the infamous Dubai Graffiti writer Arcadia Blank whose been hitting up the walls of the middle east’s number one playground over the last couple of years. Well we had some great response to the piece, even from the artist himself, who kindly agreed to do an exclusive interview with D4. So if you’d like to know what circulates around the mind of a writer who’s capturing people’s attention in the UAE then read on!
Your writing has become part of the visual landscape in Dubai. What prompted you to start hitting up walls there?
A combination of creative frustration and evolution really. In Dubai (more specifically the part of the city known as “new Dubai” which is a local reference to the metropolis that emerged from the freehold property boom post 2002), the open environment is almost entirely corporatized and commercialized with almost no trace of anything which is truly local and reflective of the city itself, or of the people who live here.
The new part of the city doesn’t publicly exhibit any characteristics of itself or of the very unique myriad of cultures and identities that make it up. As a long time resident here and as someone who considers the city the closest thing to a home, I got fed up of being surrounded by an entire visual grid of international corporate ads and international brands that have absolutely nothing to do with the city itself, and that only really exist to brainwash and manipulate me into absolute bullshit. It felt completely unnatural to me (and still does) and I know for a fact that it also does to other residents who live here, Emirati friends included. People living here, and I think in any place in the world, want to feel like they are part of more than a scheduled mechanical life that is haloed by an imposed, ever-present, mutating corporate ethos. I think street art combats that and is a response to that because its not just happening in Dubai, but all over the world. But in Dubai I feel like it’s quite intense because other than brands and corporations, almost nothing and no one is allowed to express themselves in the open environment. That’s a bit of a shame because the city and its residents (both local and expat) certainly do have their own voice and identity, but I feel like that’s been overshadowed by an avalanche of hyper development and corporate commercialization, and a twisted notion that going global is more important than going local first. So as an artist, all I’m doing is responding to that state of affairs. If Colonel Saunders is allowed to be out in the open telling me how good he thinks his fried chicken is, I don’t see why I can’t get out in the open and tell people something that’s on my mind too. A lot of people who live in Dubai feel the same way, and I think that’s why some people can connect (or want to connect) with some of the things I put out there.
Some people may think that artistic expression should only be permitted in designated places such as studios or galleries, and to a degree I agree with them. But the art scene here is also highly commercialized and as a whole, is more interested in the international art circuit and on promoting international artists than it is on one’s who actually live here. But because most galleries and art spaces here are non-government entities, they can’t really survive without sales so it’s understandable. There certainly are spaces, organizations and events that share that understanding and are very active on a grass roots level in response to it and things are improving in terms of becoming more “homegrown”. But generally speaking, the art world in Dubai still has very limited avenues for its own residing artists to inject themselves into the city’s lifeblood and connect with the city’s residents outside the art community. It’s also incredibly formal, and artistic expression is usually always subject to approval and a designated exhibition time and place. That’s all good and fair, but I personally never worked well with terms and conditions, especially when it comes to anything I do art related. I also think creativity and constructive ideas, or attempts at promoting them, should be the last thing we ever try to tie down as both individuals and as a society. With that said though, I’d like to state that I’m very aware of the fact that not everyone here shares my views, and that not everyone sees what I do as “art”. I also know that I live in a conservative and strict Sharia Islam ruled country, so I do have to be mindful and respectful of that in everything that I do and say publicly. But just because the environment is strict, I don’t see that as a reason to stay silent and refrain from trying to express openly and connect with people around me.
So I guess along with a form of personal expression, what I’m doing is more or less a response to all those things combined.
There seems to be a strong existentialist sentiment in your statements. What do you think evokes that in your writing?
To me personally, street art has to have a strong element of inclusivity and engagement with the public if you want it to resonate with them. Different artists do that in different ways. For me, as someone using text, I try to do that by focusing on existential or common themes that anyone can relate to and share regardless of who they are, where they are from, or how artistically inclined they are. We’re all in this life thing together, and if I’m writing things that only I could understand or that only relate to me personally, then it would be really pointless and completely lost because it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. I mean some things I write are personal, but I always try to present them in a way that invites rather than isolates understanding.
Is humor important in your commentary?
I think sometimes it can be. I don’t really consider a lot of things I write humorous at all but one of the things I love about the street element of art is that whatever you leave out there is completely open to interpretation. You have a whole world of different minds scanning and absorbing what you do and different people will certainly interpret things in different ways. Humor really is quite a subjective thing anyway. So a statement that I might consider serious or highly critical might be interpreted as something completely absurd or humorous to someone else and vice versa. But that potential disparity or uncertainty in translation and comprehension is a part of the whole experience I think, and is probably one of the more defining elements of street art.
Why do you favor the written word over pictorial expressions?
Combination of things. First and foremost I can’t draw (and I obviously can’t even spray neatly either) and different people express themselves in different ways. Words and statements work for me because it allows the viewer/reader to paint the picture themselves, if it’s something that provokes them to do so. And in that exchange, the entire experience or interpretation of whatever is read becomes completely individualized in the mind of whoever reads it. Also in this environment writing short statements is a form of strategy because there really isn’t that much time to be able to draw something detailed in a place where people can see it because it takes much more time and increases your chances of getting caught. Public pictorial expression I think would also attract much more attention (and possible investigation by the authorities here) than dirty rushed scrawls would.
Do your statements draw any inspiration from the immediate environments in which they are written?
Sometimes no, sometimes yes. Sometimes I’ve already prepared what I want to write and sometimes they just come to me when I’m out. The environment I live in ultimately does shape me for sure, but so do worlds of other things beyond the physical. Usually though I try to make what I write in busy (or high traffic) areas more general than others that would be found in an alley way or on a back road somewhere. The more secluded or intimate the location, the more the statements usually end up being more convoluted or personal.
How would you define the social / cultural landscape in Dubai? How does this affect your work?
Culturally, I think Dubai is as beautiful as it is complex, but me trying to sum up Dubai in a few paragraphs would be extremely difficult because there are so many different aspects to it that would really need some in depth explanations and background info. But if I was to try I would probably say that Dubai is the epitome of a city that tries to be as progressive as it can (in terms of being recognized as a globalized city) while trying to be as culturally conservative as it can (through Sharia Islam). In the trade/commerce, luxury tourism and commercial entertainment/events sectors, I think it has certainly succeeded in doing so and has positioned itself as a leader in the Arab world within those fields. But within that kind of extreme cultural dynamic of globalized futurism vs. Sharia Islam conservatism, it has its own kind of unique chaos going on. For example, women can go to the mall here and buy some steamy lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, but they can’t walk through the mall to get to the store while wearing clothing that’s too revealing. You can go to an art gallery to check out some art, but you will never see a painting or a photo of anyone nude or any domestic politically critical work. You can buy booze from certain places, but you can’t be found with booze in your car.
Those are just basic examples. But I think the main defining element of society here is that the Emirati people make up just less than 20% of their own countries population, and are the only true citizens of the state. Everyone else living in Dubai (the U.A.E) are doing so on a strict conditional basis that completely excludes them from any kind of domestic political milieu or possible involvement in it. Because of that, expats (especially non-Muslims) generally become more inclined to embrace and hold on to their own values and cultures, and the country is certainly liberal enough to allow them to do so (within conditions of course). So really what you have in the U.A.E is a micro world full of all these different reality bubbles made up of other worlds from outside the U.A.E, all co-existing and clashing in a very unique way and that also experience and understand the city in different ways. For me, as an expat who has spent a lot of time here as a kid, I have a pretty good idea of how all those identities and realities co-exist and clash, and how they generally perceive the city. As an artist, that understanding gives me a lot to experiment and play with. But with the street work I try to transcend cultural differences and focus on collective consciousness and things which we all experience in this realm regardless of our differences. Sometimes I do touch on “culturally related” subjects, but it’s more geared towards playing on clichés and stereotypes and throwing them back at people then it is anything else.
What influences you creatively?
Absolutely everything and anything really. From crowds to isolation, from hieroglyphics to iPads, inner space to outer space, the devils scheme to the kundalini dream, other souls, other artists, other worlds, the lack, the surplus, music, consciousness, history, futurism, Aeon Flux’s sadomasochism…whatever. I’m an absolute sponge. I have absolutely no certainties or constants when it comes to creative influences or thoughts and waves can come from anywhere and at any time. All I do as an artist is absorb those waves , then try project them back outward through my own filters and processes and apply them to my own cipher and surrounding environment.
Do you think street art and graffiti will start to grow in Dubai after you’ve broken the ice so to speak?
Events that support and include live graffiti (or live art) on designated walls and spaces here have picked up here over the past few years and have gotten really popular. So that aspect of graffiti already exists and does seem to be growing positively which is great. Graffiti (or street art) outside controlled environments is still practically non-existent here. There is quite a bit of graffiti in the old parts of the city as well as a few throw ups around the city by artists who have visited from abroad, as well as from Emirati crews like Urban and SOB. But in terms of an actual graffiti movement happening here that embodies that illicit element, I really don’t know if that will ever happen. I mean I hope it does, don’t get me wrong, but I think if it ever did happen it would probably be much more subtle then in other places because Dubai isn’t really the type of place you would want to directly attract the attention of the law.
What would you like people who view your writing to take from it?
That’s totally up to them. As long as it can send people on a small trip or spark their imagination, even if it’s only for a microsecond, I’m happy with that. I’m not trying to overthrow the prevailing order with what I’m doing, I’m just trying to give people and myself, a short break from it and a possible window to reflect or escape. And even if people hate it, it’s still great because it gets them discussing and deliberating what they prefer or what they would like to see in the public sphere here. But (because this interview gives me the chance to say it) I’d like to say that I really wish the art world here would seriously start working full time with property developers and government cultural bodies to start allocating public spaces in the city for it’s own residing artists to be able to express outwards and engage with the city. In terms of helping develop and express the city’s own artistic identity, I really believe public art is crucial because it invites people (irrespective of identity, class, religion or creed) into a shared collective experience that becomes synonymous with place and time. And because of how things are socially structured in Dubai and because of the city’s extremely transient nature, I really think it’s important. It grounds things, and public art, whether it’s graffiti murals or public sculptures or whatever, establishes an element of solidified communal presence and social ipseity that galleries simply cannot create. And even if the work can’t be as edgy or “out there” as public works in other parts of the world due to cultural restrictions – who cares, it’s still true to place. And there are so many dope artists in the city that would have absolutely no problems working around the rules anyway so that isn’t really an issue. And I know for a fact that the public living here and tourists visiting Dubai would rather see that then something imported from somewhere else that only really appeals to art critics and connoisseurs, and that the average person and city resident just can’t absorb and doesn’t really care to.
What’s the next step for you?
I’m not sure really. I’d like to do a few more pieces which combine text with installation, but in terms of any defined planned steps, I really have none.