Born in Paris to Tunisian parents: The artwork of street artist eL Seed splices, juxtaposes, and clashes elements of both of these disparate cultures. His “calligrafitti” blend the poetry of the Arabic alphabet with the rough reality of graffiti.
Only fragments of the largest piece of art to probably ever be created in Cairo can be glimpsed from street level. Entwined, winding patterns of white, blue, and orange, stretching across the façades of 50 buildings.
Viewers only see the whole picture when they ascend a particular hill of the nearby Mokattam mountain range. Right here, where a monastery and a cathedral were hewn into the rock, a magnificent view opens up.
Only viewed from here, the individual graffiti reveal their meaning. “In order to see the sunlight, you first need to wipe your eyes,” they state in Arabic lettering. It’s a quote ascribed to a Coptic bishop in the third century AD.
And it’s also where the so-called Zabbaleen live, the “garbage people” of Egypt’s capital city, in the southernmost corner of Cairo’s Manshiyyet Nasser district. The area’s dirt-poor residents have established their own ecosystem based on gathering garbage, ensuring that their metropolis does not suffocate in masses of refuse.
For his latest work, “Perception,” eL Seed, a French-Tunisian artist from Paris, spent weeks living among these “garbage people“ and paying homage to their strife.
Meanwhile, what is possibly one of the largest artworks of its kind to date has attracted a lot of attention from day one. When the very first images of the body of work popped up on the internet, many people thought it was the work of Photoshop.
Just a few days after completion in mid-March, 5,000 people had already shared the story on social media. And the locals, too, loved “their” artwork. Their only gripe: that eL Seed hadn’t painted even more of their homes.
Influenced by French hip hop culture
But “Perception” is just one eye-catching work by the renowned street artist. Influenced by hip-hop culture, he had painted his first ever graffiti as a teenager – in his own Parisian neighborhood.
In search of his very own identity, the son of Tunisian immigrants slowly, but surely found his own style. “In France, people give you the feeling that you can only ever be French,” he stated in an interview.
“But my face simply doesn’t look French and my name doesn’t sound very French, either.” So, eL Seed taught himself to read and write Arabic when he was 18, sparking and shaping many of his later works.
His “calligraffiti,” a style originally devised in the Netherlands some ten years ago, combines traditional graffiti with Arabic lettering: Two seemingly irreconcilable cultures collide and shape a new identity. His own identity.
At the same time, eL Seed’s images aren’t easy to read. “It takes a close look to decipher my writings,” adds the artist who took inspiration for his moniker from the French 17th century play “Le Cid.”
Yet the deeper messages are accessible to anyone, irrespective of their Arabic skills. “I always use messages connected to the location,” he states. “They are universal, allowing anyone in the world to relate to them.”
The result is a sense of poetic beauty that is rather felt than seen. “It simply speaks to all of us,” according to eL Seed.
A splash of peace
His work has taken the 35-year-old talent to cities around the world, including exhibitions in Berlin, Chicago, Paris, and Dubai. He was even the first person of Arabic descent to design a scarf for fashion house Louis Vuitton.
Yet what is arguably his best-known work remains the calligraffiti on the Jara Mosque in his family’s Tunisian hometown of Gabes, which was officially commissioned by the city’s governor.
Since 2012, the mosque’s 57-meter tower has been graced by a verse from the Koran: “Oh, you people, we made you from man and woman and turned you into races and tribes, so you may recognize each other.”
It’s a message of tolerance and yearning for peace that suffuses all of his artworks. After all, eL Seed not only pursues art, but also a very personal mission. He wants to offer alternative access to islamic culture.
With his poetic works, the artist steers the western view to places that are far removed from Islamic stereotypes.
His ultimate goal is almost banal in its universality: “Bringing people and cultures together – that’s what I do.” Let’s only hope that he reaches a large audience – in both cultural spheres.