TED2015

eL Seed: Street art with a message of hope and peace

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What does this gorgeous street art say? It's Arabic poetry, inspired by bold graffiti and placed where a message of hope and peace can do the most good. In this quietly passionate talk, artist and TED Fellow eL Seed describes his ambition: to create art so beautiful it needs no translation.

- Artist
French-Tunisian artist eL Seed blends the historic art of Arabic calligraphy with graffti to portray messages of beauty, poetry and peace across all continents. Full bio

In 2012, when I painted
the minaret of Jara Mosque
00:12
in my hometown of Gabés,
in the south of Tunisia,
00:16
I never thought that graffiti would bring
so much attention to a city.
00:19
At the beginning, I was just looking
for a wall in my hometown,
00:25
and it happened that the minaret
was built in '94.
00:29
And for 18 years, those 57 meters
of concrete stayed grey.
00:32
When I met the imam for the first time,
and I told him what I wanted to do,
00:38
he was like, "Thank God you finally came,"
00:42
and he told me that for years
he was waiting for somebody
00:44
to do something on it.
00:47
The most amazing thing about this imam
is that he didn't ask me anything --
00:49
neither a sketch,
or what I was going to write.
00:53
In every work that I create,
I write messages
00:57
with my style of calligraffiti --
a mix of calligraphy and graffiti.
01:00
I use quotes or poetry.
01:05
For the minaret, I thought that
the most relevant message
01:07
to be put on a mosque
should come from the Quran,
01:10
so I picked this verse:
01:13
"Oh humankind, we have created you
from a male and a female,
01:14
and made you people and tribe,
so you may know each other."
01:18
It was a universal call for peace,
tolerance, and acceptance
01:21
coming from the side that we don't usually
portray in a good way in the media.
01:25
I was amazed to see how the local
community reacted to the painting,
01:29
and how it made them proud to see
the minaret getting so much attention
01:33
from international press
all around the world.
01:37
For the imam, it was not
just the painting;
01:41
it was really deeper than that.
01:43
He hoped that this minaret would become
a monument for the city,
01:45
and attract people
to this forgotten place of Tunisia.
01:48
The universality of the message,
01:52
the political context
of Tunisia at this time,
01:54
and the fact that I was writing
Quran in a graffiti way
01:57
were not insignificant.
02:00
It reunited the community.
02:02
Bringing people, future generations,
02:05
together through Arabic calligraphy
02:08
is what I do.
02:11
Writing messages is
the essence of my artwork.
02:12
What is funny, actually, is that
even Arabic-speaking people
02:16
really need to focus a lot
to decipher what I'm writing.
02:19
You don't need to know
the meaning to feel the piece.
02:24
I think that Arabic script touches
your soul before it reaches your eyes.
02:27
There is a beauty in it
that you don't need to translate.
02:31
Arabic script speaks to anyone, I believe;
02:35
to you, to you, to you, to anybody,
02:37
and then when you get the meaning,
02:41
you feel connected to it.
02:43
I always make sure to write messages
02:45
that are relevant to the place
where I'm painting,
02:47
but messages that have
a universal dimension,
02:50
so anybody around the world
can connect to it.
02:53
I was born and raised in France, in Paris,
02:56
and I started learning how to write
and read Arabic when I was 18.
02:58
Today I only write messages in Arabic.
03:03
One of the reasons
this is so important to me,
03:06
is because of all the reaction that
I've experienced all around the world.
03:10
In Rio de Janeiro, I translated
this Portuguese poem
03:15
from Gabriela Tôrres Barbosa,
03:19
who was giving an homage
to the poor people of the favela,
03:21
and then I painted it on the rooftop.
03:24
The local community were really
intrigued by what I was doing,
03:27
but as soon as I gave them
the meaning of the calligraphy,
03:30
they thanked me, as they felt
connected to the piece.
03:33
In South Africa, in Cape Town,
03:38
the local community of Philippi
03:40
offered me the only
concrete wall of the slum.
03:43
It was a school, and I wrote on it
03:46
a quote from Nelson Mandela,
03:49
saying, "[in Arabic],"
03:50
which means, "It seems
impossible until it's done."
03:53
Then this guy came to me and said,
"Man, why you don't write in English?"
03:56
and I replied to him, "I would consider
your concern legit if you asked me
03:59
why I didn't write in Zulu."
04:04
In Paris, once, there was this event,
04:06
and someone gave his wall to be painted.
04:08
And when he saw I was painting in Arabic,
04:13
he got so mad -- actually, hysterical --
and he asked for the wall to be erased.
04:16
I was mad and disappointed.
04:20
But a week later, the organizer
of the event asked me to come back,
04:22
and he told me that there was a wall
right in front of this guy's house.
04:26
So, this guy --
04:29
(Laughter)
04:31
like, was forced to see it every day.
04:33
At the beginning, I was going
to write, "[In Arabic],"
04:35
which means, "In your face," but --
04:38
(Laughter)
04:40
I decided to be smarter
and I wrote, "[In Arabic],"
04:42
which means, "Open your heart."
04:46
I'm really proud of my culture,
04:48
and I'm trying to be an ambassador
of it through my artwork.
04:52
And I hope that I can break
the stereotypes we all know,
04:57
with the beauty of Arabic script.
05:02
Today, I don't write the translation
of the message anymore on the wall.
05:05
I don't want the poetry
of the calligraphy to be broken,
05:10
as it's art and you can appreciate it
without knowing the meaning,
05:14
as you can enjoy any music
from other countries.
05:17
Some people see that
as a rejection or a closed door,
05:21
but for me, it's more an invitation --
05:25
to my language,
to my culture, and to my art.
05:27
Thank you.
05:31
(Applause)
05:32

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About the Speaker:

eL Seed - Artist
French-Tunisian artist eL Seed blends the historic art of Arabic calligraphy with graffti to portray messages of beauty, poetry and peace across all continents.

Why you should listen

Born in Paris to Tunisian parents, eL Seed travels the world, making art in Paris, New York, Jeddah, Melbourne, Gabes, Doha and beyond. His goal: to create dialogue and promote tolerance as well as change global perceptions of what Arabic means. In 2012, for instance, he painted a message of unity on a 47-meter-high minaret on the Jara mosque in Gabes, Tunisia. This piece and others can be found in his book, Lost Walls: Graffiti Road Trip through Tunisia

Most recently he created a sprawling mural in the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood of Cairo that spans 50 buildings and can only be viewed from a local mountaintop. Intending to honor the historic garbage collectors of the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood, the piece reads, "Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first."

More profile about the speaker
eL Seed | Speaker | TED.com