Using the uid, graceful lines of Arabic, French-Tunisian street artist el Seed has taken his messages to public spaces all over the world
Writer: Jens Martin Skibsted
Images: Courtesy of eL Seed.
OGOJIII: What is the origin of your name, eL Seed?
EL SEED: In a French class in ’98 we were studying a play called Le Cid. Our teacher told us that Cid comes from the Arabic el sayyid, which means the man [lord or master]. I was starting graffiti and said “Okay, I’m the man. It’s gonna be my name.”
Your background before you became eL Seed?
I was born and raised in Paris, by Tunisian parents. We used to go to Tunisia every summer, so we kept a strong attachment to the home country. I’m originally from the south of Tunisia, from Gabès, and I used to speak a Tunisian dialect, but I didn’t know how to write and read Arabic until I was 18. I was not feeling French so I decided to go back to my roots. I needed to learn the language, and this is how everything started. I then discovered Arabic calligraphy, but in the late '90s I was doing more breakdancing than graffiti. I have a master’s degree in business, and used to do business consulting a couple of years ago before focusing only on my art.
How did you begin to incorporate Arabic into your art?
When I discovered calligraphy I looked for a teacher in France, but I didn’t find anybody. So I just started
to reproduce some old classical calligraphy, without knowing that in Arabic calligraphy there are rules that you need to respect, and that you learn from a master... it was a self-taught thing.
How’s the reaction been from traditional scholars?
Some people told me that I needed to learn the rules before I broke them. I said that I am not breaking any rules, because I don’t know them. I’m coming from the graffiti scene, not from an Arabic calligraphy background. I don’t call myself a calligrapher, but I have a deep respect for this tradition because it’s the essence of my work.
You used to translate your graffiti, but then you stopped doing so?
Yeah, I used to write the message [also] in French or English, but I stopped. One of the reasons is because I don’t want to break the poetry of Arabic calligraphy.
I think even if you don’t know how to read Arabic, you always get the feeling of it, there is something that touches your soul before it reaches your eyes. There is a beauty you don’t need to translate. You can appreciate it like any form of art. But most of the time I put on social media what I’m writing.
What has been the most challenging surface you’ve worked on?
I think it was the minaret, because it was in my hometown of Gabès in Tunisia, and during Ramadan. It was at a certain time of Tunisian history and I was painting on a mosque – some people were not ready for that.
It was three weeks of work for both sides of the minaret. The result was good, in terms of reaction of the community and the international press. They came to this forgotten place in Tunisia through this art piece and the minaret.
I have painted on the rooftops of the favelas in Rio, I painted in the slums of South Africa. I’d rather [paint] walls with histories, sometimes broken, you know, when you can see that something happened to it. So you’re freezing history – that’s what I like most.
Is there a common thread, a message in all your work?
I don’t think there’s one message. There’s this universal dimension, but I’m trying to be relevant to the place where I’m painting. For example, I painted this wall in New York right after the terrorist attack during the 2013 Boston marathon, and I was a bit scared, actually, to paint. But it went really well and I wrote this quote: “The more you go to the East, the more you reach the West.” I think that was perfect for this time. I wrote on the film set of Star Wars in Tunisia, “I will never be your son”, in response to Darth Vader saying, “I’m your father” in the movie. The wall has been erased, but it’s cool. It was a fake film set left in the middle of the desert in Tunisia and I was trying to find the right message in the right place.
What makes your work artistically relevant beyond these messages?
I’m trying to show that Arabic script can be seen everywhere, the same way you can see Latin script in the middle of Yemen. Why don’t you see Arabic script in the middle of New York that doesn't make people scared of what is written? That’s not a mission for me, but it could be a goal. I would love to achieve that, to make it look normal.
While it is not my objective, my work is often seen as a balance to any negativity in the name of Islam. As an artist, my ability is to show the beauty of Arabic and my work speaks to people’s souls, even if they don’t understand the words. They will feel the emotion.
I don’t want to be a balance, nor do I want to be linked to anything negative. I am proud to be a mentor of my country, history and language.