Street art in Jordan: 'The world is their gallery'

Amman – In the dusty afternoon heat of downtown Amman, Suhaib Attar has laid out his spray paint cans on the ground. He paces back and forth, trying to figure out how to brighten up a nearby wall.

A group of curious children gathers behind him as Attar calmly puts on his headphones on and begins to sing softly in Arabic. He picks up one of the cans and starts to paint.

Street art is a relatively new phenomenon in Jordan, where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30 and unemployment rates among young people are twice the national rate, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

But Attar is fast becoming one of Jordan’s most renowned street artists, with his work appearing all over the country.

Attar stands with a skateboard that he customised and designed at his home in east Amman [Zab Mustefa/Al Jazeera]

Poverty and pressure to provide for their families have dissuaded many young people from pursuing art as a passion, but Attar hopes to change that.

“We are missing a lot in the art scene here because it’s very hard to make a living out of it, but I’m hopeful it will become bigger as more graffiti is showing up on walls,” Attar, 24, tells Al Jazeera. “I think my work brightens up Amman, and the city definitely needs more of this. For some people, it can expand their imagination and it makes them think outside the box.”

After 20 minutes of work, he stands back to examine the geometric panda he has drawn. His audience of children looks on enthusiastically.

“The good thing about street art is that it is public, so everyone sees it, and I can use this whole country as my canvas,” Attar says. “I feel as though people are used to seeing the same drab colours of buildings, so if there is a huge mural in between, the colours put people in a good mood.”

Growing up in a tough neighbourhood in east Amman as the eldest son of Palestinian refugee parents, Attar struggled as a teenager.

“I used to be an aggressive kid, and I had a lot of problems at school,” he recalls. “I got into a lot of fights, but I found that art was like anger management, because I used to vent my frustrations into my sketches. It made me feel better and calmer, as it helped me stay out of trouble.”

After attending classes at a local community centre, he learned about graphic design and digital art before discovering street art. Among the rows of old buildings outside Attar’s house, clumsy graffiti outlines are still visible from where he practised his skills as a teenager.

At 19, Attar began studying fine arts at university, but his passion for painting the streets of Amman soon led him to quit his studies and start working with NGOs and small businesses. Commissioned for advertising by agencies, such as the UN and the United States Agency for International Development, he worked on a number of projects dear to his heart, including efforts to increase women’s empowerment and to secure regional peace. 

A side street in the Jabal Al Weibdeh area of Amman displays one of Attar’s most striking murals to date: a 23-metre-high geometric deer, painted on an old building. It was his first large-scale piece and took two days to complete.

Attar painted his first large-scale mural, a massive geometric deer, in the Jabal Al Weibdeh area [Zab Mustefa/Al Jazeera]

“I started experimenting with the line art style, which I learned in university, so it was exciting to have an opportunity to make it into a huge piece,” Attar says. “People really love it, and it catches their eye because of its colour combination.”

Amid the recent influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan, Attar has also started holding workshops with Syrian children, introducing them to his world of colour and expression. He works in conjunction with Awareness and Prevention Through Art (AptART), an NGO that specialises in working with vulnerable children.

“Jordan has hosted refugees from across the region for more than half a century. There are a lot of conversations to be held in public spaces, and art offers an opportunity to do that,” AptART director Samantha Robison tells Al Jazeera.

“In Jordan, the concept of street art is much more unconventional than in other places,” she adds. “It’s still in its beginning stages of social understanding and acceptance. Our aim is to amplify the voices of marginalised groups and put their ideas and identities in the public space. Street artists have an opportunity to convey a message to a large audience in a way that other artists might not. The world is their gallery; it’s art for everyone.”

When the AptART team was working in Zaatari camp, home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees, children as young as four were able to join in and write on walls about their hopes for the future.

“These kids are stuck in the middle of the desert, in a camp, and there is nothing bright for them,” Attar says. “Young refugees didn’t have any colours around them, and doing something simple like letting them play with paint put a smile on their faces. Writing their messages and ideas on a wall made them feel better about their lives, because they felt as if they were achieving something.”

A photo of an army officer was used as inspiration for Attar’s work to brighten up Khalda, northeast of Amman [Zab Mustefa/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, one of Attar’s murals in Khalda, northeast of Amman, shows a different side of the Jordanian army: an officer with his bagpipes. “I was given photos from the army archives to choose from and this man’s features stood out for me,” he says. 

And in the Sweifieh district of Amman, Attar’s pastel-coloured whale stands out as a part of a project to raise awareness of Jordan’s water crisis. He and another artist each painted one side of a building with water-related themes in an effort to get people thinking about the environment.

“Water gets delivered once a week, so families have to save their supplies to last for seven days … I think Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world when it comes to water, so when people see this street art, they will take notice,” Attar explains.

“I’m lucky to be doing this,” he adds, touching the mural on the wall. “Being up high and painting is where I find my inner peace.”

Using pastel colours, Attar drew a whale in Sweifieh to highlight environmental and water issues in Jordan [Zab Mustefa/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera