Graffiti Wars and Syria’s Spray Man

A Syrian man crosses a deserted street, with pro-Assad graffiti and posters closed shops' shutters, near the shopping district of the flashpoint city of Homs. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Firas al-khouy

Published Thursday, October 6, 2011

Syrian authorities and graffiti dissidents are playing cat and mouse on the country’s walls. Syrian protesters spray anti-regime slogans, while authorities rush to cover them up and arrest the perpetrators, including one mysterious dissident dubbed Spray Man.

Damascus — When buying spray paint in Syria, remember to take your ID with you. Vendors refuse to sell the paint unless buyers provide personal papers and an ‘affidavit’ explaining the reasons behind the purchase.

Spraying subversive graffiti caught on in Syria during the Egyptian uprising. It is said that on the night of Mubarak’s downfall, someone sprayed under a Damascus bridge, “Now it’s your turn, doctor” — in reference President Bashar Assad, who is an eye doctor by training. Very few people managed to see the graffiti before it was quickly removed by the authorities. Many attempts have been made to spray new graffiti in the same area, but in vain. The walls are always clean by the next morning.

With the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, graffiti spread to other areas of the capital such as Bab Touma, where it was also quickly covered up. Syrians have circulated stories about the identity of the man behind the graffiti. They now call him ‘Spray Man.' The name is taken from a famous television show called Spotlight. In this show, a character called Spray Man sprays political images and slogans that provoke the police. He finally ends up in a white prison cell with two security guards who paint the cell every time he thinks of spraying graffiti.

No one knew anything about Spray Man until Syrian journalist Iyad Shurbaji mentioned him on his Facebook page. Shurbaji wrote that he had met Spray Man at the criminal security division, where he was taken after participating in a protest. Shurbaji explains: “His name is Ahmad Khanji. He is a 30-year-old architect. He lives in the posh Abu-Rumana neighborhood of Damascus. He runs his own business and owns a new car. Ahmad used to spray anti-regime graffiti in old Damascus. One night, some residents saw him spraying graffiti in the area. They chased him until a resident offered him refuge at his house. When he accepted, the resident locked him in until the police came to arrest him. Ahmad felt betrayed, not because he was detained, but because the resident who had offered him refuge handed him over to the police.”

Facebook Walls

A Facebook group has already paid homage to the Damascene architect-turned graffitist. The “We are all the Spray Man” group expresses a desire for protest: “If the walls of the nation are not enough for you, you can always write on the walls of the web.” The group calls on Internet users to turn Facebook’s walls into a space for protesting in much the same way the streets have been turned into a space to demand freedom.

In Maadamiya, a southern suburb of Damascus, protesters have been spraying slogans such as “The people want to topple the regime” and “Free Syria,” among others. What’s more, calls have spread over the Internet to paint the largest Syrian flag ever on a 250m-long wall.

Rumors have been circulating that protesters in this suburb managed to spray paint state institutions, such as the office of the transportation supervisor. Supporters of the regime quickly responded with their own graffiti at the same office. The following day, anti-regime protesters fired back with slogans calling for freedom. Soon, the walls of the office turned into a snapshot of the Syrian crisis. One morning the residents of the area woke up to find that the office had been demolished without any prior notice. It disappeared, taking with it the daily conflict over freedom scribbled on its walls.

Graffiti in Syria did not begin with the current crisis. Syrian students have been using graffiti in school restrooms to express love, memories, and even to insult their school principals. Public restrooms are also covered with graffiti of a similar nature. But only since the outbreak of the uprising did such openly political graffiti make an appearance on Syria’s streets.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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