Article written by Brian Gonnella
Whenever it’s described, there is something special about Beirut. It’s a beta world-city, the capital and most populous city of Lebanon—one of the leading intellectual and cultural centers of the Arab world. Sitting at the crossroads between the Arab & Mediterranean culture, Lebanon, especially Beirut, has a diverse social fabric unlike anywhere else in the Middle East. Beirut itself is oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, taking something from millions of inhabitants over thousands of years (Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French—to name only a few) and forging into a unique style all its own.
In Beirut, hip-hop and skateboarding are equally at home with poetry and coffee. Modern nightclubs & skyscrapers blend seamlessly with arabesque Ottoman-era buildings and ancient ruins. This permeating, street level multiculturalism is what makes Beirut seem like an orientalist fantasy come to life, but I think the simple truth of it all is that the Lebanese people just seem to really dig style.
While hip-hop and heavy metal have been regular scenes in modern Lebanon for a minute now, graffiti is a relative newcomer but already making strong in-roads. For, I got a chance to grill Beirut writer Phat2 about the history of the scene in Beirut (and Lebanon in general) and his experiences as one of the top writers in the land.
Who are you? what’s the Phat2 origin story?
I am a passionate millennial graffiti artist/writer who thought Phat was a cool name and never realized the mistake I made before it was too late. It was that name simply because I was overweight at the time. I added the 2 later when I found out about Phat1 from New Zealand whom I admire heaps.
I am the founder of the Lebanese crew ACK, but I actually represent my city as a whole: Beirut!
How long have you been writing?
I started practicing on paper in 2003. Then in 2009 I painted my first street piece and haven’t stopped since.
Beirut has always had a reputation of being very cosmopolitan. Open to all kinds of world-styles. Big on heavy metal. Big on hip hop, skateboarding…so how did graffiti in Beirut (and Lebanon) get started?
Fres was the first real Lebanese graffiti artist, bringing the knowledge he had from growing up in London to Beirut for the first time in the mid-90s. He would sporadically paint in Beirut between then and 2006, even on bullet-ridden decommissioned trains (the last of them).
Did you ever get a chance to meet Fres?
Yes of course, I’m proud that we’re friends with mutual respect. I even used to be in a crew with him. SDF baby!
So after it was introduced, how did it evolve? How did it spread?
There were scattered efforts in the mid-2000s by Fish and his crew REK, at creating a “scene” by painting in industrial areas.

But the sense of the start of a real graffiti scene was first felt during the 2006 summer war vs. Israel, and that consisted mostly of Ibrahim, Fish, Kabrit, M3alim, Prime and Horek painting “activist-style” pieces using dollar cans, often with anti-war slogans and cheerful colors. Although it wasn’t completely intentional, this allowed the people’s first real exposure to graffiti to be a rather supportive one – a privilege very few countries have had.



Graffiti, in the sense of “writing on the wall” has a long history with anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-establishment movements, with a proto-graffiti scenes dating back to the riots in the Us and Paris in 1968 where graffiti slogans from the Left popped up everywhere…so its pretty common to find those two scenes overlapping. The action itself…reclaiming private or ignored property and beautifying it for the public…I’ve never met a writer yet that wasn’t at least leaning slightly Left with his politics.

You mentioned earlier that you didn’t start painting for real until 2009…so were you a spectator for this stage of the movement? some of these guys you painted with later in life, did you know them during this time?
Yes, those were the years when I was practicing on paper and being a spectator. I used to go out graff hunting, taking walks in different areas and looking for graffiti to take photos of. I had only met a couple guys before 2008-2009 like Fish and Kabrit.


So what came next, after the initial scene in 2006?

The second generation of writers arrived very shortly after, around 2008. Compelled by the positive attitude the public had towards Graffiti, I created the crew ACK, and together, we sped things up by hitting the streets hard and often with a more traditional approach, focusing on letter style and reputation rather than activism.
Heads like Eps, Fish, Kabrit, Zed, Prime, Ibrahim, Rile and myself would go out to paint back to back pieces every weekend, armed with a highly motivated attitude and a collective goal of getting Beirut on the map as the legit graffiti capital of the Middle East.
Practice was of the essence and we were constantly experimenting with new styles and techniques to improve our quality. We all knew that this was a crucial time in Lebanese Graff history as we practically were the first ones to lay down the foundations for and mold the future of this whole shebang. All the while paving the way for the 3rd wave of kids who would get influenced by what we were doing between 2006 and 2012.
Aside from the older guys previously mentioned who are still active today, we’ve been seeing a lot of Barok, Bros crew, Yazan, Moe, Exist and Spaz since the early 2010s with a lot of Calligraffiti and Characters…

Is there a lot of variation in styles from city to city, region to region? 

There actually aren’t any considerable graffiti outside of the greater Beirut area.
Lebanon is a tiny country of only 10452 km2. However, there’s a massive amount of variation in styles within Beirut itself. You can find literally everything here. Wilds, simples, throws and tags, Arabic letters, realistic portraits, calligraffiti, characters, big productions, stencils, wheatpaste, even euro style!
The thing with me is that I fit everywhere. I tend to experiment a lot and paint so many different styles to broaden my horizons as wide as possible. I’m somewhat of a universal man with that stuff, almost never painting the same style twice. I’ve also been the city’s biggest bomber for a long while (before our good friend Meuh came around)
But if I had to absolutely squeeze myself into a category, I’d say I belong to the world of letters. At the moment, I’m working towards having proper wildstyle structure and flow.
Why do you think graffiti is less prevalent outside of Beirut? And have you and other writers in Beirut ever gone out to other major cities in Lebanon to paint? Is there a political factor? I know from the news that certain cities like Tripoli have been pretty hectic and probably not a fun place to paint as of late….
Beirut is known to be the less conservative city and biggest tourist attraction as the capital. The way I see it, it’s because Lebanon is sectarian – Cities have different cultures and evolve independently from each other, at their own rate. Graffiti simply isn’t popular yet there, just like it wasn’t popular here before 2006.
Maybe the time will come, maybe not.
My friends and I take occasional roadtrips to paint in those still-blank cities. Personally, I’ve worked with the French Institute of Saida and Nabatieh (two cities in the south) for a couple years now, so I get to spend a couple days every time I visit. Of course I make it a point to drop some pieces every time too. It’s funny but to show you how slow it is, I also have the highest number of pieces in Saida and I only go there a few times a year to the beach or the institute…
Obviously, you don’t go out painting in dangerous places like Tripoli. That’s common sense.
But once things calm down, it’s next!
So if Beirut is where it’s at mostly, what would you say is the status of the graffiti scene in Beirut RIGHT NOW:
Graffiti in Beirut and Lebanon isn’t really judged by its community for its aesthetics and technical prowess. It gained too much popularity too fast but hasn’t been around for long enough for the general public to differentiate between proper and sloppy work. This allows the younger generation to gain as much praise and money for their less professional work as we do.
Seeing as how a big portion of the population here is materialistic, the richer and more famous you are, the more you are sought after. So the kids aren’t too much about style or getting up, but rather about making money quick and early with as little effort and investment as possible.
The public’s insufficient knowledge makes it a very commercial scene when it comes to the younger generation who accepted to trade their self-respect for an “easy” income.
We’ve established already that the Beirut scene is tiny so it’s very easy for toys to make friends with pros. Everyone’s still mixed up with everyone here. There isn’t enough people yet to allow a separation between toys and pros. It’s nice that everyone’s a happy tree friend, yknow? But with the same token, that gives the toys massive illusions of grandeur. They hang out with a pro for a couple weeks, then all of a sudden they’re in a big crew and think they’re kings because of it. Sooner or later you see them get on social media with a few pics and heaps of likes, they stop their progress because they think they “finally made it” and their quality drops and gets sloppy. They eventually get stale by repetitively producing the same recycled style from the pic that got the most online likes before.
Real graffiti is rare and valuable here, the public’s lack of exposure to it, combined with the low quality work being offered by the youngsters makes the market value drop for all of us, including those who decided to make a career out of it.

However (on a slightly more positive note) I reckon they do make efforts to try and get better style-wise, albeit at an extremely slow pace and refusing guidance.


How did you get started personally. As a kid in Beirut, what was your first exposure to graffiti?
I’ve been a fan of Linkin Park ever since their 2000 album “Hybrid Theory”.
Its artwork included stencils, wheatpastes, sketches, scribbles, handstyles and logos…
I thought the visuals went so well with their sound, I felt I could tell exactly what their music would be like just by looking at the sleeve and cover art. That made me want to do the same thing: Show people what I can come up with without saying a word. (I hope they’re reading this) The first time I was actually exposed to real graffiti was when I started tagging my neighborhood trying to imitate the stuff I saw in Hybrid Theory, and about a year into doing that, I went over someone’s work. He retaliated by completely covering up the wall facing my house, and that put me in my place. So I went online and started doing my research to try and get better at it. That’s where I stumbled upon and joined its forums where I kept getting bashed for being a toy, let alone an Arab. I was told that I’d never improve.
The defiant teenage need to prove everyone wrong got me sketching like a man possessed.
Today, I’m a moderator on those forums.
2000 is pretty far along in American graffiti culture at that point. Also right about when you started seeing a pretty significant commercialization of the graffiti aesthetic too. Do you feel a strong connection with the history and the source of the culture at all?  like the NYC origins, graffiti’s function as the visual wing of hip-hop culture and all that?
Hybrid Theory’s album art was my first exposure to graffiti. I didn’t choose it specifically or mean for it to happen, so the fact that it’s a “commercial” source is out of my control and irrelevant. That was only the spark that lit the flame for me, and that’s why I always acknowledge it in conversation about my roots.
But obviously my style and identity in the graffiti world was formed after having learned the history and been exposed to all that stuff. However, I’m not a Hip-Hop head, I’m more of a Metal head, so even though I admire and respect the old school (I’d say it shows somewhat in my style), I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of that era.
Being part of the “world of letters” as you say, you write Roman characters a lot instead of Arabic, most people reading this might not know most Lebanese speak multiple languages and are familiar multiple alphabets so that’s really not unusual, but why did you make that choice? 
Was it a stylistic one? do you sometimes tag in both? 
I’m trilingual, but I associate more with the western culture than with the oriental one. I’ve been a student in a French school all my life where we did everything the French way, then I majored in Graphic Design in American universities. I always liked English music and movies, was always top of my classes in English. So it’s very normal for me to be much more into English letters than Arabic ones. On top of that, my goal has always been to branch out internationally and not just locally, and I want to be able to relate to other writers from different scenes, and obviously English is the way to go for that, so it was a “strategic” choice to focus less on Arabic.
But make no mistake about it, I LOVE Arabic graff. Got nothing against it. I did, do, and will keep doing it… Gotta represent!
A lot of people reading this are probably curious as to the how the current political situation at home and next door in Syria might affect the graffiti scene in general. Is there anything you notice in particular you might be able to shed light on?
Personally I think I’m probably the least qualified person to discuss politics. I hate it, and our political situation is hopeless for oh so many reasons that I certainly will not go into.
However, the fact that our government is so overwhelmed with this vast plethora of problems and crises puts graffiti at the very bottom of their to-do-list. So on top of the fact that graffiti here has been regarded as art rather than vandalism for so long and is mostly appreciated by the public, there’s also the fact that we aren’t pursued or frowned upon by the authorities.
Of course, the displeasure of having a vandal writing political, religious, or sexually charged messages/slogans exists everywhere in the world, and Beirut is no exception.
But then again, countless are the times when I was left in peace by the police after simply and calmly explaining how what I’m painting is void of politics or religion, and how this “art” contributes to a better, more colorful environment in this otherwise gray and bullet-ridden city. It became kind of a formula for when you are questioned. It all depends on how you react. We wear casual clothes, do our best to look educated and proper, speak maturely and never over-react to accusations. We paint in broad daylight to emphasize how we’ve nothing to hide as opposed to being the suspicious stereotype at night with our hoodies and backpacks…
So if anything, the political conflicts are to our advantage here.
That’s pretty amazing that a cool demeanor can basically get you a free pass to paint. in the US that is straight fantasy. Graffiti charges here are serious and can land you in big time trouble because its straight up property over people here. But It’s interesting though that now having an apolitical or non-political approach and attitude towards graffiti catches you less shit from the police when it was anti-war murals and stuff like that that endeared graffiti to the public earlier in the scene’s history. Any thoughts on why that might be?
Like I said, we conditioned the authorities to that. We showed them the artistic side of graffiti early on in the game before there was too much of it. We taught them to like graffiti by doing all that colorful positive stuff rather than inert chromes everywhere. It’s really a small group of elites here in this scene that influence the public, and all of us are practically helping with the same job, be it intentionally or not, and that’s getting graffiti as accepted as possible to get as many walls as possible.


So how would you compare writing in your own country to writing abroad? And what do you think the appeal is for writers coming to get down in Beirut?
The spots! It’s all about the spots here. Normally, you can’t find a single empty space in chill spots abroad, eventually resorting to going over someone (which isn’t a big deal most of the time). We don’t face that problem here seeing as how we’re only a handful of active writers, there’s so much blank space and it’s almost legal. We practically rack the best spots and claim them forever. I have a piece on a stellar highway spot still running since 2009 with not even a single tag on it. If someone goes over you here, 90% of the time it’ll be out of beef, not necessity.
Beirut is a virgin city for the time being, the ease of painting here provides the scene with an extremely positive (even therapeutic) vibe. Very attractive to foreigners who are eager to experience the joy of spending a relaxing summer afternoon writing on the most visible spot in the middle of the city during busy hour, and virtually not be bothered except for the passing props and thanks. It truly is THE coolest city I’ve painted in so far. If only we had trains too…
On the other hand, it gets boiling hot in the summer, and is kind of gnarly in terms of environment and infrastructure.
I’ve hung out with almost every foreigner that’s passed by Beirut, helping them with language, spots, cans and stuff. I’ve even helped some find places to crash if not housed them myself. Made amazing connections and friends, often creating work/travel opportunities in the process. I really enjoy networking with foreign writers, especially if they’re cool and have a positive attitude. In fact Deter and Prime are two of my best friends in the graffiti world and they’re both foreign (Salut les gars!).
Who are Deter and Prime? How’d you meet them?
I met Deter on the BS forums. He saw my shit and messaged me saying he’s coming to Beirut and wanted to hook up. I offered him shelter, and then he repaid the favor when I visited him in Switzerland. Great guy all around. Very chill, huge 90s hip hop guru and a total Geneva king no doubt about it!
Prime is an amazing friend with whom I’ve had so many constructive experiences, we’re crew mates in TG (big up à tous les amis!) we’ve been business partners back when I owned the Graff shop/gallery, and is my solid bombing mate in Paris!
And in regards to your mission to put Beirut on top of the Middle East graffiti scene, what other cities in the Middle East have a good reputation or a good scene, in your opinion? And have you ever been to compare?
I haven’t been to any other Middle eastern cities myself to compare YET. but with the internet and social media, you can easily get an idea of how it is nowadays.
Turkey seems to have a phenomenal scene out there. I don’t know if I can call this mission accomplished yet, as I believe we’re at a close shave with them for the crown….But hey, this rock is big enough for everyone, and I’m all for having better scenes everywhere, it can only benefit us all. So it’s a “healthy” competition, look at it as a collaborative effort to bring the whole Middle East up to standards.
To end the interview, I ask every writer I talk to the same question: if you have a personal code, philosophy, attitude, WHATEVER towards graffiti…what it should be and what it’s capable of, what is it?
I was excited during my first year about how quickly word of mouth spread. I felt unique doing something that so very few understood, but quickly realized that if I kept it up and got good at it, I’ll be going down as one of the first and most important names in Lebanese graffiti history. It dawned on me that I had a reputation and a responsibility to keep an eye on during my stay in this good scene. So I wanted to not only be unique, but also pure, true and dedicated to this game. I didn’t want to sell-out, I refused to accept job offers, claiming that I don’t do this for the money. I wanted to do it solely for the joy of painting – My joy.
Slowly, I started going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole that is Graffiti culture, until I matured enough to realize that I was being over looked, risking my life/freedom and spending way too much blood, sweat, tears, time, and money in the interest of those who were already milking money out it.
That’s when I decided to change my game and began accepting job offers under this strict one rule: For every Graff that gets me money, I drop two extra ones in the street. Thus keeping my conscience at ease of not being a douchebag sell out, while still being able to benefit from the years of hard work.
I could easily say that so far, and in this scene’s situational context, it was the best decision I could’ve taken.
Since then, I’ve quit my corporate job and became a full time graffiti artist.
Travelled to new countries, joined foreign crews and hooked up with big names. Organized a few Graff events including a big Ironlak BBQ jam and opened my very own Graff shop and gallery. Been featured in Graff books, videos, interviews, articles… Even been live on national TV!
I taught beginners through workshops and private tutoring, made outstanding new friends and business contacts, and had a Polish artist base an expo of hers in Poland on one of my works.
I feel truly blessed and thankful for experiences I’ve had in my, as of yet, short career and at the same time proud of the stuff I’ve done. Very excited for the future. There’s no better feeling than living a happy modest life pursuing your passion and being able to live off it at the same time. Every artist will tell you the same thing.
Oh yeah, also, “Snitches get stitches”, “Paint hard, paint often”, and “Always smell it first”. Words to live by.
And last but not least: the shoutouts:
Shout outs to Eps, Prime, Reso, Barok, Spaz, Exist, Peios, Meuh, Fish, Dice, Sya, Bow, Obez, Lopera, Lenz, Kali, Amber, Frez, Voras, Mosa, Kabrit, Sens, Ibrahim, M3alim, Supc, Zed, Rile, Sabe, Stone, Deter, Dias, Noe and the ALTGR crew, Doggie, Ani33, Zepha, Max16, Rens, Tilt, Rekor, Ocre, Mr.Wany, Taz, Truth, Moe, Anoy, Enforce1, Zimok, Bandi, Syroe, Psyne, Bane, Tasso, Hombre, Serval, Paparazzi, 2Mask, and last but not least all the good people I had the pleasure of growing with on the bombing science forums like Fred, Ribcage, Seyar, Mone, Zookyook, Aeros, Prudenism, Naked, Wgone, Vega925, 2lives, and everyone else I’m forgetting, you know yourselves!
Oh and Omlet, suck my toy cock 😉

Follow Phat2 on Facebook and Instagram.—————————-About the author:

Brian Gonnella is a semi-reformed vandal currently living as a semi-professional artist in Pittsburgh PA. he uses spraypaint now to create superflat sci-fi scenes, equal parts comic book, ukiyo-e print and heavy metal album art. He has a dog named Harley and fantasizes often about living in a desert. Visit his blog and Instagram account.