With graffiti, British artist offers vision of unity between Islam, West … but mural here must wait
By Azam Ahmed, Tribune staff reporter
In a world where Islam and the West are sometimes viewed as clashing cultures, Mohammed Ali's art says otherwise.
Like many young Muslims, he grew up reading the Quran and watching music videos, praying at the mosque and listening to hip-hop.
Through his work, the British-born graffiti artist — who visited Chicago as part of a U.S. tour to promote a dialogue about Islam and the arts — challenges the assumption that the two cultures are at odds.
Instead, he offers an airbrushed metaphor for how young Muslims raised in places like Europe and the United States can connect with their faith. Ali, 27, says graffiti lends itself to blending with Arabic calligraphy because both art forms are script-based.
"I hope to inspire youth by introducing a new kind of Islamic art that is born in the West, and therefore something that belongs to us," said Ali, who started work Thursday on a mural in Chicago.
But for now, plans for the mural, on the side of a mosque run by the Islamic Circle of North America, have been postponed, in what some Muslims say is a poignant reminder that peaceful coexistence between the cultures is a ways off.
On Friday, Ali had to stop work on the mural, which was about 5 percent
done, because organizers at the mosque failed to get the necessary
permits for the project.
But the oversight only surfaced after
an anonymous call about the mural to the office of Ald. Bernard Stone
(50th). Stone said what might have prompted the call was a
misunderstanding of what the mural depicted: The letter 'a' in Arabic
looks like a slanted column, and the a's in the last syllable of the
word "Salaam" may have looked like the falling World Trade Center
It will take about a month for members of the Islamic
Circle to get the mandatory permits. By then, Ali will be back in
Birmingham, England, said Mahmood Khan, the president of the Chicago
branch of the Islamic Circle of North America.
Khan, who plans to apply for the paperwork, said the group didn't know they had to get permits.
"The idea behind this project was, 'How can we connect with the masses?'
" he said. "Ali's art is meant to bring about a message of peace and unity."
mural won't be completed until Ali can return to the city, and no one
is sure when that will happen. The incident devastated the Muslim
youths who had campaigned so hard to get the leaders of the mosque at
6224 N. California Ave. to invite him to Chicago.
15, said it is sad that Ali's goal was undermined by the phone call.
But he still supports the principle underlying his work.
want to hold on to the traditions of Islam in America, at some point
you have to blend these things together. His mural proves that
[graffiti and Arabic calligraphy] can be combined," Syed said.
mural depicts a cityscape against a light blue background; dark blue
Islamic patterns are sprayed on each side. Layered over the scene is
the word "Salaam," written in Arabic, which means "peace and blessings
be upon you."
Ali's work, all done legally, is not about
promoting Islam. Rather, he speaks to the duality felt by Muslims
raised in the West, the constant pull to be devout while engaging with
"That's the power of graffiti, there couldn't
have been a more accessible art form to fuse Islam with," he said. "You
won't find many young people who don't enjoy graffiti."
the mural holds meaning beyond the synergy of two cultures. It was also
a chance to do graffiti in the country where it originated. Ali has
been fascinated with America's urban scene, revering graffiti pioneers.
up I was involved in the graffiti movement in Birmingham, and there was
nothing Islamic at that stage," he said. "Like any kid, I was drawn to
it. The hip-hop, the graffiti and the whole culture interested me."
his late teens and early twenties, Ali entrenched himself in the urban
music scene, a lifestyle of late nights and partying that he said
eventually left him disillusioned.
"I lost a good friend to
drugs and it made me wonder what I was doing with my life," he said.
Like many Muslims he knew, Ali found solace in Islam during his college
years. He embraced the traditions of the religion, the beauty and
poetry of the Quran, and discovered a newfound sense of pride.
he researched the religion, he unearthed the rich heritage of art that
existed in Islam, evidenced through centuries of architecture and
"When you think of religion, you don't
always think of creativity, and to discover this was a huge breath of
fresh air for me," he said. "I found it could mix with my graffiti art,
and that it wasn't conflicting at all."
To Chicago-born Mohammad Khawaja, 20, the mural reflects his reality.
shows the younger generation is in tune with Islam," he said. "It's art
in terms the whole neighborhood can understand, not only Muslims,"
And though much of his work hangs in galleries,
Ali says the charm of graffiti is its public nature. It's a
conversation stimulant outside the halls of a museum, a democratic
street art that's available to anyone walking past it, and local
Muslims say that's what they wanted most out of the mural.
can see this as what we are," said Omar Moqteen, 20. "It's about being
a part of society, and this was an important way to put a positive
message out for everyone to see."