From a Western point of view Dubai might be strongly connected with images of consumerism, capitalism, and architectural megalomania, but it sure isn’t the first place that comes to mind when mentioning the terms street art and graffiti. Since a few years though, local artist Arcadia Blank fights the city’s delusions of grandeur and ongoing legal restrictions with aphoristic texts that he places all over Dubai’s landscape. These thought-provoking and often haunting poetic textual interventions raise questions about cultural identity and the common perception of the city and its inhabitants as they are consciously placed on construction elements and Emirates roads, which ultimately turned Arcadia Blank into an essential voice against a misguided corporate ethos and a commercialized art world in this region. Lodown had the chance to talk to the Dubai-based artist in early September.
“Arcadia is in reference to a Greek mythological utopia or paradise.
Blank is just blank... baron, expressionless, unscathed, empty.
Blank Utopia. The city I’m in.
It’s a sociological description more than a name, really.“
As far as I know, you’re a resident of Dubai but weren’t born there, right? How did you end up in the Persian Golf?
Yup that’s right. My fam moved over here about 20 years ago when I was a kid. I went to school here for a few years before leaving to finish high school and university abroad, but I would always come back on holidays to visit fam and friends. Since finishing university, I’ve pretty much been based here.
For me, your approach to street art is a very pure and relevant one, basically because it seems to be born out of the necessity to speak up instead of jumping on any kind of artistic or trendy bandwagon.
Well, to understand the approach I use, I think it’s important to highlight that it is, more than anything, a very strategic one. Dubai is extremely strapped down in terms of open expression in any form. The only kind of expression that is open and permitted here on a full time basis is big budget corporate advertising, and even that has to go through a rigorous approval process. Open expression is actually so strapped down and controlled, that you would technically need to attain permission to put up a promotional poster on the outside of the door of your own shop. What I do stems from, or is a bi-product of the austerity of the environment I am living in. The longer things take, the higher your chances are of being discovered. There really isn’t much time to get aesthetically artistic. Scrawled text, is the oldest, fastest, and probably the most elemental form of graffiti or communicative street art there is. I’ve seen how a handful of other artists around the world (who have influenced me) have used public text to speak up to express and create an allusive impact through it in their own cities and environments. And that kind of influenced me to do the same here, and showed me a new outlet to express what suits me, due to the conditions of the city I am living in. It also allowed me to bypass the constraints of the very compartmentalized art scene here, and be able to engage with the broader population of the city.
A lot of people tend to forget that before the contemporary global street art movement, and before writer culture came out of the U.S., graffiti was (almost entirely) sociopolitical in nature and existed primarily as the expression of symbols and statements or codes. It always served a purpose born out of the necessity for direct inter-community communication. And that ties in to a lot of what I do.
I don’t really remember the exact first one I did, but one of the first ones that got popular was a phrase that read “plastic dreams and primal screams” that was sprayed pretty large next to a roundabout in my neighborhood. Everyone coming into or leaving the area through that route could see it, and it kind of became this unofficial landmark for about two years, which was kind of cool.
Do a lot of pieces you do happen by impulse or do you put a lot of research into it... you know, like which phrase or quotation would fit which wall/area, for example?
Some of them are by impulse, but most are definitely a bit more thought out in terms of what I think would work best, or be appropriate, in a certain location. One example would probably be a statement that I wrote on one of the walls of a labor camp accommodation building on the outskirts of the city. It read “We are the dream makers”. It was intended to be an ode to the laborers (mainly from South East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent) in this city who I think are taken for granted (or forgotten) a lot of the time by most members of society here. The irony is that they actually constitute the largest portion of the city’s population. Anyway... right in front of the wall, there is a daily fruit and vegetable market set up and run by the workers living there. I went back there on the weekend when it was packed and snapped a photo of the whole scene with the text at the center. Even though I know a lot of the guys living there who came across it may not be able to read it, as it’s in English, the photograph got a tremendous amount of circulation on social media in Dubai by the more privileged segments of society. That was great because a lot of people don’t visit those places here, and the photo with the text at the center was - more than anything - to serve as a visual reminder of who the real dream makers in this city are. I know that all may sound awfully self-righteous, preachy and is a very clichéd Dubai topic, but I think it’s still a very relevant one. This city does an amazing job sometimes of luring many people away from the general realities of everyday life. Unless you have lived here, it’s difficult to fully understand what I mean by that. So that’s probably one that sticks out the most for me.
But generally, because there isn’t really much else “street art”, let alone critical commentary being put out here in the open, I have to be very conscientious about it sometimes. Especially in high traffic areas. Saying something too directly could be very problematic so a lot of the statements, especially the ones with more of a political/social commentary nature end up coming across as being more convoluted or “cryptic” in form. It’s really all about trying to say what I want to say without directly saying it. And some people get it, others don’t.
I’ve never been to Dubai but I can imagine that the security situation - especially in New Dubai - is an intense one. What would happen to you if you get caught?
Well, first of all that’s a very accurate assumption, because Dubai (The U.A.E.) is pretty much a bona fide police state at the end of the day. It’s also a very difficult question to answer because it depends on a number of different factors. Those factors range from the type of officer who catches me, to what it is that he/they caught me writing. Anything here related to open expression of government or Islam that has a questionable nature is a major no no. It can lead to jail time or deportation or both. But I have no interest in targeting local politics or religion openly because it would just be completely idiotic and it’s also something I personally have no interest in doing. So most of what I write hovers around it and is aimed more at existential things that apply to everyone regardless of individual politics or religious views. If I do touch on anything political, it’s pretty much directed towards the global political environment, and not what’s going on in the country locally. When you really get into it, what’s going on in the world politically right now, in general, I think transcends geographic borders and has a domino effect that trickles down on us in a lot of different ways, no matter where we are living in the world. Including here.
Also, to try to minimize any possible trouble I might get into, I mostly write on construction elements and not private property. Even though I don’t think that will make much of a difference if I ever get caught, it does make things a bit lighter. But in general I think people do tend to over exaggerate the danger element of doing this here, if you are just a bit careful you will be fine, and not all cops are interested in causing a major problem for people.
Dubai seems to be very multicultural... even though the majority of people probably only stay for a little while for job reasons. Would you say there’s anything like a scene in terms of street art, besides commercial projects backed up by corporate business? Did you open any doors for other unique visual voices (or epigones)?
Dubai is a very transient city, but it also has a significant expat population of kids who were born, or grew up here, and who consider the city home. In terms of a street art “scene”, there isn’t really one in the traditional sense that you would find in other cities around the world. But there definitely is a homegrown art scene which is made up of both Emiratis and expats living here.
But to understand why there is not much street art here outside controlled environments, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that Dubai is not a regular major city. With very few exceptions, there is no citizenship available here for anyone other than Emirati nationals. What that means, is that 85% of the city’s residence population is on a strict conditional (work-related) residence visa, with no options available to them of acquiring citizenship, ever. Out of that 85% of expats, a lot grew up here and call the city home, but at the same time, cant’ really call it a real home, in the normal sense, because there is no form of any legal or official recognition of them being from here and having ties to the city/country. If you have been here for 20 minutes or for 20 years, it makes no difference on paper, and your legal rights - or lack of rights in many cases - are exactly the same. So if something majorly negative happens to you legally, you run the risk of getting kicked out and having your life here ruined. And that’s a serious thing. On the flip side, it’s a very effective form of population control and national security maintenance.
In most cities/countries around the world, immigrants are eventually able to converge and assimilate, attain citizenship, and become a part of a common collective - identities homogenize to various degrees - and things evolve and develop naturally in that fashion... including a rooted homegrown art or street art scene. Here, those same foundational conditions barely exist. Combine that with a no-joke legal system, and you have a major hindrance to the development of street art, and a significant deviation from a lot of social processes which have played a vital role in the cultural development of other major cities. What’s really interesting about Dubai I think, is that everyone is aware of that, and accepts it, and many are actually really content with it. So the city has evolved - and still is evolving - in its own unique way in that sense.
So, because the consequences can be pretty serious for adults, engaging in street art just isn’t something that appeals to a lot of residents here. But again, things are little over-exaggerated in terms of the danger element. There’s random tags and throw ups around the place and more and more is coming out, which is great. But in terms of anything full time consistent... there are two other artists that I know of who are currently putting out some visible stencil work, and I’ve gone bombing with one of them a few times. I can’t say I’ve opened doors because I’m not the first to do this type of thing here, and that’s not something I really think about. The door is always open for anyone who wants to step in. If anything, I think I’ve only helped highlight that there are possibilities for art here beyond the formal/commercial gallery setting... because, unfortunately, art still is largely perceived here to be all about galleries, private collections, and claims to elitism. Things are easing up a bit though in that regard.
But I think it’s only fair to say that what corporate events and live art gigs have done here, in a way, has provided a positive dynamic because it’s given a lot of very talented artists in the city a platform to be able to put out their work publicly for people to see in a consequence free way. The art establishment and urban developers here still haven’t really done that yet on a serious scale.
Your work - in terms of the statement behind it - isn’t too far away from celebrated artists like Robert Montgomery, for example... I was wondering if you ever flirted with the idea of turning your graff into installations?
I actually have turned some of the graffiti statements into what could be called an “installation” I guess, but not really in the traditional sense. Around a year ago a friend and I did a sticker intervention outside Dubai Mall that was really more of an advertising takeover type of thing. The stickers were composed of text that was color and size suited then applied to each poster so it looked like the text was part of the poster. We did about 30 posters along a pathway leading up to one of the entrances of the mall just to fuck with people going in and out of there. But in terms of lit-up, sculpted installations of some of the text, no, not really. If someone wanted to support and finance something like that, then maybe. But it’s not really something which I think about doing.
What were the most positive and hostile reaction to your work from the public you’ve witnessed in Dubai?
There’s been a few personal positives for me which I wouldn’t want to bore you with, but in general I’m just happy it’s brought more attention to the open environment here and its potential. A lot of residents, including a lot of friends from the Emirati community, think exactly the same way I do about how overtly serious things are and are also fed up with a lot of the same things when it comes to the art scene. This city has a lot of great artists with great ideas and with a lot of potential to do some great public artwork and add some much needed character to the place. Especially the new side. But the platforms to allow that to happen are still minimal. And to be fair, Dubai is an old city, but it’s still a young major city and some things take time to develop. But at the same time, I think it needs to be said that whoever really wants it, just has to go out and do it. Graffiti and street art was never about anything to do with permission, right?!
There hasn’t been anything that I can call a hostile reaction, really. But let’s just say that not everyone is going to be rooting for you when it comes to this type of thing. And some people will also put in a very notable effort to try to belittle and diminish you as much as possible. But that’s just how it is for anyone anywhere putting things out in the open. And it’s all part of the fun.