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RIYADH: The walls of the Irqah hospital compound, which young Riyadh residents thought were haunted, have been turned into a canvas for local and international graffiti artists.

Once suppressed, the art is now celebrated as the Kingdom’d Visual Arts Commission presents its first annual street art festival, Shift22.

The festival features commissioned and existing works by more than 30 Saudi and international graffiti artists, focusing on murals, sound and video installations and unconventional sculptures constructed by reusing discarded materials from the abandoned hospital.

Visual Arts Commission CEO Dina Amin said, “Shift22 is part of the commission’s efforts to celebrate and encourage local and international visual artists by providing platforms for creative exchange and dialogue. This festival is an example of the many exciting visual arts opportunities that result from the growth of the local arts scene.

Saudi artist Deyaa Rambo’s work “Harwala”, an Arabic word for jogging, reflects a culture that only moves forward with intention. (A photo by Huda Bashatah)

The work of Saudi artist Deyaa Rambo is inspired by the transformation of the country and its modern reality. “Harwala”, an Arabic word for jogging, reflects a culture that only moves forward with intention.

“As a culture, we take the past and the present with us, to march towards the future… The idea speaks of how the culture advances towards development, but not at an incomprehensible speed: it is a speed calculated,” Rambo told Arab News.

Coming from a family of artists, he attributes his passion to the environment in which he grew up. In the early 2000s, when graffiti began to surface in the region as a legitimate art form, he discovered the underground scene.

“Meeting other graffiti artists, I was inspired and realized that I had to grow as an artist myself,” Rambo said.

After creating a small community of like-minded individuals, importing spray cans, participating in small projects and occasionally vandalizing on the streets, they opened the Kingdom’s first graffiti store: DHAD.

Locally, the DHAD family has collaborated with schools, institutes, exhibitions, galleries and companies such as Mercedes and HP to design inspiring and unique interiors and exteriors.

Globally, the community’s work has been recognized and featured in exhibitions and events across the Gulf and beyond, including in Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia, Germany and France.

“DHAD is basically about the graffiti lifestyle, (providing) tools, spray cans for artists. That’s when the community was created in Saudi Arabia,” Rambo said.

Drawing inspiration from fantasy elements, his piece reimagines a modern Saudi as an anonymous figure trotting forward in a traditional thobe and shemagh.

According to Rambo, the responsibility for spreading awareness of this art form ultimately rests with local artists, not just in dedicated spaces, but true to the traditional style of graffiti: publicly.

“It’s our mission, because graffiti has been fought on a global scale, that it sends a negative message. Graffiti art is not limited to exhibitions or museums to see the art. It’s on the street, it’s for everyone.

Saudi artist Zeinab Al-Mahoozi began her journey in 2011, driven by her curiosity, using stencil techniques to create dynamic and captivating works of art. She made a promise to herself that if she was successful in her first attempt at the method, she would dedicate an entire exhibition to her street art works.

The mural by Saudi artist Zeinab Al-Mahoozi shows her self-graffiti releasing a bird into a corner of the universe. (A photo by Huda Bashatah)

His mural is a whimsical self-portrait, showing himself releasing a bird into a corner of the universe.

“Graffiti art is known as an illegal art form, but to be supported as graffiti artists by government sectors – be it the Ministry of Culture, the media or others – is something what we really needed. We are very happy about it and we are very lucky,” she said.

While Shift22 is dedicated to platforming local talent, it also creates opportunities for cultural exchange by welcoming diverse artists from around the world to contribute to the festival.

European-based Australian artist James Reka, like many graffiti artists, was first introduced to the underground scene through skateboarding and hip-hop culture. His 20 years of experience began with traditional graffiti in the form of letters, which later developed into characters and figures.

“I’m honored to be invited to come to Saudi Arabia so I can leave my own message behind… It’s nice to recognize that it’s something special, it’s an art form,” said he told Arab News.

Australian James Reka’s work shows colorful hands reaching out towards each other, carrying the message that love and community are at the heart of graffiti culture. (A photo by Huda Bashatah)

Adhering to his signature style, Reka’s work is abstract, yet carries a message of unity. A closer look at the mural would show colorful hands reaching out towards each other, incorporating the idea that love and community are central to graffiti culture.

“(I am honored) to also be able to paint and meet many local artists and share common knowledge about art, creativity, life in general – we are all children of this land. It’s a small world sometimes, even though I’m from the other side of the world, we have a lot in common,” said Reka.

The festival takes place in the abandoned hospital, faithful to the fashion of vintage graffiti that marks underground and deserted spaces.

The outdoor exhibit was curated by New York-based art agency Creative Philosophy, devoting the theme to geometric patterns alongside the hospital’s architecture.

In addition to works presented by renowned and emerging artists, such as the Saudi REXCHOUK and the Turkish-American Refik Anadol, the festival will organize a series of workshops, seminars and activities highlighting the different elements of street art.

The festival will run until October 30 alongside live music, streetwear shops, street food, breakdance and skateboarding.

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