God works in mysterious ways. Most of the time beyond our feeble comprehension, like in the case of graffiti artist Mohammed Ali (aka Aerosol Arabic), who after rediscovering his faith, began to fuse street art with the eloquence of Islamic script and patterns. Describing his work as “taking the best of both worlds”, this highly-charged, charismatic aerosol-slinger has travelled across the globe challenging the oft-heard term “clash of civilizations”. In full spirit, JUICE hooked up with the man who was brave enough to spray light on some of the darkest streets in the world.
You rediscovered your religion during your university days. Could you tell us more about your past and how you got into graffiti?
Basically, I was involved in hip hop in the early days and also graffiti. We were amazed by expressions taking over public spaces.
Were you a rebellious youth?
Definitely. I was born a Muslim. I went to the mosque after school (we went to the mosque every single day) but I didn’t particularly follow the faith-no kids did. Naturally, I was involved in the scene. I was into breakdancing and MCing. During my teenage years, a lot of my friends were DJs and MCs. Living life to the max really, like any teenager…just enjoying partying. Then I got a bit disillusioned with things. When a friend of mine died in an accident I started to think, surely there’s an answer to life. Where am I gonna be when I die? How come we don’t think about that anymore? I saw religion as a practical thing that gave me answers. Islam was the one that attracted me. Islam and reading the Quran are simple, and it challenges a regular man to think. It was a logical progression for me. Just like hip hop culture, it was something anyone could go into on ground level. Something instant that I could connect with.
Was it mainly hip hop music that inspired you to pick up the spray can?
Back in the day, no doubt about it. Music was my religion, man! I couldn’t sleep without it, couldn’t drive a car without it playing. Initially it was hip hop music, but as I grew through the years it was drum and bass. It was a UK thing – all the kids were into drum and bass. Hip hop was an American thing. Growing up, there were racial riots in the UK, so what I do now reflects my identity and the passion that I have for my roots and religion. I’m inspired by my identity and faith.
Do you work a lot with youths in the UK?
I work with a lot of interfaith people, all kinds of Christians and Jews. I do talks on a grassroots level. People want to see my street murals so I give them a talk…explain what I’m doing to them using art as a means. It’s a universal language to connect people.
Do you believe everyone has the right to choose their own religion?
Yup, and Islam supports that entirely. I do, for sure, believe in a freedom of religious faith.
What would you say is the main problem with the youth in the UK right now?
Gun possession. The connection between music and gun usage. Crimes are connected to the emptiness these kids face. All the materialism surrounding them. It’s not the gangsters’ fault; this is what the society is based upon. Positive virtues, unity and brotherhood are all fading away. My art is kind of like a billboard now that promotes all these missing virtues. They’re not going to get teachings from their parents because [the parents are] all busy working. When you’re standing on that street corner, all you pick up is the trash from your friends.
Have your murals ever been messed with?
In my time when I did my work, people had respect. Even the vandals had respect. We were vandalising and destroying property in the name of art. We wouldn’t do it on someone’s home. We wouldn’t do it on a national monument or places of worship. We respected one another-especially someone who had skills. All the murals I’ve done, nobody has taken them over. Even when there was this kind of rivalry between graffiti crews, they remained spotless! I’ve 2 principle reasons for this: it’s the sense of ownership because those kids that I talk to understand why I’m doing this, and secondly is that it’s protected by God.
You studied multimedia in college. Have you done any work that crosses over into that medium?
I never studied fine arts. I got disillusioned with the art world. As a graffiti artist I thought all this art was crap. Fine art is not gonna give you a high-paying job. There’s a lot of emphasis on education; I was to study hard and get a well-paid job. I’m creative, I can’t get it outta my system. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I got the job I dreamt of doing as soon as I graduated. I was designing computer games and worked for a games company. I made a few games like The Flintstone’s Viva Rock Vegas, Animaniacs and The Land Before Time. I started getting a lot into computer games as a graphic designer, mostly designing a lot of the screens you see. Then I started getting into advertising in the graphic design section. As an artist, I’ve done the same with all of my work. CNN and Al-Jazeera called me and said they’ll come to me. I stayed put in Birmingham refusing to go to London. You can’t lose yourself. If you have the right intention with the right purpose and with the right goals, you will be rewarded.
Do you know of any other graffiti artists who do pieces in Arabic?
When I first started doing this, I was amazed at how there wasn’t any out there. Everyone was writing in English. Why doesn’t anybody make sense? I’d search to find out but no one knew what was going on; no one knew anything! So I started doing it in Arabic. I used to be on my own. Now I know there’s more; there’s a guy in Iran doing stencil graffiti. I’ve had lots of e-mails from people who tell me they do the same thing as well.
In the past, hip hop culture influenced you. What inspires you today?
My faith as a Muslim. Reading and sitting with the pious and the knowledgeable. Sitting in galleries where people are speaking about brotherhood, bringing positive energy. That type of selflessness, that altruistic and brotherhood soul. I’m nobody; I don’t know anything. Put yourself in your place first. Poets too-I’ve collaborated with some of them.
What’s your advice kids like us?
I’d like to integrate and understand, talk to the youth. I’m just amazed by some of them. I don’t like to be judgmental about the youth. Whenever I go to a place, I want to understand the issues and problems of that place then get the opportunity to talk to them. There’s a certain kind of longing in them. I just want to protect them; don’t want them to slip into my old ways. When I was driving around I saw kids just hanging around at the corner, not doing anything. I wish I could gather all the youth in KL, and bring them to a talk and tell them that life’s too short for you to be hanging around in the street doing nothing all day. I think they need an inspiration. I want to inspire them with concepts and truth. I’m not expecting everyone to be religious. Just take the good from it!