5 Street Artists Proving Calligraphy is Thriving in the Modern World

By Gaynor Strachan Chun
By Gaynor Strachan Chun

Image: Neils ‘Shoe’ Meulman, Village Underground, Moniker Arts Fair, 2012, London.

When you hear the word “calligraphy,” what comes to mind? Beautiful script flowing onto aged parchment paper? Yet, calligraphy has expanded well beyond its traditional form and now influences everything from typography and fonts to logos and building signs. But this meticulous art of handwriting’s influence doesn’t stop there. One of the most dynamic places calligraphy can be seen is in the work of street artists.

The Godfather of Cholo Writing, Chaz Bojórquez, created the tagging style used by Los Angeles gangs, long before the graffiti wave hit New York and Philadelphia. There were others that came after him, but graffiti gained its respect and acceptance as a contemporary art form thanks to artists like Banksy, J.R., and Shepard Fairey.

In 2007, a new type of graffiti came onto the scene. Street artists began to take note of the age-old craft of calligraphy and integrate its ornamental lettering into their work. As they combined the spontaneity of tagging with the rules-driven practice of calligraphy, “Calligraffiti” was born.

10 years later, the street art movement that captures the craftsmanship of this ancient and beautiful art form is alive and thriving. Here are 5 of the most influential and notable Calligraffiti artists who continue to impress the walls of buildings around the world with their mind-blowing work.

1. Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman
This revolutionary Amsterdam-based artist known as “Shoe” founded the Calligraffiti movement. His free-form style draws on Japanese, European, and Arabic calligraphy (and features cryptic messages) can now be spotted throughout the globe on building walls and exhibitions alike. He’s even been known to write his Calligraffiti upside down.

2. Retna
L.A.-based Retna is perhaps the best known Calligraffiti artist in the U.S. Retna’s signature style pulls inspiration from one of the earliest forms of writing, Hieroglyphics. His unique method landed him a commission to create sets for The San Francisco Opera’s staging of Aida, an operatic tale based in Egypt.

Retna and SF Opera

Acclaimed artist Retna’s Sets for SF Opera

3. eL Seed
This French-Tunisian Calligraffiti artist uses graffiti to breathe new life into the traditional art of Arabic calligraphy. eL Seed first created his style of Calligraffiti to help him explore his own personal identity as a child of Tunisian immigrants, living in France.He and Bahia Shebab were recently awarded the UNESCO Sarjah Prize for Arab Culture.

eL Seed

Example of eL Seed’s renowned work

4. Khadiga El-Ghawas
An Egyptian artist, El-Ghawas is the only female Calligraffiti artist on WideWalls’ top-ten list. She has become Egypt’s first “Light Calligrapher,” and the first woman in the world to master blending words, light, and photography.

Light Caligraffiti

El-Ghawas’d spectacular light calligraffiti

5. Yazan Halwani
At only 24 years old, Halwani is the youngest artist on our list. Born in Lebanon and influenced by traditional Arabic calligraphers, Halwani’s work aims to beautify the country of his birth, particularly those places hardest hit by years of civil war. His approach uses a combination of graffiti, well-known portraits of Lebanese personalities and Arabic calligraphy.

Yazan-Halwani-Faiouz

Yazan-Halwani-Faiouz, beautifying places hardest hit by years of civil war.

It’s ironic that artists who not so long ago would have been viewed as vandals are now trailblazing a renewed appreciation for one of the world’s most traditional and hallowed art forms. Or maybe it’s not so ironic. When all is said and done, calligraphy and graffiti share a very common goal – to communicate something of meaning. Khadiga El-Ghawas says it best, “Calligraphy is my soul, it enriches me and makes me full of life”.

This powerful art form also shows how art continually points us to the similarities that cultures share. Most cultures have a history of practicing calligraphy, and it is these talented artists throughout the world who are reconnecting us with its beauty, enduring nature, and its ability to move us―without us even needing to understand the meaning of the words themselves.

As we see in most expressions of master craftsmanship today, the traditional doesn’t have to be replaced by the modern. Both are relevant and together can ignite creativity and ingenuity. To learn about the revival in sign painting, check out “The New Sign Painters”, in the Spring Issue of our magazine, Craftsmanship Quarterly.

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