1. Congratulations on winning the Diversity award from the South Bank Show, where do you get your inspiration from?
Inspiration really comes from my faith as a Muslim. What I see as a basic duty for me to make a difference in society; to contribute to enriching society with something that is positive and dealing with the negative social problems that exist. Each and every one of us should be using whatever skill we have, to transform our social condition. I have children; I want a better society for them to grow up into.
2. What do you do?
I’m a graffiti artist, and my tool is the spray can. This is the language of the youth today. Watch kids eyes light up when you mention graffiti, so I’m harnessing this, and using it to connect and engage them in a unique way. I like to explore their issues, identify the problems that exist and deal with them head on. You can have all the advertising campaigns you want, but tackling problems with graffiti art, makes a connection with the viewer, like nothing else.
3. How did you become involved in street art?
Ever since the 80’s, like most kid’s at that time, I’ve been involved with street art. It was the language of the youth at that time. The Spray can was something that transformed my life. It kept me out of trouble and brought art into my life, in a very ‘real’ way. Nobody ever imagined so many decades onwards, street art would still be so strong, and travel to nearly every corner of the globe. I’ve tried my best to shake it off, but it’s not possible!
4. Fusing graffiti style with Islamic art is a style you are renowned for, how did this unique combination come about?
For the past 25 years of my life, I’ve been involved with street art. It was only over the past 12 years that I started to dabble in something that blew me away. Fusing Islamic script, and patterns with graffiti art was something that was never done before, I’d certainly not seen it in the graffiti magazines that I would trawl through. So when I began bringing elements of my faith as a Muslim and combining that with graffiti art, instantly I could feel the power of it. It was something that moulded together so perfectly. Graffiti art was always based around the word, the word of man, expressing the artists own identity, or name. Islamic Art was also based around the word, but the word of God. It was almost the selfish versus the selfless. Over the past 5 years or so, I have seen how Islamic-style graffiti has taken off in different parts of the world. It’s really exciting to see how something that was almost non-existent, has developed into a small movement of its own.
5. Did you need specialist training, and where did you study street art?
Street art back then, really was art ‘for the people’. You couldn’t study it at an academy. The city was the school, and the streets were the canvas. Your teachers were kids around the block that were known to have mastered the spray can. Even the tool we used, the spray can, was an unconventional artist’s tool. Aerosol paint was used for spraying cars, not for creating art. It was exciting, we were creating our own genre, in the face of all those who criticized street art, saying it was not real art. So we had to just pick up the skills ourselves.
6. What’s something challenging about the work you do?
Staying fresh. I am not happy unless the work I do, is bursting outside of its boundaries. I am constantly battling with myself. People will say that’s fresh, and to me it’s not fresh enough. I’m obsessed with creating something unique and powerful, wanting to create waves, not puddles.
7. Do you feel there is a lack of Muslims in art, and have you always felt supported by the Muslim community in the UK?
Muslims do not fully appreciate the power of art today. Art has the power to transform the world. In the times we live in, it’s crucial that we explore alternative ways of engaging with social problems. Over the past decade I’ve seen how art can deal with problems in ways that nothing else can ever achieve. Surely as a community we should embrace the arts more than anyone. We have a rich artistic heritage across the Muslim lands, it boggles the mind how many Muslim societies do not value the arts as much as they should. But there are many who are recognizing the power of the arts, slowly but surely I think they are opening up. I still wait for the day that the community fundraises for more than just a mosque or an Islamic school, but arts centres and galleries. I launched an arts centre called The Hubb in the city of Birmingham, which has a growing following. However it’s not just interest that is needed, it’s easy to appreciate art and enjoy it, view it in the gallery, or the theatre or wherever else. But when will our community step up to the plate, and begin funding such things? Nurturing the rising talent, building foundations, empowering not just this generation, but many generations to come; there’s a lot of work to be done.
8. Are there any galleries currently exhibiting your work in the UK, and public lectures of yours, people could attend?
I deliver public lectures frequently around the country and beyond. If any of your readers are interested in attending, I’ll be delivering a TedX talk taking place at the Vatican early next year! Other than that, I’m invited to speak at schools, colleges, universities and galleries by invitation, so best to just keep a look out, or arrange something and make it happen!
9. The field of youth media is just exploding right now. Where do you see it heading?
It’s fresh, I see youth having the potential to really be the agents of that change that we all seek and that could be coming through the media. That combined with social networking tools, can really move mountains.
10. Are there particular messages or ideas you hope to communicate through your art?
Virtuous principles that Islam speaks of; be it knowledge, freedom, justice or patience, I feel are sadly fading away from modern society. We see these words almost disappearing from our vocabulary, especially the youth. I try to bring back these ideas to the forefront, through my work.
11. What is the best thing about your job?
About ten years ago, I worked in the games industry designing computer games, something I wanted to do since I was a kid, I mean its every kids dream, right? But I became disillusioned with using my skills as a designer to turn kids into zombies in front of their screens. Is this what God had given me the ability for? So today, I never had to give up being an artist. Yes, I left the commercial games sector, but began creating art with a better purpose. That’s what I love about doing what I do. I still am able to express myself through creativity, but with a social purpose.
12. Where are your favorite places in the world that art has taken you?
New York was pretty cool, painting a mural in the city where the towers went down, I felt I was able to take the art that I do right into the heart of it, where such work was needed. Building bridges is what excites me, preaching to the converted is not what I’m about.
13. What’s something concrete and tangible you’ve learned in the last three months?
I’ve learnt always be hungry for something, and push for it. Even if you’ve achieved what you wanted, keep pushing, because you could be hungry again soon.
14. MashAllah you are a great role model to our readers, but who was your role-model, when you were growing up?
The only role model I had when I was young, was THE Mohammed Ali. He was probably the most famous Muslim in the world, and yet was respected so highly.
15. Any advice for aspiring artists?
We should be involved with innovating, not imitating. It’s easy to see something and replicate it, do a ‘Muslim version’ of something. I say we should be redefining the boundaries, creating our own genres of art forms. Let’s be affiliated with innovation and push those boundaries, and step outside of the box.