Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

A Los Angeles graffiti project that merges art with Islam

The Salafi Cowboy designers used a cardboard stencil to depict an artwork that points towards Makkah

The sign is meant to be a guide for LA Muslims who want to know where the Qibla is as well as a way to familiarise non-Muslims with Islamic iconography. Salafi Cowboy
The sign is meant to be a guide for LA Muslims who want to know where the Qibla is as well as a way to familiarise non-Muslims with Islamic iconography. Salafi Cowboy

Prayer. For Muslims, it is personal and powerful, but stereotypically confined to the walls of a mosque or a person’s home. However, Yousef H and ­Ibrahim M, the collaborators behind Salafi Cowboy, hope to ­broaden this culturally rooted perspective, ­inspired by the words ­spoken by the Prophet Mohammed. They quote a well-known Hadith to support their view. “The Prophet Mohammed said: ‘The (whole) Earth has been made a mosque (or a place of prayer), so ­wherever one finds himself when the time for prayer comes, let them pray.’ So, in principle, a Muslim can pray ­virtually anywhere,” say the duo, who go by the nom de plume SC and take an unconventional approach to religious constructs.

SC, part of an urban movement that merges their Arab and Islamic heritage with hip-hop, fashion and social awareness, live in Los Angeles. The name of their collaboration presents a juxtaposition of sorts. Salafis refer to pious Sunni Muslims who aim to lead their lives in accordance with the appearances and actions of early ­Muslims. Cowboys, on the other hand, are typically unruly Americans who dress in an unofficial uniform of blue jeans – a stark contrast to the white thobes of Salafis.

From T-shirts printed with the palm trees ubiquitous to LA and emblazoned with the word “SaLAm”, to mixtapes such as Kufi Kasual by Lord Levant, SC fuse these contradictions together.

#EarthisaMosque

For their latest initiative, they turned to the medium of graffiti to help convey a simple spiritual message: “Earth is a mosque.” They recruited their friends, Erick Medel and ­Gabriela ­Romano, to design and produce a stencil that ­features an emblem of the Kaaba. An arrow, with the words “Qibla Here”, and the hashtag ­#EarthisaMosque are also stamped on to the design.

All it took was hand-cutting a prototype stencil out of cardboard, and a pavement in downtown Santa Monica became the first to receive the SC touch last December. To ­ensure it faced the right ­direction, the designers utilised a popular app called Qibla Finder, which uses a compass to point the user towards Makkah. “Most sidewalk graffiti we have seen is commercial. We wanted to contribute something more pointed and functional to this ongoing visual conversation,” say SC, who explain that businesses and artists ­frequently use the pavement as a sort of ­advertising space. “Pavement graffiti is effective because it’s free, as it doesn’t cost money to license the space you paint on, it holds up for years, and is ­hyper-visible because many people look down as they walk.”

SC’s aim with this initiative is twofold. “We’d like to familiarise as many people as possible with everyday terms that Muslims use, such as masjid, qibla, salah, sunna and salafi, as well as introduce folks to ­imagery that might be foreign to them,” they say.

“In a way, we’re also winking at ­Muslims who may come across the graphic. Hopefully, they are surprised, happy or intrigued to see such a ­familiar yet personal Islamic image on a pavement and can identify with it. In this way, the Qibla stencil is a tool, prompt and object all in one. The plan is to spread the stencils throughout the city this year in different colours, but especially gold.”

Some places, however, have strict rules and regulations when it comes to graffiti, which is often perceived as vandalism, and can carry risks of fines, community service hours and even ­imprisonment. But SC do not believe that this will hinder the initiative, ­instead packaging the project as both an art form and a social cause.

“The hashtag will inform people that God describes the Earth as a mosque, which should bring up questions about this concept and about the cleanliness of our public spaces, be they pavements or parks. It’s an environmental message,” they explain.

There is no financial gain here and neither is there any material motivation behind the initiative. ­Indeed, SC say they hold no monopoly over the concept. While they aim to start stamping the “Qibla Here” graffiti, complete with a tag for their ­Instagram handle, @Salafi­Cowboy, in major cities across the globe, they are happy for others to assist in spreading the message.

“We may put the illustration up ­online, so that people around the world can download and print large stencils at their local printers, and then go out and spread this message with us,” ­they say. “We ­definitely intend to tag it in as many cities as possible, and think that the idea can only grow to its full ­potential by reaching new ­environments and new eyes.”

Updated: February 18, 2019 11:42 AM

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