Put simply, Dubai is not the sort of place you would expect to see a thriving graffiti writing and street art scene. Yet against the odds this gleaming capital of excess has developed an an outdoor art culture all of it’s own.
Not quite the mean streets of Hackney and Shoreditch, the rules are slightly different, the Emirates is not a society in which any unsanctioned work is encouraged. Whoa betide the tagger who rocks up and scrawls on some of the gleaming metal of the Burj Khalifa or any other building for that matter. Deportation, fines and even prison could await in a state with an advanced use of CCTV.
Yet for Steffi Bow, who moved the city from the East End of London six years ago it just means adapting to the culture of the place “we have created our own way of doing things” she told me.
Which perhaps is needed because according to Steffi the scene is exploding but as such a new city it’s development in terms of street art is markedly different from that of established cities. Having not being exposed to the graffiti phenomenon that took place in the 70’s and 80’s it’s a bit less gritty and more in tune with what Steffi describes as an “MTV Culture”.
In fact there seems to be a bit of an explosion in terms of interest in the middle east in general as young people see what’s happening elsewhere in the world and want to be a part of it. “Because it’s not here like everywhere in the streets, people want to see it more so we get a lot of opportunities to paint at events and for companies” says Steffi, and that it would appear is the compromise. Like any consumerist and growing society it’s a case of wanting what everyone else has and brands know that ‘street culture’ sells.
It’s the same in Saudi says Steffi “kids see it all on telly and are totally mad for it, then brands want to get to the kids so they provide us with platforms here to paint…the only thing we don’t get to do is destroy the streets”.
Steffi is one of many British expats who have begun to call Dubai home but she still has a yearning for London and the East End having grown up and worked here. In March she will be returning once more to paint at the Femme Fierce Leake Street Takeover in aid of Breast Cancer Research with 100 other female artists “I seriously can’t wait for the day to get my pink paint on” says Steffi.
It’s certinaly going to be bright and if her previous body of work is anything to go by, London can expect to see a whole bunch of bright pink bows in Leake Street and elsewhere. Her name and tag have some meaning, part tribute to her Grandmother who always wore bows and part recognition of where she comes from having been born in Whitechapel within the sound of the Bow Bells, a real Cockney.
Steffi is quite reflective when she speaks about her graff name as she calls it “it’s about your whole being and your aspirations and dreams” she says “I love asking people why they have the graff name they have, there are some amazing stories behind them”. Her husband SYA, a graffiti writer for 25 years who also comes from East London takes his from an art teacher, who when he was 15, called him a Superb Young Artist. Since that day he has painted under the name SYA “it’s so cool” says Steffi.
The two met in Dubai despite having grown up 500metres away from each other in the East End. At that time there was a ‘wall of fame’ legal painting sport behind a Dubai shopping centre “I’d never heard of SYA before but no joke he’d taken over the wall of fame, there were about 20 SYA pieces” she reminisces. After meeting there in the middle eastern sun and with spray cans in hand they were engaged within 12 months and married within 18. The strange thing is says Steffi is that they were both single, never been married and both 38 years old when they met, it was “seriously meant to be. The funny thing is that we used to live in London about 500 metres from each other and our paths never crossed.”
Together they have travelled the world painting as Sya & Bow and their back garden also plays host to a 40 metre graffiti wall where friends can come and paint “all our mates paint it and whenever a graff artist from overseas is in town they tend to get in touch with us and come round to paint. It’s so cool we have met so many fantastic people through painting with them in our back garden” say Steffi. Dubai it would seem has really taken the world of graffiti to a whole new level.
The first article in the Inspiring City series of interviews looking at Female Street Artists, Steffi Bow was interviewed via Facebook Messenger from Dubai on Saturday 25th January. She will be visiting London to take part in the Femme Fierce Leake Street takeover on Saturday 8th March 2014, International Women’s Day. All the photographs used within this article have been supplied by Steffi.
For more articles about the art of Steffi Bow try:
Espoir Contemporain – Steffi Bow Aerosol artist
Societe Perrier – Paved with London Gold, A Graffiti Diary by Steffi Bow
Societe Perrier – From Pink Bows to Bat Bows, Steffi Bows Graffiti Season in Dubai