AMMAN, Jordan — One of Amman’s oldest staircases, al-Kalha stairs, was an uninspiring concrete block in the heart of the city until a group of artists led by engineering student and graffiti artist Abdul Rahman Amjad made it into a piece of art.
The young artists turned the staircase into an open air work of art, displaying lines from the famous poem “Identity Card” by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and a portrait of the poet drawn on the walls. They also painted portraits of Lebanese singers Fairouz and Marcel Khalife.
Amjad, who worked alongside painter Miramar Mohd, told Al-Monitor that the difference was “striking” after they started working on the staircase in 2016. “You will not recognize the stairs. They have changed 180 degrees,” he said.
The change in al-Kalha staircase is only part of what young Jordanian artists are doing to splash Amman with color. They mostly focus on the eastern part of the capital, which suffers from unregulated construction, unmaintained roads and an inadequate sewage system. The buildings, the dark gray of concrete, increase the gloomy atmosphere further.
Driven by his love to make the city prettier, Amjad started creating graffiti art four years ago. “Young artists are completely transforming the streets and the city through urban art,” he said. “The way they care about the art impresses everyone and changes the way young people are seen,” he said.
Other groups also strive to bring color to the city. Al-Balad Theater launched the Baladk Street Art Project in 2013, which aims to carry art to the streets, mainly through graffiti and murals. In 2014, the theater put together "WOW Baladk,” short for “Women on Walls,” that invited a group of graffiti artists from Cairo who use street art to highlight women’s issues. The following year, Al-Balad Theater organized another street festival, this time with the subtitle/slogan “Reclaiming Our Streets.” Since then, every year in May, the theater chooses a theme for the painters to use in order to express their creativity and views.
Mu’ath Isaeid, the project coordinator at Al-Balad Theater, told Al-Monitor, “In May 2015, we invited 15 Jordanian artists and six professional Arab artists from the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to paint the walls on the main themes of tolerance and social diversity.”
Every year, the theater cooperates with the Greater Amman municipality to choose the spots for painting and provide travel tickets and a transportation allowance for participating artists. A private sponsor provides paint and tools free of charge.
But the works of the graffiti artists are subject to the control of the Greater Amman municipality, which checks the graffiti before giving approval. Some wall drawings that were painted during the protests in Jordan in 2011-13, which criticized the government and the parliament, calling for reform or even referring to price hikes, have been taken down by the security forces. Article 459 of the Jordanian Penal Code prohibits “vandalizing public and private properties” and imposes a jail sentence and fine that could reach 400 Jordanian dinars ($564).
Not only politics, but social mores can also cause the works to be wiped out. In 2013, some paintings were removed by the Greater Amman municipality in the wake of press reports that called the graffiti “paintings of devil worshippers.”
Isaeid noted that the residents may also resist some of the murals. “Different regions have different reactions based on society’s culture, the drawing and its content. When we drew in Jabal al-Luwaibida in Amman, we did not face any problems, but in the city of Salt, people did not take it well.”
He added, “Amman needs 50 additional wall paint projects to create an environment that tolerates this art, especially in a city where the color of concrete prevails.”
Another project is carried out by Ali al-Husni, the owner of Ali & Rama’s Gallery in Jabal Amman, who held “a live art exhibition in Omar Bin al-Khattab street in Amman” with 13 artists last July. The artists painted directly in front of the people and colored the stairs to attract attention to the neglected street that branches out from the more touristic Rainbow Street.
Husni told Al-Monitor, “I would like to capitalize on this one-day initiative to revive the old street and make it famous. I want to introduce citizens to it in order to show that the streets of Amman do not just have coffee shops, but also an artistic flair that supports local talent.”
He added that the public welcomed the idea, which led him to implement the initiative in other streets to put them in the spotlight. He called on the Greater Amman municipality and Jordanian artists to support such events and organize similar initiatives to make Amman prettier and liven up the dullness of cement.
The urban travel website UCityGuides ranked Amman third on its list of Top 10 ugliest cities in the world due to its chaotic construction. But architect Raed Wehbe disagreed, saying, “Amman is not just a city of concrete. Some of its buildings are made of white stone, giving it a special character.”
He told Al-Monitor, “The initiatives to paint buildings and color walls and stairs with different hues are amazing because they allow citizens to contribute to the city’s general look spontaneously while giving it an artistic flair. The people become more attached to their city because they play a role in building it."
Wehbe noted, “On the planning level, Amman needs to be more organized because its growth is arbitrary. Its architectural development began at the end of the 19th century through displacement from different areas. Migrants resided in Saqf al-Seel region, then expanded toward Salt to the west, whereas the city’s urban plans foresaw a growth to the south.”
He added, “Spontaneous initiatives from people to improve the city will breathe life and vibrancy into it, just like Spain and Italy, where colors decorate the walls and buildings.”
The artistic initiatives of Jordanian youths are trying to break the stillness of concrete and revive Amman through colors. But they are individual initiatives that need official backing, and their proposers hope enough support would be given to get more color into the cities and villages outside the capital, too.