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In pictures: How a rebel fighter became 'Syria's Banksy'

  • 13 October 2016
  • From the section Magazine
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Grafitti by Abu Malik al-Shami Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami

Rebel fighter by day, artist by night - a young Syrian's street art offers a sharp commentary on the country's civil war.

As a suburb of Damascus faced near-constant bombardment and a chronic lack of food, water and power, an incongruous mural appeared on the wall of a bombed-out building.

It showed a young girl standing on a pile of skulls writing a single word on a wall: Hope.

The painting brought the artist Abu Malik al-Shami to international attention and earned him comparisons with Banksy. Like Banksy, he is a politically aware street artist whose paintings have often appeared suddenly and overnight, but his messages and images are adapted to Syria's cataclysmic civil war.

For two years, from summer 2014 to summer 2016, Shami's murals popped up in dozens of locations throughout Darayya, 10km from the centre of Damascus.

This mural was painted in a bombed-out school. The student is writing: 'We used to joke and say, God please destroy the school ... and he did.' Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption This mural was painted in a bombed-out school. The student is writing: 'We used to joke and say, God please destroy the school ... and he did.'
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The ironic caption reads "Happy Mother's Day" - in the Arab world, the holiday is celebrated on 21 March Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption The ironic caption reads "Happy Mother's Day" - in the Arab world, the holiday is celebrated on 21 March

Before the war started in 2011 the artist, now 22 years old, was attending high school in Damascus. He joined anti-government protests in the capital and began using his self-taught artistic skills to spread revolutionary messages.

But in early 2013, still a teenager, he travelled to Darayya to join the Free Syrian Army, taking his sketchbooks and pencils with him.

On his first day in Darayya, he says, he was taught to shoot a gun. On his second day, he was sent to the front line. It was only much later, in 2014, that he met an artist named Majd, nicknamed the "Eye of Darayya" who encouraged him to take up street art.

His first mural, on the ruins of a large house, depicted a girl pointing to a heart - teaching a soldier about love, before he goes out to fight.

Grafitti by Abu Malik al-Shami Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami

Getting artistic supplies was initially a problem.

"When I arrived in Darayya, I was completely shocked," he says. "There was huge destruction everywhere, and at that time, the regime was shelling randomly and attacking people. The situation was miserable, we couldn't bear it. Everything was collapsing."

This was also true of the one of Darayya's art shops, which by 2014 was in ruins. With the permission of the shop owner, Majd, Shami and others dug through the rubble to find paint and brushes.

Grafitti by Abu Malik al-Shami Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption The Arabic writing reads: "How are we celebrating Eid this year?"

There was also the risk of being shot by a sniper or being hit by a bomb, and Shami says it was particularly risky to work on rooftops.

"The best times were sunset, or sunrise, or when there was quiet throughout the city," he says. "Sometimes we had to do it at night, so whenever there was a full moon, I used that time to paint murals. Sometimes I also used the light of my mobile phone.

Grafitti by Abu Malik al-Shami Image copyright AP
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Translation: "Our roses are for those who watered them with their blood" Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption Translation: "Our roses are for those who watered them with their blood"

"The process was very tiring," he says. "Every day, I used to fight on the front line, and only in my free time would I paint and draw."

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This picture depicts the changing nature of the Syrian conflict, from peaceful protests (2011), to regime forces (2012), to rebel gains (2013), and finally the rise of Islamic State (2014) Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption This picture depicts the changing nature of the Syrian conflict, from peaceful protests (2011), to regime forces (2012), to rebel gains (2013), and finally the rise of Islamic State (2014)

As time went on Shami and his friends began to run out of paint. At a certain point he had only red, black, pistachio green, gloss yellow and brown to work with.

He was also out of action for part of 2015 with a battlefield injury.

In his two years in Darayya he still painted more than 30 murals.

In January 2016, his friend Majd was killed.


Hear more

Abu Malik al-Shami was speaking to Outlook on the BBC World Service - listen to the programme here.


Syrian government forces took the city in August and along with hundreds of others Shami fled to rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria.

Street art, particularly graffiti, is notoriously ephemeral, and with government forces in charge of the town, the fate of Shami's works is perilous.

So before leaving the city, he took photos of all the murals and graffiti he had painted over the years. And he is continuing his outdoor art on the streets of Idlib.

Abu Malik al-Shami’s last painting in Darayya, dedicated to Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire in August. The Xs represent Russian and Syrian warplanes, and the Os represent tyres which children in Aleppo have been burning in order to create smoke screens. Image copyright Abu Malik al-Shami
Image caption The Xs represent Russian and Syrian warplanes, and the Os represent tyres which children in Aleppo have been burning in order to create smoke screens

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