Forget New York, London or Paris. If you want to see the world’s best street art you should hop on a plane, head south to Tunisia and check out Djerbahood.
This summer, dozens of graffiti artists from all over the world are visiting the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, and turning the small, unassuming village of Erriadh into a spectacular open-air museum.
Djerbahood is the brainchild of Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a Franco-Tunisian 40-year-old whose street art gallery in Paris has already organized ambitious mass installations like Tour Paris 13, which last year hosted a huge collective graffiti exhibition for a month before being completely demolished.
In this little Tunisian town, however, the artists’ work will be preserved and visited for years to come. “It’s just like any other museum, with art pieces and itineraries that people can follow, but it stays true to the nature of graffiti because it’s constantly evolving, completely outdoors and free,” says Ben Cheikh.
The project began in July and so far has attracted more than a hundred famed names on the international street-art scene.
Once-bare walls and rooftops are now covered with stunning images like rows of Ottoman soldiers, courtesy of the Argentinian JAZ; colorful mythical beasts by the Mexican Curiot; a flying Berber man, by Parisian Bom.K; or a spectacular mural of a mother and child by the American Swoon. Tunisian street artists like InkMan, eL Seed or Shoof have also answered the call, adding “calligraffiti” — a combination of street art and Arabic calligraphy — to the visual mix.
Sometimes it takes someone coming from outside to make you realize how beautiful your home is.
International street artists seem thrilled about the change of scenery and the chance to adapt to a new type of architecture. Erriadh’s small streets have changed little over the centuries, and its bright whitewashed walls and domes are far from the underground passages and concrete buildings of New York, Chicago or Paris.
The local authorities and residents have welcomed the project, despite the initial surprise at seeing dozens of foreigners wearing masks, standing on ladders and painting the walls.
“We have had no problems with locals,” says Ben Cheikh. “On the contrary, I think we are helping them revalorize their own town. Sometimes it takes someone coming from outside to make you realize how beautiful your home is.”
The eccentric museum hosting the works of hundreds of artists might also become a tourist attraction for this quiet village, which now only gets a few lines in Lonely Planet’s guide to Tunisia. “It’s incredible how art can boost a local economy,” Ben Cheikh says, “as people start to visit, kids turn tour guides during their school vacation, new food stalls and tea shops open.”
Organizers are working on adding lighting to each piece so visitors will be able to enjoy the art at night, and they hope to grow the collection of murals over time. There are no plans to create a similar open-air museum anywhere else since, as Ben Cheikh puts it, “There is no fun in repeating yourself.”
The official preview of the exhibition will be Sept. 20, but enthusiasts can already visit, anytime and for free. Because that’s the whole point of Djerbahood: free art for all.
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