In celebration of the month of love, FACT came across husband and wife duo, Sya One and Steffi Bow, A.K.A Graffiti Lovers, who are painting the walls of the UAE with their colourful passion for street art and spray painting. Shabana Adam caught up with the talented couple to find out exactly what drives them, if they face any challenges, and how the UAE is slowly but surely embracing this vibrant form of artistic expression……
SYA ONE was raised on the streets and lines of the UK and now lives and breathes the endless cultures of Dubai. He’s been a graffiti writer for nearly 20 years. As a sign writer by trade, Sya moved into letter construction and colour combination, looking at the never-ending styles and realms of what a letter can do.
“I became interested in letters early on,” Sya recalls. “Around the same time that subway art came out, and I was mesmerised by what a letter could do. This was also around the time I got into graffiti. “Later on, I became a sign writer and, for me, the love of letters grew once I started understanding the construction of a letter and what you could do with it,” he explains. Sya’s graffiti writing is known in particular for its old-school, easily readable, large, lazy, and brightly coloured letters. It’s easy to see in his vibrant work that Sya is passionate about the power of letters. So, how would he describe his artistic style? “Lazy,” he says. “The letters that I have worked on and I’m still working on are kind of laid back and chill, with bright colours. A friend told me that sometimes it looks like my letters are talking to each other or have there own stance.” We take Sya down memory lane and ask how he first got into graffiti.
“I’ve always been into drawing since I was a kid and then when I reached school it was the only thing I was interested in,” he reminisces. “Drawing was the only thing I could set my mind to and get lost in. I was taught how to draw by my amazing art teacher who could see that I was not fussed with Maths and English, and that art was really my thing,” Sya continues. “He taught me the basics. The first things that I drew, which I was really happy about, was a car and a portrait, I gave it my all.”
There are still many out there who view graffiti in a negative light, especially as, around the world, many take to the walls in retaliation to political and social injustice. It is true that graffiti was once seen as just a punishable act of pavement protest, but as Sya’s and many other artists’ work proves, it has grown to be so much more. We were intrigued to know that for anyone who still sees graffiti as a form of vandalism, what would Sya have to say?
“You are correct, the essence of graffiti is vandalism, BUT you need to look beyond that and see the passion that all the writers in the world have,” Sya explains. “Ignore the ones that are in it for the fashion status and likes on Facebook and Insta, the true writers have dedicated there lives to this craft, me included, and have spent countless hours practicing in sketch books; looking for spots to paint; and hiding in bushes waiting to paint. “We are loyal to this – paint almost flows through our veins. Nowadays graffiti is more acceptable and the days of ‘illegal’ work is pretty much done, but I never forget the roots,” he says. When working on a piece, graffiti writing requires time, dedication and patience, but knowing when to stop, and when a piece is finished, is also a skill in itself. This is something that Sya knows all too well.
“Stopping is the hardest thing to do, whilst painting,” he says. “But once you have been doing it for as long as I have, you kind of just know when to stop. “It’s hard to explain. You can ruin a perfectly good piece by going that bit too far, or not doing enough. It’s a fine line.” When it comes to something so free-spirited and bold as graffiti and street art, it can be difficult to share this talent with the wider community, in a completely positive way. However, Sya and Steffi manage to do this by taking part in projects and initiatives that allow them to inform and inspire people.
“We take part in such activities so that the masses can see what we do, and how we do it,” Sya tells us. “It keeps the scene moving and hopefully inspires the next generation of graffiti writers or street artists.
“It’s good to see people vibing out on what you’re doing and learning about we do,” he continues. “I like talking to people when I’m painting at an event. Whether they are positive or negative, it’s good to talk to them and find out their views on what we do.”
And on a final note, Sya’s advice to upcoming artists is to “practice, practice, practice, and do it for yourself.” His biggest tip is to “stay off the internet.” Why? Because much like both Sya and Steffi have found their own style, he urges other graffiti writers and street artists to dedicate themselves to the craft, saying: “Don’t do it because it’s cool, do it because you’ve fallen in love with it.”
STEFFI is a British graffiti and stencil artist based in Dubai. From the inspiration and memory of her late Scottish Grandmother (who always wore bows) to the place where she was born (Bow, East London), Steffi created an image through a graffiti “bow” tag that represented her whole being – past, future, and present.
“It’s a symbol that means a lot to me,” Steffi says. “Even my engagement ring has been made up of diamonds shaped in my bow tag signature. First and foremost, it reminds me of my granny who always wore bows. Also, I was born in Bow, East London. Lastly, like my granny, I really love bows and how they make things smart and dressy,” she explains. It started off with painting simple graffiti bow tags and led Steffi on an adventure with spray paint, creating larger and more complex real life stencil pieces, portraits, freehand graffiti bows, letters, and abstract pieces. She has created the largest piece of aerosol art in the UAE along with creative partner and husband, graffiti artist, Sya One.
“Sya and I met here in Dubai, painting a graffiti wall that used to exist at Dubai Festival City,” Steffi tells us. “We were pretty much inseparable from the moment we met and we’ve had so much fun sharing the hobby we love. It’s been a complete adventure for both of us.”
In terms of tools and technique, there isn’t much that Steffi needs to let out her creative side. “Really we don’t need much; just spray paint, nozzles/caps – different types depending on what paint effect we are trying to get – and wall space – lots of wall space. “I joke with people that Sya does not get out of bed unless the wall size is five metres wide or more! If I’m doing a stencil then it takes more preparation time as I hand cut the stencil – but then the spraying time is really quick. These days I’m much happier going freestyle and not using stencils,” Steffi says.
She defines herself as more of a street artist than a graffiti writer – two terms that, she believes, have completely different meanings. “They’re different both in terms of their art and the psychology behind the art,” Steffi explains. “In a nutshell, graffiti writers are about freehand, stylised letter form with spray paint, whilst Street Artists are about painting imagery – more pictorial work – using a variety of different mediums, although spray paint is usually the main medium.” For anyone viewing Steffi’s work, and certainly what we were pleasantly surprised to learn, is that Steffi only picked up a spray can at the age of 35. She did A-level Art at college in the UK but then completely forgot about any kind of creative activity for 17 years! “I’d always loved looking at street art in London,” Steffi recalls. “But I had no idea about what graffiti was. I then started tagging my bow stencil and things developed from there.”
Steffi has since come a long way and she tells us why she loves producing graffiti so much. “It amuses me. Nothing more, nothing less. I love the interaction of being out on the street, painting, having a laugh with people walking by and other people I’m painting with. I really don’t enjoy painting on a piece of canvas, I find it completely boring!” Spoken like a true street artist! And what about the street art scene here in the UAE? “Our little scene is growing, which is great,” Steffi says. “The problem is that there is nowhere to, legally, paint our work in public without it being a planned commission piece or event.
“It’s frustrating because there are so many walls here that could do with some love, such as in Al Quoz. Dubai has the ability to host the world’s greatest graffiti and street art event – it just needs some imagination with the spaces that could be used so brilliantly,” she adds. As Steffi and Sya’s mission is to promote graffiti as an art form in the UAE, what advice does Steffi have for budding artists? “Be passionate and determined,” she says. “Learning to use spray paint is the greatest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve had so much fun with doing street art. “It can be terribly frustrating at times getting to grips with “can control” but you will always progress if you try hard and remain curious to push your limits!”