Soul and the City- words from graffiti artist Mohammed Ali

Interview with Mohammed Ali first appeared in the New Internationalist reproduced with kind permission in the December issue 2012.

What are your early memories of Graffiti?

Flicking through Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember how the book opened my eyes to New York street art and the hip-hop scene. In those days, the phenomenon hadn’t reached most people yet and it wasn’t about ego, cars and women. Although I identified with street art, it focused a lot on leaving a ‘tag’ and I didn’t want to just ‘tag’. I wanted to transform something ugly into something beautiful, pointing not towards the glorification of the artist but towards art itself, and its source – thereby leaving an indelible ‘tag’ on earth.

Tell us about your latest projects…

I’ve just completed a mural in East London near the Olympic Stadium. It featured the iconic image of Tommy Smith and his Black Power salute, representing the idea that sometimes the power of your principles can, if need be, go against your country. I’m working on the next mural to go up in East London, around the Brick Lane area. Another major project I’m working on is with the organization Soul City Arts, delivering Writing On the Wall 2 in London – a theatrical performance of live art and performance poetry.

What are you passionate about politically?

Injustice. I can’t stand it. I get upset about Palestine; I got upset about apartheid in South Africa. I get upset about regimes trying to censor ideas and prevent human beings living in dignity. I get upset about governments wanting you to behave in a certain way or condemning you for the way you look.

Who or what inspires you?

The city inspires me. It compels me to inject life back into the urban spaces we live in. It tells me to take back ownership of our public spaces, take the power away from the authorities who control how our spaces look and feel and return it to the people. Why do our cities have to be so grey and ugly? Colour injects soul back to the city.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is not being able to do art and represent a voice coming from my urban British Muslim background. I think it would eat me up. My art has been embraced and celebrated by the mainstream, and there are many communities which recognize the transcendent nature of art – especially street art. I’ve spoken to audiences at the British Museum and the Greenbelt Festival but, sadly, support for my work is most lacking from my own community’s institutions, especially those which have the financial and cultural clout to support me. They see no value in it. They don’t recognize that it’s a space for dialogue, interaction and engagement; a place where prejudices are broken down. I’ve worked with white working-class pupils and they have told me how their perceptions have changed forever.

Where do you feel most at home?

I was born and raised in Birmingham, England. I grew up with Irish and South Asian kids in our neighbourhood. My late father, who migrated to Birmingham, felt intrinsically part of the city’s social fabric. That’s probably why, in spite of the fact that I’ve worked in many parts of the world, including New York and London, I’m drawn back to Birmingham. Many might perceive Birmingham as segregated and it’s true, it does have pockets of different communities that engage little with one another. My hope, though, is to reconnect these disparate communities to show that we share more commonalities than differences