By Emily Vega, Photography by Anna Bongardino
RABAT, Morocco — Jammed between a blank wall and a rushing train headed to Casablanca, Zakaria Essadiki, 22, uses his ten seconds of concealment to spray paint his graffiti name: ZED. Unseen and unscathed, he leaves behind his mark and continues around his city reclaiming walls.
Essadiki is a part of a growing community of young Moroccans participating in the urban alternative culture of street art. Although street art has been a thriving genre around the world for over half a century, it has just begun its debut across Morocco.
In the 1970’s, trains cruising through New York City were covered in graffiti , a form of social commentary and public protest by its youth. In Morocco, graffiti began as a way for soccer fans to communicate pride. Many of its practitioners have no particular political message.
“When I go outside and tag my name, it’s like I have power in my city. It gives me adrenaline. It’s like a drug,” explains Essadiki whose graffiti is never more than his three-letter nickname.
From graffiti and tagging, street art in Morocco has grown to include large public murals that challenge traditional art venues and audiences.
Hicham Bahou is the co-founder of EAC-L’Boulvart Association, which supports youth culture, and co-director of the Jidar/Toiles de Rue street art festival. He hopes his projects will develop the local street art scene.
In its fourth year, Jidar (“Walls”), a 10-day street art festival based in Rabat, invites a dozen professional street artists from around the world, a number of local painters and illustrators, and student assistants from Rabat’s National School of Architecture to transform the streets into an open studio.
“One reason why we develop this project is to transform the street into a cultural venue. Morocco is moving and it’s very dynamic but when you look to education and culture, it’s not the same rhythm of development. Culture is going backwards,” states Bahou.
According to the World Bank,, Morocco has 22 active national projects, none of which address cultural development throughout the country.
“The most important thing is to create this dynamic and opportunity that pushes local artists to assume their own passion and to develop their own projects,” explains Bahou.
Mehdi Annassi, 29, spent several years creating comics and animations for local magazine Skefkef but never ventured beyond his tablet to explore street art until Jidar 2016.
Annassi began as a painting assistant and unexpectedly got the opportunity to paint his own wall in the Jidar 2017 edition following an international artist’s withdrawal from the festival. His final wall picturing a white and gold hen was Annassi’s first big break into street art.
Annassi spent the beginning of his street art career with international artists Aryz from Spain and STNK from Mexico, and learned techniques such as how to mix colors, manage space, and plan large-scale murals.
“I’m still looking for myself in my walls. I’m still experimenting with style, copying a lot of famous artists but also copying myself and the skills I’ve developed digitally,” Annassi explains.
“Putting young artists for 10 days with an international artist is like a master class. We are training artists and creating values. Today we have maybe 10 or 15 Moroccan artists who can do murals. Six years ago, we could find no one,” explains Bahou.
Samir Iramo, 25, was one of two Moroccan artists featured in Jidar this year. Iramo was a part of the original wave of graffiti artists who painted slogans for soccer ultra groups. After dropping out of school, he turned his hobby into a career and developed his techniques in depicting detailed facial expressions and hypnotic graphics. Iramo’s final mural of a wrinkled Moroccan woman wrapped in a red hijab with full eyes and a wide smile can be spotted several streets away.
“A Moroccan mother holds many messages and many people can relate to her,” beamed Iramo as children admired his work.
“Moroccan women are in the middle of the big equation. They are very discreet, but they are the principle managers of family in Morocco,” Bahou agrees.
While Moroccan women are considered the glue keeping families together, few Moroccan women can be found creating street art.
“I rarely see a girl doing street art. In Morocco, it’s much harder to be a female street artist than a male one,” states Iramo.
However, Ghizlane Agzenai, 29, has become the first featured Moroccan female artist in Jidar.
“I see that there are more men than women in the urban art world,” explains Agzenai, “But I’d just like to be seen as a person.”
Agzenai began her professional career at a communication agency but quickly realized it did not feed her passion for art. She began small exhibitions in restaurants and ultimately co-founded a creative studio. After spending several years traveling the world, Agzenai returned to Morocco with a new challenge in mind: creating a public piece.
Since 2013, Agzenai has focused on creating totems – colorful geometric objects that convey positive energy. Although she had experience with visual art, she had never produced a mural.
“Each year, [Jidar] takes risks with a new artist that has never painted something big,” states Annassi. Agzenai was this year’s risk factor.
“I am really happy to have done my first wall in Morocco because I grew up here and I have an emotional connection with this country,” beamed Agzenai after completing her debut wall. “This is really a starting point and big push in my career.”
Agzenai is one of four women featured in Jidar 2018 – the most the festival has ever seen.
“You have to put in effort to look for and find these women. The reality is that we are far from equality,” notes Bahou.
Souleymane Elamiri, 22, who served as Agzenai’s student assistant, was excited that female artists were being empowered but also noted another challenge.
“It’s great to see women getting walls and working alone,” Elamiri explains. “But I think the challenge is more about empowering local artists from the MENA region and Africa.”
Over the last four editions, only two countries in the MENA region have had featured artists.
“Foreign artists are in a different environment, so translating what’s happening is not only about translating words but also the meaning and culture of what’s happening in Morocco,” explains Elamiri who worked alongside artists like Maya Howook from the United States and Cix from Mexico.
While some international artists come to the festival with a planned sketch of their wall, other artists improvise and adapt their ideas to the atmosphere around them.
“The more you invest time and effort in thinking about a concept or message that you want to convey, the less remorse you have when you finish,” states Annassi.
Daniel Cortez, 31, from Peru, who signs his murals under the pen name El Decertor, used this improvised technique during the creation of his 2018 mural.
Upon his arrival, he combined pictures of his Moroccan student assistant and elements of the Moroccan culture around him to create a portrait of a woman in a patterned red and blue hijab.
“Part of the joy of painting is the adrenaline and the fear of fucking up. It makes the drawing alive when you don’t copy it directly,” explains Annassi, who served as Cortez’s painting assistant.
The festival considers it a principle to never ask to see a sketch beforehand.
“We do not decide what they can and cannot do but we insist that it is a different culture, a different way of living, and these artists are responsible for their work,” states Bahou.
After the end of the festival, the walls are signed, photos are taken and the artists are flown back to their countries, leaving their work behind in the bustling streets of Rabat. As community members travel past new murals, Bahou hopes it’ll begin to shape a positive conversation around street art.
In Morocco, as in many countries around the world, street art is linked to negative images of illegal vandalism. Jidar, however, works under the funding of the Moroccan government and large companies such as Maroc Telecom. Many argue the festival goes against the rebellious nature of street art because of the federal and corporate support.
“There is a difference in the street artists who are doing vandalism and who are killing themselves to do their art and festivals. Here, you don’t have problems with authorities, you have water bottles with you, you have an assistant, and you have all the help to do this. But when its vandalism and it’s something you do on your own, it’s more difficult,” explains Elamiri.
“Street art cannot survive in an illegal environment. It has to work with permission,” argues Annassi.
Although street art and graffiti go hand in hand, artists agree there are stark differences in the way their art is viewed and produced. The idea of reclaiming public space keeps them closely linked.
Morocco’s walls have become a drawing board for the young and growing community of graffiti and street artists. Blank walls are transforming into colorful urban spaces for artistic expression open to everyone.
“In the streets, you have equality,” Bahou says. “When you see a wall, it is for the rich, the poor, the women, the men, the kids.”