When written in the middleof a word, the Arabic letter “shin” looks like a wavy “w,” and the Arabic letter “miim” looks like a balloon that’s about to lift up. In Chris Gazaleh’s street art, the waves and balloons — the shins and miims — are located in his matrix of bigger lines and shapes that resemble Arabic letters that have been reimagined and reassembled. That’s what Gazaleh does — reimagines and reassembles, creating work that often centers around Arab faces.
Gazaleh, 33, is Palestinian-American. His family emigrated from Palestine to San Francisco in 1955, and his public art around the Bay Area is a link to Palestinian culture — even if passers-by may not recognize the artworks’ connections to the Middle East. Gazaleh’s work at 2966 Mission St., in front of a café, doesn’t exactly follow the rules of Arabic letters.
“It’s a mosaic with no particular pattern, just a flow of lines that look like letters,” Gazaleh says. “I call it rhythmic painting, where I just go freestyle. I’ll put letters in, and words — like the small “c” in Arabic — because it’s much more flowing and also because I want to put that in my art as a positive portrayal of culture. The Arabic language is beautiful, and the beauty needs to be shown.”
The work went up about a year ago, and its title, Staring at Babylon, is a reference to the ancient Iraqi city that went from being a world wonder to a place of lost promise that was then restored. In Gazaleh’s work, Babylon becomes a symbol of world upheavals and of San Francisco’s upheaval, where skyrocketing real-estate prices and high-tech changes are reassembling neighborhoods like the Mission District.
“It’s a representation of what’s going on in the world and in San Francisco,” says Gazaleh, a resident of the Excelsior District. “San Francisco is just a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole world. We have the super-rich, the super-poor, and then people with mental conditions who are roaming the streets. San Francisco is another form of Babylon. There’s still goodness, with people trying to do good for the community. But basically what really inspired [Staring at Babylon] was having the Frisco Five, with their protests [against police brutality] in front of the Mission police station, and then at the same time guys selling their big companies and making billions. I want people to pay more attention to the divide in society. The face in the art is looking out and looking kind of angry and sad but also determined. Like he’s trying to promote positive change.”