It's an illegal art form that could lead to jail. However, youth in the UAE are turning their interest in graffiti into a money-making business venture.

Instead of taking to the streets - a common practice in cities around the globe - students are finding an outlet for their creativity through commissioned jobs for which they are handsomely paid.

Video: Graffiti art timelapse

"When I first started I think I got ripped off because I got paid Dh2,200 for four walls," said 'Safe', a graffiti artist and university student. "I can now make the same amount for a one-day job."

Graffiti is a small but growing trend among the youth in the UAE, serving the same purpose of self-expression but in a more controlled environment.

"To me graffiti is self-expression and mostly a rebellious movement; that's why I got into it," said Safe. He first picked up a spray can professionally two years ago to design his friend's café in Abu Dhabi. He went on to be commissioned for jobs at a ladies' nail salon, Marks and Spencer and private homes.


Currently, the graffiti culture in the UAE is not huge. The handful of artists are hesitant about defacing public property as they stand to face severe penalties.

"The lifestyle in this country is not accustomed to graffiti; they apply harsh laws considered as a fine. I think it's a Dh10,000 fine and one year in jail," said Safe.

Juma Al Fuqaei, Head of Maintenance at Dubai Municipality, said vandalism involving the department's 550 public assets is minimal. However, public parks are more prone to vandalism. "We have [such] problems in community parks. The vandalism through graffiti is limited to certain areas. We have had incidents in the Al Mizhar and Al Satwa areas," he said.

Al Fuqaei said if the damage is minor, it is simply painted over. However, in repetitive incidents "we take stronger action by involving the police to monitor or patrol the area".

Professor Jusri Devries, associate professor of interior design at the American University in Dubai, thinks graffiti is "a form of art and the destination of art is the expression of an individual".

Acknowledging that the rapid development of the UAE has made it a testing ground for ideas and a place where cultures cross-breed, he said, "Some societies acknowledge this type of art form by providing space in a location for everybody to go and do it to express themselves."

Devries thinks that although not publicly accepted in the UAE, graffiti should be open to experimentation and discussion.

Making a living

Graffiti artist "Klue" believes that the streets serve as an artist's CV. "There are people who are paid to do it for a living and it [graffiti] is the same as putting a resume together," he said.

Klue believes it is a way to convey a message to the average person. For those who dispute its credibility as art he said: "They don't understand that it is an art form and they don't respect that. You get vandalism, then you get graffiti.

"Breeze", a commercial artist and aspiring graffiti writer, wants to take graffiti onto the streets of the country.

"I feel people's voices need to be represented out on the streets, especially in Dubai where anything you see outdoors visually is advertising or marketing and it is all done by corporations," he said.

- Graffiti artists have chosen to use their street names in this story