Rami Afifi's Art Centers Around Palestine and Pop-Culture Nostalgia

The artist reflects on his inspirations, projects and cultural heritage.

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From working on projects with Nightmares on Wax and Nike to designing a deck skated by Ed Templeton, UAE-based, Palestinian artist Rami Afifi is taking the Middle East by storm.

With a vibrant aesthetic rooted in nostalgic pop-culture references, cultural heritage and memories of his homeland, Afifi has created murals around the UAE, taught masterclasses in Saudi Arabia and collaborated with various global brands. His artistic style is instantly recognizable, creating playful characters such as “Bastakiya Transformer and his robot falcon companion” or basing his illustrations off of Marvel superheroes, hip-hop artists or a bag of chips. As seen on skate decks, sneakers, and many more, Afifi doesn’t limit his capabilities to a particular medium, but rather to what communicates his story the best.

Hypebeast caught up with the artist to discuss his vision, childhood memories, Palestine and favorite projects thus far.

Hypebeast: When and how did you get into art?

Rami Afifi: I’ve been into art ever since I could remember. It all started with LEGO. I obsess over matching all the right colors when building my creations. I would also always try and draw my favorite characters from the cartoons I used to watch like Ninja Turtles and Captain Majid. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a cartoonist.

I drew, used play dough, did graffiti, made stickers and now, I mostly work in digital – it gives me the freedom to truly express myself with colors and the ability to undo (a true blessing or maybe a curse).

You’re well-renowned for acknowledging Palestinian culture and creating around it – could you talk about what inspires you the most and how you like to portray the culture in your work?

One thing I learned from being a member of the Palestinian diaspora is that home is not necessarily a piece of land, but rather a collection of memories, art, music and traditions. Really anything that can transport you there.

I had often disregarded my Arab identity thinking it wasn’t important and aspired to be like artists from the west who I idolized, but over time, I found that my Arab-ness was what defined me. I used to tell people that I thought Fine Art was bulls**t and that my art didn’t have meaning, but rather was all about an aesthetic. What I find now is that by creating art as a Palestinian, that already gives my work lots of meaning. All of these nostalgic elements, the pop culture, these are things that give me a sense of identity, considering I had no home to go back to. With the rise of social media I found that by focusing on the subject of Palestine I could create awareness for our cause.

A lot of your work includes nostalgia from the Arab world, could you talk about why and how you go about choosing what to draw? What inspires this vision?

I grew up in Saudi Arabia, started working in Jordan and then moved to Dubai around ten years ago. The nostalgia in my work is a collection of things local to the countries, but also things I experienced growing up in those places. Whether it was watching VHS tapes of the Wrestlemania events at my friend’s house or eating Al Baik on the streets of Jeddah, a lot of these memories inspired me to be who I am today.

I aspired to want to draw as well as the artists who drew my favorite comics from Spiderman to Daredevil and my favorite cartoons like the Transformers. Most people got into skateboarding through watching skate videos, we didn’t have those in Saudi, instead I got into it through Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and the Tony Hawk‘s Pro Skater video games on PlayStation. Merge that with the amazing food, architecture, cultural sites and landscapes of the cities I grew up in and you get a weird mashup of pop culture, food, history, architecture, etc. These would in turn show up in my art where I created characters.

Out of all your projects, which have been your favorite to work on?

My collaborations with Nike have been touchstone moments for me. I always aspired to collaborate with the brand and made it my goal and was fortunate enough to create the packaging for the Middle East launch of the Air Max 1 Master and for the debut of the Vapormax. I was also given the opportunity to create limited edition t-shirts in celebration of the 1 year anniversary of their Dubai mall branch including a t-shirt customisation workshop.

Another one would be designing my own KFC bucket and creating a mural for the 50th anniversary of Porsche which currently lives in the Driven coffee shop.

Tell us about your latest collaboration with Converse.

I most recently collaborated with Converse on a mural for their new flagship store at the Mall of the Emirates. I created two murals, one linked to the brand’s history within the skate scene playing out one of my fantasies where a skateboarder skates the Jumeriah Beach Hotel. The other piece was dedicated to the brand’s history in basketball and features a woman in a hijab scoring in an oversized hoop on the side of Burj Al Arab. These murals were coupled with a t-shirt collaboration featuring a Converse Mecha robot, referencing my love of Mecha anime. Following this, I created two murals for the store in Dubai Hills Mall and another for the Vendome Mall in Qatar.

For more in art, the 2022 ADAA Art Show is back at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

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