Sanctioned Graffiti in Dubai

There is a scene in Mad Men from season 2 where the family is enjoying a picnic on a sunny afternoon. Before leaving the area, Don chucks his empty beer can far afield and Betty shakes the trash off her blanket into the grass and then saunters off to the car.  I often thought of this scene in Dubai because this sort of careless littering is common. Earlier this year I went to a movie night at my sons’ school where everyone enjoyed (non-pork) hot dogs, popcorn and drinks on their picnic blankets while watching the film.  I was shocked by the amount of garbage left on the field after the movie. It was as if there were 100 Bettys from the 1960s! I was embarrassed for us all. Maybe the world-famous* “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign has made me extra sensitive, but I find littering like that appalling! I’ve even seen people throw an entire bag of fast food trash or their drink out the window of a car while driving. I’m not sure why people think it’s okay to leave trash around, but there are certainly plenty of workers available to clean it all up. The malls, airport, cars and metro are gleaming in ways most people wouldn’t think possible. This city is obsessed with cleaning, as long as someone else can be paid to do it.

Given the interest in portraying a spotless presentation to the public, not to mention its non-democratic government, it’s not surprising that painting graffiti would be punished harshly – fines or jail time. Graffiti as a Westerner might know it is uncommon. A few words or short phrases might be spray painted here and there in the older neighborhoods, but generally in black only with minimal artistic flair. Sometimes stencils are used for quick application. Of course, it’s usually removed very quickly.

However, sanctioned graffiti, essentially the antithesis of the graffiti of hip hop culture in the U.S., seems to be growing in popularity. Graffiti artists are hired by big corporations, commissioned to create works on public spaces, and courted by galleries. Despite its controlled messaging, I still enjoy seeing it.  Here are a few examples.

dubai wall art graffiti

This shot is the beginning of a mural along Jumeirah Beach Road commemorating Dubai’s win of the bid for the World Expo 2020.   The circular stars featured here are part of the logo of the expo. The hands with three fingers are a tribute to the leader of Dubai’s well-known three finger salute. Sheikh Mohammed uses the famous gesture in moments of victory. His website says, “It stands for three words; each word is composed of three letters from the Arabic alphabet that symbolize triumph, victory, and Arab origin.” Other sources say Sheikh Mohammed said they mean “win, triumph and excellence”, or “I love you,” or “victory, triumph and love.”

Sheikh Mohammed three fingered salute

picture credit: yahoo maktoob sports

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai graffiti

Falconry is a highly respected sport in the UAE and the power and beauty of the bird is revered. A leather hood is used to cover the falcon’s eyes to keep it calm, especially during training.

Dubai wall art graffiti


Sheikh Mohammed uses this phrase in some of his speeches.

Dubai wall art graffiti

Major elements of Emirati culture are presented here: the oryx (a species of antelope native to the Arabian Peninsula), the Arabian coffee pot and wind tower. “Connecting minds, creating the future” was the expo bid theme.

Dubai wall art graffiti

The pen represents the importance of calligraphy in Arabic culture. Calligraphy is a highly valued art form and is often used in mosques because pictorial representation of people is forbidden.

Dubai wall art graffiti

Sheikh Mohammed has a passion for horses and horse racing.

The following photos are from a newer installation further down Jumeirah Beach Road near December 2nd street and the giant flag pole. The flag pole often serves as a landmark when giving directions, but its importance lies in the fact that it marks the spot where the leaders from the emirates signed the declaration establishing the UAE as a country. A museum is now being built in the area. Not so much graffiti as wall art (on a temporary wall) it includes more scenes of patriotism and local culture, highlighting the importance of the area.

Dubai wall art graffiti

The UAE flag here is comprised of the first verses of the national anthem, written in Arabic calligraphy.

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai wall art graffiti

The following piece was outside of an Alserkal Avenue gallery.

Alerskal Avenue grafitti

*I said “world famous” because I was so surprised when on a recent visit to Istanbul, I met a carpet salesman who asked where I was from, as they all do. When I said Texas, his first response was, “Don’t mess with Texas!” Whoever incorporated Texan bravado into this anti-litter campaign was a genius! Even Turks thousands of miles away know it!

Click here to read a CNN article about Street Art Gallery in Jumeirah, an art gallery dedicated to street art and spray-painted works, and click here to visit the gallery’s website.


About Lynda

Longhorns and Camels is a blog about exploring Dubai from the perspective of an expat from Texas. It features stories about living in Dubai including descriptions of local culture and popular activities in the region. It also includes photography of the UAE and other countries abroad. It has been recommended by several well-known guides for expatriates: InterNations, ExpatWoman and Expat Focus.
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14 Responses to Sanctioned Graffiti in Dubai

  1. Thanks for taking the time to explain things from you perspective.

    These pieces are fantastic.

  2. Mitzie Mee says:

    I always wonder where these sanctioned graffiti artist get their practice:)
    Regarding littering in Dubai, this is something that really disturbs me too! Why can’t people just pick up after themselves! Have you been to some of the public beaches? Sometimes they are so full of junk you don’t even want to take your shoes off..

    • Lynda says:

      I think they get their practice abroad. 🙂 Yes, it’s terrible when the beach or desert is full of trash – they are so beautiful in Dubai – who could just leave their trash there? Will never understand!

  3. Diana says:

    I love how “Don’t Mess with Texas” is known all over!! LOVE THAT! And the Italians (as I think you know) are still living like Don and Betty.

  4. Anita says:

    Hi Lynda – This is your old friend, Anita! I am thrilled to hear that you are all back in Houston. Drop me an e-mail when you clear out the first layer of boxes 😉 Same e-mail as always. Hope to hear from you soon!

    • Lynda says:

      So great to hear from you! 🙂 Will absolutely be in touch when things settle down. Hope you and the family are well. PS – I have seen some little fishies as 7 year olds at the boys’ school – so weird to see them all grown!

  5. I am loving the graffiti art around Dubai too! Thanks for sharing these. Have you seen the one in Al Ghurair Centre? It’s pretty stunning.

  6. An interesting post. I could image graffiti isn’t something you find in Dubai the same way as in some Western cities. The ones you have captured here are really work of arts – but maybe less street art as we usually understand it.

  7. I am a huge street art lover, so I will have to check these out when I visit Dubai 🙂

  8. adeeba says:

    I’m working on my Capstone project which is a requirement for me to graduate from Higher Colleges of Technology, I would like your permission to use two of the photographers owned by you for educational purposes and as soon as I’m done I will be sharing images of my final project.

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