Dina Saadi

By Payal Khandelwal • Issue 5, December 2017

Contemporary artist Dina Saadi was born in Moscow and raised in Damascus. She moved to Dubai in 2012 to work as an art director for an ad agency. We first stumbled upon her work through a story on Guardian in 2015 on female street artists in Dubai, and have been following her work ever since.

Dina graduated with a Visual Communications degree from Damascus University of Fine Arts in 2009. She now works as an illustrator, visual artist, muralist, and also documents her work as a video blogger. Her work is characterized by pop art references, bright colors, and bold patterns inspired by nature, fabrics, aquatic life, etc. She travels across the world to create large scale murals, and finds a lot of inspiration in the places she visits.

Over a few emails and a Skype conversation, we spoke to Dina about her life, public art, and travel, among other things.

Dina Saadi

Tell us about your childhood and early growing up years.

I was born in Moscow, Russia and then raised in Damascus, Syria which is where I went to school. While growing up, I used to spend all my summers in Moscow. Both my parents are civil engineers. My mother is a huge art lover, and ever since I was a kid, I was always encouraged by her to draw and paint. She used to buy me different kinds of paints and enroll me in courses to learn various techniques of art. And that’s how I got so involved and interested in art. I was also a very hyperactive kid and the only thing that kept me focused was art, and my mother was fascinated to see that.

How was your experience at the Damascus University of Fine Arts? What were some of the important learnings there?

During my last year of school, my mother already knew that I wanted to study Fine Arts. I was still undecided between painting and digital mediums like graphic design, but I ended up learning both in my first year at the university. In the second year, I decided to specialize in graphic design and then in the third year, I learnt animation.

The interesting and challenging part was that our class was the first ever to study Visual Communications major as it was introduced just a year after I started college. Another interesting memory from college is when I participated in an exchange program I was granted for my academic merit. The course was split between Amsterdam and Damascus, and it really enriched my artistic perspective.

The Miracle Project 2 in Yingtan, China

How did you end up moving to Dubai in 2012?

I had started my own small design studio in Syria after finishing my education. But it just wasn’t the right time to start a business in Syria because the situation was getting worse. At the same time, I got an offer from an adverting agency in Dubai to work as an art director, and I thought it would be good to learn something new and get out of my comfort zone. So that’s how I came here.

Did the conditions in Syria affect you as an artist till the time you were there?

In a way, it did. In any place, being financially stable is almost impossible when there is so much conflict going on.

Could you tell us about your early work experiences in Dubai?

My early works in Dubai were a mix of graphic design and illustration. I did some freelance work on the side like digital art work and fashion related projects. I also participated in some group art shows. In the initial days, I was always trying to find out more about the art scene in Dubai and to meet and be inspired by people working in the arts field.

When did you start doing large scale murals?

This actually started in Egypt 2014 when I was invited to participate in Women on Walls street art festival in Cairo. I got the chance to paint in an amazing neighborhood and to meet some very inspiring people.

What attracts you to public art the most?

I believe that by creating expressive and beautiful pieces in public spaces, I am giving the community of that space something that they can call their own and “access” everyday. That’s why I always try to incorporate elements from the surrounding environment in my murals. I think public art is important because it makes people attached to that place and it represents them. It’s not just a beautiful piece of artwork, it’s change. It changes the location and the neighborhood.

Also, whenever I travel to do public art, it’s always more about the community. When I am painting in a neighborhood – especially in small neighborhoods – the locals often get involved. They notice any small change that’s done in their area. They help out and bring me food etc.  So I always feel like I am leaving some part of my spirit in that place, but the piece that I create belongs to them completely.

Also, I personally get a feeling of pure joy and freedom when I paint on public walls.

Is public art a way of expression for you or is it more than that?

It is definitely a way of expression, but I think it’s also a way to pursue my quest of changing public spaces into galleries. I believe that the power of street art lies in its accessibility to everyone, no matter what their class, background, age, and interest might be. You can simply walk by a mural and appreciate (or not appreciate) it. It’s about adding a humane touch to urban spaces to make them more relevant and representative of the community.

A good example of that would be the mural I did in the Mission District in San Francisco a while ago. It’s a heart with multiple colors and patterns in the background. It signifies that while a community might be diverse, people can feel a sense of pride and belonging to a subculture. The colors represent diversity.

Meeting of Styles mural in San Francisco, USA

I believe that the power of street art lies in its accessibility to everyone, no matter what their class, background, age, and interest might be. You can simply walk by a mural and appreciate (or not appreciate) it.

What are the challenges of being a street artist? Do you also face any particular challenges as a female street artist?

I would say as a street artist you have to abide by the rules of each street/neighborhood you’re painting in, especially when traveling.  The street norms are different everywhere, and sometimes people might take you as an outsider. Generally – and this is both positive and negative – when painting in public, you’re very exposed as the audience or anybody passing by can give you his/her feedback right away and without filters!

I don’t think being a female street artist in particular is a challenge. The challenge in my opinion is the fact that women face inequality and discrimination in all fields. It’s not only limited to street art. However, the extra thing in painting in public is being an easy target for harassment and catcalling because you are just exposed. I think being in the street, anyone can tell you anything, and women are just easier targets.

Could you tell us about the inspiration and making of one particular mural in detail?

I recently did this mural in the Design district in Dubai where I wrote a small piece from literature: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more. Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”

This is a reminder to re-connect with nature, be inspired by it, and to care for our planet as it’s the only one we have. It’s also about reconnecting with our inner selves and finding peace. For this mural, I used visuals from different environments – a lot of tropical vibes, patterns from landscape in China, patterns inspired by sea waves, fish and corals I saw when I was diving in Philippines, and patterns from culture, modern life, fashion, and fabric.

I do digital sketches before I start the piece on the wall. I play around with it digitally a lot before deciding the final version. I do one pattern and then flip it, change colors, and create multiple versions. I do all of this either on an iPad or on Photoshop (Digitizer). Then I do grids on printed papers in the same size as I want them on the wall to start forming the sketch of the whole visual.

The Essence of Life mural in Dubai

Your work makes such an interesting use of bright colors and patterns. Has that always been conscious?

It’s a mix of conscious and subconscious. It wasn’t always a part of my work. My earlier work was very heavy on lines and ink and it was black & white. I slowly started adding colors to the lines and then I started removing the outlines all together. Now I have the kind of patterns that I mentioned before. Some of them are inspired by culture, fabrics, and nature. That’s why travel helps a lot. While traveling, I pick up pictures and I draw things from nature which I then manipulate in terms of colors and stuff.

So travel obviously plays a huge role in your life and work. 

As an artist, you always need to have a source of inspiration. Being in a closed room or going to the mall is not inspiring, at least for me. I need to be in a different environment, meet different people, encounter different cultures – having grown up in the middle least, I want to especially encounter cultures that are completely different from mine.

Travel makes me hungry to do new stuff. I see visually rich things and hear interesting stories, and that makes travel the perfect package. And that’s why it’s so important.

What have been your most favorite places so far?

I think my most favorite places are Philippines and China. And I also like New York’s vibe.

You have a video blog in which you document your travels and making of your work. How important or interesting is the documentation process for you?

Documentation is important. For an artist, documentation helps in reaching a wider audience. We are in an age where internet is everything. You can reach the whole world simply by uploading your work on the internet. Also, people like seeing the progress of the work instead of just the final work, especially people/students who want to learn. A finished piece might look hard to someone, but when you show them the process, they are inspired and encouraged to try art.

The challenge in my opinion is the fact that women face inequality and discrimination in all fields. It’s not only limited to street art. However, the extra thing in painting in public is being an easy target for harassment and catcalling because you are just exposed.

Aiyanna mural in San Francisco, USA

‘The Miracle Project 1’ mural in China

Who are the artists you really admire?

I like Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo. I like their personalities and their work, even though it might be different from mine. For example, Frida’s style is very different from mine but I like how crazy expressive it is. She was very brave and a role model for that time. She was a woman who just did not give a sh*t about society’s opinion. She was also a good example of alternate standards of beauty that the community didn’t accept that time, and it doesn’t even now actually.

In terms of the modern/street artists, I really like ETAM CrewShepard Fairey, and many others.

You have mentioned in one of your interviews that you love acting and theatre. Do you pursue that in anyway?

When I came to Dubai, I did improv for a few months. I still really like everything to do with theatre and movies, but I am not involved in it as much as I want to.

What are some of things in music/film/literature that inspire you?

I have been really inspired by Gorillaz’ music and characters/visuals, especially when I was studying graphic design and animation. Jamie Hewlett’s (the artist behind the work) characters and his unique style were so impressive and kind of addictive to watch, especially when animated. It didn’t directly affect my style but I was inspired by it at that time. I still listen to Gorillaz music and I can never forget their epic concert I attended in Damascus a few years back.

Also, subconsciously, I have always been inspired by Russian literature for children. My mother and I used to read these stories together when I was a kid. There is so much magic and amazing visuals in them. In Russian culture, there are a lot of animals in the stories and they are characterized and have human elements.

For some of my projects, I also took inspiration from Alice in Wonderland movie (1999). I was a kid when it came out and watched it multiple times.

What’s on your mind currently?

What I am thinking about currently is how we can use technology to make art more interactive. A lot of people think that technology and art are enemies, but I feel there is a common ground. There is something to relate the two. I also want to experiment with new mediums, as I feel that’s the only way an artist can improve himself or herself. I want to go to the next level in my creations and innovations, and make them more artistic and meaningful. I am still experimenting with all this.

Travel makes me hungry to do new stuff. I see visually rich things and hear interesting stories, and that makes travel the perfect package. And that’s why it’s so important.

Love is Color mural in New York

Mural in Thailand

All the images are artworks by Dina Saadi. ©
Dina Saadi’s images are provided by her. ©
The cover image is a photograph of Dina Saadi.

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