This Guy Gave Up His Dream Job For Life As a Graffiti Artist

D Emptyspace
Oct 23, 2019 · 10 min read
Photo by Stuart Keegan

Up until his mid-twenties, Mohammed Ali was following a pretty standard path for a kid from an immigrant family. He’d done well in school, gone on to earn a cutting edge degree, and landed a dream job as a game designer. But his artistic streak and moral compass were making other plans.

“It was my job to make little children addicted to their screens, to take kids away from playing outside with their friends or doing their homework and turn them into screen zombies. That’s not something I wanted to do with my life.”

Ali’s priorities began to shift.

It started with graffiti when he was a rebellious teen. You know, the usual did-that-kid-really-paint-this-on-my-wall stuff. All popping letters and neon colors. But in his early 20s, Ali started thinking a little bigger.

I suppose I was wrestling with this whole identity of being raised as an immigrant, but also of Muslim faith, especially at a time when Islam was (and in some ways still is) demonized, post 9/11.”

He moved on from bubble letters, and began experimenting with Islamic script while documenting the ups and downs of Muslim faith in an intolerrant world. And while spraying a public wall with paint (and no permission slip) is illegal in the UK, Ali was connecting with communities. And the news stations, community planners, and big businesses wanted in.

“Back in the early 2000s, while I was working my gaming gig, I built a website on the side and continued with my street art. Having an online presence was why I got noticed. News channels like CNN were finding my work online and calling me at my day job. I had to tell them to call back on my lunch break! I was so lucky to ride that trend. I don’t think I could do it the same way these days. In those days, so few artists had any presence online. It was all new to them.”

Ali admits he tried his best not to become an artist. But his path to being a full time artist was so laden with purpose, he couldn’t resist. Now he spends his time making tangible difference in the world. Not with a sword, pen, or brush. But with a spraycan and mission.

“I want to try and change the condition of society and the world that we live in. I realize not everybody can do that. And not everybody should do that, because everyone would be poor!”

Since becoming a full-time artist, Ali has taken on other roles as well, as an educator, a speaker, and an advocate for his community. In 2013, he was invited to give a TEDx Talk at the Vatican and in 2016, he was awarded the MBE for services to art and community cohesion. He’s been invited to create enormous murals in cities around the world.

We spoke more with Mohammed Ali about his life, his influences, and his work through art to build stronger communities.

If you want to get a sense of how Ali covers entire walls, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:

Johannesburg Mural / Birmingham UK Murals / Untitled Gallery

Want to create your own galleries? Click here to download D Emptyspace for IOS from the app store.

How is street art uplifting communities when most people consider graffiti an eye-sore?

This Cromer Street mural by Mohammed Ali is enhanced by augmented reality where you can hear the stories of local residents.

Let’s take one of my latest projects as an example. It’s a new mural in Kings Cross, London(not the train station but the neighborhood behind it). Even though this work was sanctioned by the City Council I didn’t hold back on painting the very real issues that the neighborhood inherited from the 70s and 80s.

Back in those days, there was massive drugs and prostitution activity going on. Nowadays, Kings Cross has undergone a bit of gentrification. There are all these posh cafes and nice apartments… but below the surface, the inheritance of drugs remains. While I was painting, I saw drug deals taking place in broad daylight, so problems are still very much there. But I also met young people who were full of potential and pride. The area has changed and I wanted to acknowledge that, to tell a story of its transition. If we are oblivious to such past narratives, how can we work to resolve the current issues?

So I wanted to create a piece that told the story of the people who live here. I wanted the wall to tell a story to people passing by. So that’s exactly what I did. Using augmented reality, I’ve embedded 10 interviews from locals that automatically start playing when you hover over a part of the wall with your phone. I’m literally making the wall speak.

That’s how I use street art to reflect the local area and the stories that people are truly living. So that the ideas and thoughts of people who live there are actually heard. I expressed to the council that I want these interviews to be accessible in 200 years time, so we can remember and reflect on the truth of people. Not just what the biased history books want us to remember.

How do you paint those massive murals?

D Emptyspace Gallery of street murals by Mohammed Ali

Well, first of all, you need access to equipment like a scissor lift. I tried to use a scaffold, but it’s very tricky. So if you’re doing a big mural, it’ll have to be legally sanctioned, because you need the time.

To scale the art up isn’t really that hard. It’s just a case of understanding how to break your drawings using up using a grid so that you can scale them up. Once you have a grid worked out on paper, you can transfer it to the wall. It’s a well-documented technique. Just practice and follow the method.

I’ve recently made the switch from oil-based spray paint to water-based. They are generally safer to use plus it’s great for doing workshops indoors with kids and that sort of thing.

You do a lot of live performances in collaboration with vocalists and musicians. How do you set them up?

Through life, you sometimes encounter a “Fireworks moment”. That spontaneous moment, that golden moment in time, and it goes just as suddenly as it comes.

I was invited to do a TEDX talk at the Vatican a few years back. In my 18 minutes, I spoke for about 5, and then used the rest of the time to paint. After that event, someone came up to me and told me that a row of about four or five people were crying during my talk. And I thought, how strange, I wasn’t doing anything immediately emotional.

I realized that I needed to gauge what it was that made them feel such emotion. So I started tracking and monitoring my performances to capture that magic formula. I wanted to replicate, repeat, and build upon that moment. To develop and share a strategy or method to making an emotional reaction.

I approach people after my performances and ask how they feel, and when exactly they felt that way. Then I attribute it to specific timing, like smoke coming on stage, or a narrative that was particularly personal. I realized that what I was doing was using light, sound, music, and visuals, to make a multi-sensory experience.

Live performance by Mohammed Ali in Malaysia

If you get the right timing it’s fireworks. Say we start off pitch black, then slowly, the light fades in. And then this happens. And then there’s some music fills the space. And then there’s a moment of silence.

If I can get all these in the right measures, I’ve got some something really golden in the bottle.

Being a revolutionary is very nice and all… but with three kids, you have bills to pay. Do you ever compromise your morals for a commercial gig?

No, I try to stay away from the commercial sector where I can. Some street artists get snatched up by big corporations once they start making a name for themselves. But I didn’t want that. I’d already worked for a big corporation. I don’t want to compromise my morals or dilute my message to fit the agenda of some massive company.

I do corporate commissions, but I’m pretty picky about my clients. I won’t be a part of someone’s meaningless PR stunt.

A while back Ben & Jerry’s contacted me… Alarm bells went off, and I was all like “Really? The pink bubbly ice cream chain store wants me for some street cred? No way.

But I heard them out. And in the brief, they said something that immediately struck me.

“There’s a building negative attitude towards immigrants in Britain, so we want something that makes immigrants feel welcomed.”

I was shocked. I thought at first that it had to be some PR stunt or corporate social responsibility gig, so I took a deeper look into the history of Ben & Jerry's. I was completely wrong. Turns out the owners have a long standing history of social activism and have even been arrested for demonstrating.

Now that’s the kind of company I’ll work with.

D Emptyspace Gallery of street murals by Mohammed Ali

What do you think artists have to offer the world in terms of real, tangible change?

Look, art makes people feel something. And it makes them think.

And it’s incredible. A bunch of bricks with a bit of pigment, bit of color, can make an emotional connection between a human being and a wall. That’s quite something.

Sometimes artists need to think methodically and strategically and tangibly because otherwise, the arts forever remains this esoteric, abstract thing that society doesn’t value.

Mural in Johannesburg by Mohammed Ali

What can we offer the world as artists? As creatives? The one skill I have is to create beautiful things, to present things beautifully, so that they become something that people desire. That’s my talent, so how do I use that for something that benefits the real world? Every artist needs to ask that question.

If we want the arts to come away from the fringes of society, then we have a responsibility to make the arts tangible and accessible for people. We need to engage communities with our art.

As an artist, you need to ask more relevant questions. How can my art talk to scientists and doctors? How can my art talk to schools and educators? How can it influence school curriculum?

How can my art talk to town planners and politicians, when they’re battling to try and find answers to a broken society of segregated and divided groups in cities?

It’s men in grey suits who make all the big calls, and I say it’s time for them to seek help. We need to be taking a seat at the damn table. So we can start solving problems with creativity and intuition where logic is so obviously failing. And getting the city council to hand over walls so artists can tell the real story of a community is step one.

To get to that goal, creative people need to learn to talk.

Instead of crazy conceptual ideas, we need to break it down to an accessible level. Artists are trained to think and respond differently to problems. And if we get a say in the problem-solving process, I think the world will be a better place for it. That’s what gives me hope and purpose.

Bringing people divided by race, culture, and religion is hard. Really hard. How have you been tackling current issues?

You’d think that various minorities in the UK would stick together. But unfortunately they often self-segregate. That’s why it was so incredibly powerful when Tanmanjeet Dhesi an openly Sikh Lawmaker, stood up in parliment and publicly defended Muslim women (after Borris Johnson referred to them as “letterboxes”).

For this openly Sikh man to stand up and defend Muslim women on national television was inspiring. It was a brave act of solidarity towards the Muslim community, and I wanted to honor that.

So I did a stencil of Tanmanjeet Dhesi in a Sikh neighborhood. I want to capture these fleeting moments in time, to memorialize them in paint so they don’t get lost in the dustbins of history. I don’t think society preserves these moments enough. I mean, who is it that decides on city monuments or commemoration statues? It’s certainly not the people who live in those neighborhoods. Even the history we’re taught in school is biased.

For example, did you know that in Andalucia in Spain, Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule for hundreds of years? It was a stable Islamic state that even put non-muslims in government. (Editors note requested by artist: The situation was nuanced. You can get the full story here). So if you thought Islam and Judaism were natural enemies that couldn’t possibly co-exist… you’d be wrong. Why aren’t we taught THAT in school?

Photo by Peter Lopeman

In a time of turmoil, where people in power enable hate crimes, I think seeing a man of color wearing a turban on a wall says something powerful.

I did a similar stencil for Greta Thunberg — she’s been an icon of environmental activism and deserves to be remembered for a good time to come in my opinion. Youth should be encouraged to speak the truth. Don’t you agree?

If you want to get a sense of how Ali covers entire walls, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:

Johannesburg Mural / Birmingham UK Murals / Untitled Gallery

Want to create your own galleries? Click here to download D Emptyspace for IOS from the app store.

Download D Emptyspace for iOS:

Android version coming soon!

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