On my way to the gold souk in Dubai, I came across a big yellow box with two pipes running into a much smaller wooden box. The construction site looked crude. On the larger wooden box, someone had graffitied the command “Ask your tour guide about this.” The instructions were underlined and a square-shaped U sat at the bottom as a signature. On the other side of the box was a pair of eyes and thickly raised eyebrows that indicated either fear or shock or doubt. The eyes peered from a burka and had Arabic writing beneath it.
I asked my guide as the graffiti had instructed. She pulled out her Smart phone and snapped a picture, the only photograph she had taken during our three days exploring the city.
“This is an artist named Arcadia Blank. You won’t see any graffiti in Dubai. But this graffiti artist is somehow able to get away with it,” she said. “What he does, I think, is good. He only does this on construction materials, never on buildings, and they always say things that are interesting.”
Later that night, I checked out Arcadia Blank’s other thought-provking work on his Tumbler page. He paints in a city that is still discovering how people interact with their urban environment, in a society where even the smallest crime or disobedience is not tolerated, in a land where personal freedoms and governmental regulations cross paths on slippery slopes. After watching the Olympics in Sochi, where the cops offered up a restrained beating of Pussy Riot on camera, and after enjoying Stephen Colbert’s homosexual correspondent, Buddy Cole, travel endless miles to run a satirical protest where he demanded a refill on his drink in the middle of nowhere and still got harassed by authorities, I wondered how Dubai–a top contender to host the 2020 World Expo and a country still in its constitutional infancy–will treat artists like Arcadia Blank.
I wrote Arcadia Blank an email. It took him weeks to reply and in each response, he seemed dubious of my request for an interview, elevating his anonymity in each response, signing emails AB. I assume it is the appropriate level of caution for an artist like Aracadia Blank, whose message written beneath the woman in the burka translates to say: She knows, but she doesn’t believe what she sees.