French graffiti artist Elodie Arshak, 37, is all about spreading messages of tolerance and peace to people from all walks of life, and she has travelled the globe to do so through street art.
Born in France to immigrant parents, she is in South Africa with several other graffiti artists from the Artists for Israel project.
The project is focused on spreading respect, diversity, freedom, peace and love through various forms of art, including street art.
While in South Africa, she and her fellow artists would love to meet local people and talk with them “as our personal experiences are our best ‘gasoline’.
“We’d love to share our three important values and have the chance to learn better about the local culture and feelings,” she said.
Arshak explained that they learnt about every mural they painted.
“It’s not just about the mural but also about what happens around us while we are painting and to learn about new cultures, different points of view. We hope that South African people will enjoy our art and we will be able to share a little bit of ourselves with them,” she said.
For Arshak, to paint in a new country is always a challenge; “as you can imagine, the human part of a project like this is primordial”.
This colourful artist was born and raised in Paris – a city known for its love for art and romance. Her mother was Spanish and her father half-Palestinian and half- Armenian.
“I was born into a large family where being a male gave you much more benefits than being a female. In France, a large family starts at about four kids and we are four siblings,” she said.
Arshak said there were many lessons she learnt growing up in both a big and a male-dominated family.
“But I want to tell you about the positive ones. It showed me the self-discipline and it developed my analytical capacity.
“I have learnt to protect and defend myself and those close to me as well, but in an intelligent way with no violence, rather using language. I am against verbal and physical violence,” she stressed.
As a child she was continuously unwell and was in hospital many times.
“I was also very shy but, despite it all, I always tried to do my best, and I was a good student. I went to university quite young, at the age of 17, but I was not totally happy with my decision, and at 19, I left my country to study and live in Spain by my own,” Arshak said.
In France she studied language, literature and Spanish civilisation, while in Spain she studied international trade.
Her love for graffiti and street art developed much later in life, and she had worked with well-known street artist Fabio Lopez, otherwise known as Dourone, since 2012.
It was he who introduced her to street art. Arshak said that although the graffiti and street art scene was a male-dominated industry, she had chosen not to feed into it.
“It’s a daily challenge for every woman to face it. Nowadays it is, sadly, topical to hear some comments about ‘female inferiority’, and to be honest, I prefer to focus on spreading good values instead of being offended by some medieval opinions,” she said.
Arshak said there was no gender in art.
“Each human being ex- presses their value and their art in their own way, no matter your gender, your religion or the colour of your skin.
“I don’t really like the labels that people give you. Usually they feel more comfortable if you can fit in a category or if they can classify you. I do not have this feeling at all,” she said.
Arshak said she brought something different to street art as a human being, but did so not only because she was a woman.
Asked how and why she got involved with Artists for Israel, she said she and Dourone were contacted by Craig Dershowitz, who told them about his project.
“We immediately had a good feeling with him first and for the project then, when we knew more about it.
“The humanist values (focused on in the project) like respect, diversity, freedom and peace are the same that we are trying to work with when doing the murals and artworks.”
She said they first worked on a mural in the city of Netanya, in Israel, which was a tough area.
“The experience was intense and highly instructive. We had a great time and wanted to repeat the experience,” she said.
Arshak said graffiti and street art was a powerful form of communication that surpassed the barriers of race, religion and gender.
“The fact that we work on the street gives us the opportunity and also the responsibility to deliver a message, which will be seen by all kinds of people.
“Our work is not exclusive at all and everyone has access and can think about it,” she said. “I have to say that it is exhilarating to… see people who don’t know each other comment on the mural together, even if they do not like it.
“There is no boundary, gender, race or religion in what we do. We try to spread human values reachable by everyone,” she said.
For Arshak, a picture is worth a thousand words.
“I believe that some graffiti and street art can have more impact than a good speech,” she said.
Her message to aspiring street artists and the youth of South Africa is to be proud of who they are.
“I am proud of who I am, my background, my values, and my thoughts – no matter what society says about it. If you think you can help people with what you know or what you do, then go for it,” she said.
“There are many ways to express your feelings and thoughts, and graffiti and street art are a beautiful way to spread your message.
“The graffiti and street art scene is full of plenty of amazing people who are idealistic, determined and inspiring, too,” Arshak added.