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Djerbahood: The Street Art Drive That Transformed A Tunisian Village

The sleepy little village of Erriadh on the island of Djerba—once known as the “island of dreams”— is not part of Tunisia’s tourist circuit. It’s primarily a pilgrimage site, being home to the largest and oldest synagogue in North Africa —El Ghriba— which is in continuous use for over 2,000 years. Other than a few thousand pilgrims, the village sees very little foreigners. There are no large businesses or hotels in Erriadh; only small houses with traditional Berber architecture featuring open courtyards and domes. But over the last few years, this has been changing. Erriadh’s primary attraction today is street art.

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It began in 2014, when Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a Parisian art gallery owner and a Tunisian by birth, invited over one hundred artists from thirty countries to make his ambitious project, Djerbahood, come to life. Mr. Ben Cheikh has been mobilizing the street art movement for more than a decade. In 2013, he invited over one hundred artist to paint a derelict 10-story apartment building that was set to be demolished. It turned out to be one of the biggest collective street art exhibition in Europe. Djerbahood , he claimed, was to be the world’s first permanent street art project of its scale.

Ben Cheikh first obtained permission from the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism and the mayor of Djerba, as well as the individual homeowners. This turned out to be not as easy because many Tunisians consider graffiti to be vandalism.

“At first, the locals didn’t really understand what I was trying to do,” Mr. Ben Cheikh said. “But this project isn’t about vandalism. It’s a real exhibition with a real scenography.”

Once consent was obtained, some homeowners began to gave opinions on how they wanted the artwork to look, whilst others gave the artists free reign to paint as they wished. Over the next several months, the artists made more than three hundred works on the walls of the village, transforming the village and the surrounding area into a large open-air art museum.

“I’d love to see the whole island of Djerba serve as a canvas for street art,” Mr. Ben Cheikh said. “I hope that the locals will keep the project alive by contributing to it after we leave.”

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