All in DXB: Exploring Dubai's street art, culture, music and fashion scenes
I’m here to say hi from Dubai, and just like Sailor Jerry, I’m here to keep things running smoothly.
In the last twenty years, has gone from a little-known city on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula to a bustling metropolis known the world over for its ambition.
Its home to the world’s tallest building, the world’s biggest shopping mall, and has a reputation for being a place where the locals like to kick back in luxury.
I visited Dubai to get under the skin, and the culture, beneath the shiny surface, lies another world. One that news cameras don’t often portray. It’s a city teeming with artistic life; an underground scene of likeminded creatives looking to make their own way in this world of glitz and glamour. And that’s exactly why I went all in to explore during my trip to Dubai.
Arguably the best way to get to know what’s really going on is by talking to a few creative minds at the top of their fields in culture, art, fashion and music, much like Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins.
I chatted with the editor in chief of Esquire, Matthew Baxter-Priest who helped me understand the moving culture, “Dubai is a super interesting place to be. I grew up in several different countries and the first time I came to this city, I immediately felt it was one of the most hospitable places I had experienced.
This place is a true melting pot, where many different cultures come together to live life as one”. But what of the city’s international reputation as being just full of skyscrapers and shopping? “You know, Dubai certainly has that reputation,” says Baxter- Priest, “and — in the most part — it’s true. But that’s not all it has going for it. Over the last few years, there has been a real boom in terms of art and culture.
Most recently, entire areas of the city have been raised to celebrate it; places like Dubai Design District which is home to local fashion designers and boutique studios, and Al Serkal Avenue — an organic hub for the city’s art scene.”
I asked Baxter-Priest what he thought was leading this sudden surge in artistic talent. “It’s people. People who express themselves. I think that many people outside the region look at this place as being quite closed, and controlled. But being here, that’s absolutely not the case. Creativity is flourishing here. And because the city is so diverse — in about twenty minutes you can go from the financial district to an area full of art galleries and coffee shops — the world is really starting to see the city flex its creative muscles.”
There’s no better example of Dubai’s ability to embrace culture than in the variety of its creative talent. Maddy Butcher is a Dubai-based artist and is inspired by world music and makes abstract murals that end up on the side of some of the city’s tallest buildings.
I caught up with her midway through a very special project; a collaboration between her and Sailor Jerry to create a piece of bespoke art — and to ask about what drives her creativity.
“The influence behind my work is this weird mixture of freedom and constraint,” says Butcher.
“I actually don’t think you can truly be free without limits, and that’s what really drives my work.” Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins himself was big on freedom of expression; his work was known for its boldness and iconic, flash artwork. With constraints on where they can paint, how do you feel it affects your work? “You know, here in Dubai we’re not technically allowed to tag the sides of buildings – it’s why I don’t call myself a street artist – and that changes the way I think about my art. Am I still expressing myself? Absolutely”.
Dubai is known for many different things, but street art is not one of them. Butcher tells me, that’s because the scene has yet to come out of its shell. “There is a huge underground movement in Dubai,” she admits, “and it comes from a group of people who are less concerned with big commercial success, and more towards making what they want to make.”
According to Butcher, there are a few neighbourhoods in Dubai she recommends. Satwa and Deira are two of the oldest parts of the city, and are teeming with individuals from all cultures and walks of life. But there’s also newer areas of the city, including one that puts sustainability at its core; (which is why it’s called ‘Sustainable City’). And there, hidden beneath a maze of eco-friendly buildings and businesses, is Wael, a fashion business built on being creatively different.
The founder of the business is Wael Hussain, who is known for pairing contemporary tailoring with an unconventional, stylish twist. Hussain’s father is also a tailor, but that didn’t stop him from shunning old school material and methods to create his very own thing.
“I think growing up here in Dubai played a huge part in who I am creatively,” says Hussain. “There are so many cultures and ways of doing things, that there was never a single path open to me. This place forces you to think out of the box”.
Most recently, Hussain has drawn accolades for his line of bomber jackets. But they aren’t just regular bomber jackets, he’s going all in and crafting from leftover items of clients’ clothing; an old suit or ripped pair of pants. It’s a great example of Hussain’s commitment to sustainable fashion. “I love bomber jackets, because it’s a really versatile piece of clothing. You can play around with it in any number of ways, and I love the fact that I can create these incredibly unique pieces from old, unused clothing”.
Most people are unaware that ‘Sailor Jerry’ started as an apparel brand, bringing the old school pinup style artwork of Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins to life. A homage to when inspirational logos and patches were stitched onto sailor’s jackets to inject a bit of personality into a dull army and navy uniform. For Hussain, this makes perfect sense, “I love that about the brand. Fashion is all about expressing yourself, who you really are, and I don’t think there’s a better way to do that than by wearing a customized piece of clothing that has a story behind it”.
With my brief time in Dubai coming to an end, there was another aspect of the city’s modern culture that I wanted to understand: the music scene. From what I’d seen, if multi-culturalism really is at the core of the city, then there’s no better example of that than Matt West, the sax-man!
The American jazz musician uses Dubai as a base as he travels the world playing gigs, thanks to his appetite for mixing classic jazz with contemporary hip hop and R’n’B music, just like our boy Norman Collins travelled the world, connecting people through music.“The music scene out here is very wide stream,” says West. “There are a lot of local artists playing really cool rock-infused Arabic music. There is a jazz scene here, a small one — I mean jazz is always struggling a little bit, that’s part of the charm — but it’s there”.
If I needed to sum up my time here in Dubai, it would be to say that I was blown away by the passion and creativity that I’ve seen. Yes, the city might still be known more for its towering skyscrapers than its street artists, but as long as the creative people here in Dubai continue to go all in, that will — slowly but surely — change.