Calligrapher Tarek Benaoum on how a melting pot of cultures helps him find his artistic voice
Moroccan-born artist Tarek Benaoum describes his calligraphy as a hybrid between Latin and Arab forms with Gothic influences. In a way it mirrors his own identity having being born to an Algerian father and a Franco-Italian mother.
Benoum started experimenting with graffiti at the age of 16 before tuning his medium to a style of calligraphy that he describes as ‘semantic scrambling’ —which he uses as a way of changing meanings to create encrypted, intriguing and mysterious design. His latest project sees him collaborating with perfumer Guerlain for a special edition bottle of its Santal Royal fragrance.
ESQUIRE: What made you start with calligraphy?
Tarek Benaoum: I used to graffiti as a kid on the rooftops in my neighbourhood in Paris. But then I took classes with a famous calligrapher, Kitty Sabatier, who was very influential to me. She was the first person who saw something in me, and convinced me to stick with it.
ESQ: Has your success surprised you?
TB: I don’t care much about fame. I’m more interested in my own artistic vision and making sure it is perfect. I try to express myself through what I do and whether I am successful is not a key motivator. When you choose to follow your passion, making money is never really that important.
ESQ: Did you set yourself a career goal?
TB: I didn’t have a goal as an artist. I still don’t. I suppose my goal is just to enjoy the moment and do what I love.
ESQ: What is the most important lesson your work has taught you?
TB: I believe in carpe diem — to live in the moment and make the most of what life has to offer. I don’t believe in making plans. If you ask me what I will be doing in 10 years I would tell you that I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow.
ESQ: What has been your biggest achievement?
TB: I think it is still to come, although in 2017 I worked on my biggest mural. It is in the Parisian neighbourhood Goutte d’Or, on the wall of the Institut des Cultures d’Islam. I used extracts from famous authors from Maghreb and the Middle East and decorated it with calligraphy in different styles inspired from African, Berber, Native American, and Latin calligraphy.
ESQ: How important is Arabic culture in your work?
TB: It’s very important. I don’t speak or write in Arabic. Although I was born in Morocco, I feel French. I came to France at the age of five and grew up in Paris. It’s so cosmopolitan and somewhere I’ve lived for 20 years. I approach my calligraphy the same way. I’m a mix of so many different cultures and I think my art is a melting pot of calligraphy too. The language I use in my art is my own invention because I use words and phrases in French, English and sometimes other languages. However, I do transform Latin letters with French calligraphy to create a hybrid that is inspired by Berber writing, Amerindian writing, African symbols, Arabic letters and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
ESQ: What is your most recent piece of work?
TB: I have just collaborated with Guerlain for a special edition bottle of the fifth anniversary of the Santal Royal fragrance. The idea behind it was to create a new way to revamp the Bee Bottle that’s been in their history since forever and add a mystical touch to it. It’s basically a bridge between modern and old with calligraphy highlighting their history.
ESQ: Do you have any favourite symbols you like to use in your work?
TB: Circles, squares and triangles form the basis of all Latin letters. For me it’s natural to tie these shapes into my work. They represent the link I create between the art of calligraphy and painting.