Get to Know Wifirider: The Palestinian Artist Embracing Struggle

Get to Know Wifirider: The Palestinian Artist Embracing Struggle

It's easy to take the internet for granted. Particularly for those in the millennial generation who grew up during the height of the Tech Boom, the ease with which we now all have access to endless information is, sadly, a fact most accept as commonplace. This isn't the case for Shukri Lawrence, however. In fact, the 18-year-old artist, who was born and raised in occupied Palestine, is so ready to sing the internet's praises that he actually dedicated his artist pseudonym to the wonders of WiFi.

Wifirider, the name he started using in 2014 (around the time he "decided to use Instagram as an art platform"), is now known for his digitized art. Blending editorialized photography with digitally generated graphics, Lawrence's art is instantly recognizable. From his style references to his bold use of color, it would seem that wifirider is making art for a fashion-minded crowd,but the young artist is more inspired by music. He has already made a few music videos for the notorious Austrian rapper Candy Ken, and he hopes to one day make some for outré artists like Brooke Candy and Die Antwoord.

Today, the artist, who has over 14,000 followers on his frequently updated Instagram account, is continuing on in his pursuit to blend Palestinian politics with his fashion-minded work. His latest venture, called tRASHY CLOTHING, finds the artist "bootlegging big name brands" and mixing their logos with Arabic lettering. He hopes this will help to "fight against the fear of the Arabic language [that's currently] being associated with terrorism." He also plans to donate some of the proceeds to refugee camps.

PAPER Magazine recently jumped on a long distance call with the artist to talk to him while he was home in Palestine. Amidst conversation about what it feels like being openly queer in Jerusalem, Lawrence also discussed how being colorblind lead to his affinity for bright neons, why he cites M.I.A. and Grimes as key inspirations, and what it means to "enjoy" the struggle of making challenging art in a conservative place.

You go by the name "wifirider." What's the story behind that?

Basically, I think that now, in today's culture, WiFi is the most important tool for finding information, to connect to other people, to send out messages and ideas, and talk to other people. I just feel that WiFi has helped me so much. I've met so many people and gotten to connect and make music videos for them. I've even gotten to go to other countries and everything because of WiFi. So I just dedicated my username to WiFi.

In general terms, how would you describe the type of art do you?

I'm very into pop culture. Also, I'm kind of colorblind. Because of that, I use really strong colors in my art—very neon. I embrace those because there are some other colors that I can't really see. I just like to make my art very colorful and very futuristic in a way, while mixing that with bootleg fashion. Coming from Palestine, we have a lot of shops around us that sell bootlegs of brands like Adidas, Chanel, Gucci, and all. So I want to take that element and also put it into my art. My art is like a big salad with all of that mixed together.

You mentioned doing music videos for other artists, and I've seen some of the work you've done for Candy Ken. How did that collaboration come about?

Well, I talked to Candy Ken on Instagram DM about two years ago and we just really hit it off. He seemed like the type of person I would love to work with, and he liked my stuff too. So it was basically just figuring out when he could come to Jerusalem and then having him stay there for the week so we could collaborate on some projects. And it worked. He's come to Jerusalem four times since the beginning—and they're not short visits either. He comes for months at a time.

Outside of that commissioned work, you also make your own music videos set to random songs by other artists.

Well, one of my biggest influences is music and musicians. I love M.I.A., Brooke Candy, Die Antwoord, and all of those type of musicians. I listen to them a lot, and whenever I'm listening to them I'm always imagining a video for [the song] in my head. That's why I end up making the videos.

Is making music videos for bigger artists something you'd be interested in?

Oh yeah, of course. One of my favorite people and one of the biggest people I'd like to work with is M.I.A. She's such a big influence on all my work. She's been the top one on my list to work with.

What is it like being an artist in an occupied country like Palestine?

Well, a lot of my art looks like it's made for the aesthetics, but it's always deeper. It always comes from a Palestinian standpoint or a political problem. Like the bootleg stuff, it's about how Palestine doesn't have the chains. We don't have the Adidas chains or the actual Gucci shops. So the bootleg [aesthetics] are not just because of the look of the brand—it comes from an actual political economy issue in Palestine. I also really like making this type of art in Palestine and I'm grateful that I'm getting to do it here rather than anywhere else. Making this art in a very conservative place makes it more provocative in a way. It makes it more meaningful for me.

I wanted to talk about your Adidas project because I thought it was cool the way you've re-imagined the advertising for these big, well-known luxury brands. You've touched upon it a little already, but what was your initial vision behind that?

My whole vision was [centered around the question of] What if we had these shops in Jerusalem in the same way that they do in Dubai? You know, Dubai has all these crazy brands, but it's still an Arab country. And the thing is that Palestine is an Arab country but they don't have all these brands. So I wanted to see if I could take pictures of me and my friends and create our own advertisements for these brands—and they'd be our own style and wave.

Your primary social media medium seems to be Instagram. What specifically about Instagram do you like?

Well, I got on Instagram a long time ago and I used it to find other artists. I just really got into it. Before, I used to see these artists from culture, from the community of art, and they were all together. There was just some very avant garde fashion and makeup, just stuff that was very not the mainstream media. It was the kind of stuff that you didn't see everywhere. Through that, I connected with these people. I think that Instagram really has a community. It's like a small community with artists that support each other. And if you're on there, it's easy to befriend other artists or collaborate with other artists. You have [Instagram] Story now, which lets you know what other artists are doing too. When I open the app, I know I'm going to see what they're doing. It's like being with them at home, in a way.

Speaking of community, have you been able to build a community in Jerusalem of people like yourself or do you always feel like a complete outsider?

Well, in Jerusalem there's no official "community." I can't think of anyone [doing what I'm doing as an artist] except for me and my friends, which is just a community that I made. I graduated from high school just last year, so I still like to try to ask some people from my school to join me, but so many of them can't [and don't] because they're so afraid of the community, the society, their dads or something else. I try to isolate myself from my communities and my societies in order to create the stuff that I do. It works out because my community is the last thing on my mind right now. This way, I've created a circle of friends who I love, and they're always there helping me create photoshoots. Or let's say we're going to do a music video, they come. If we're going to do an editorial, they come there. So I guess, yeah, that's how we made our own little community in Jerusalem.

A lot of your work seems to be shot in very public spaces. Do you or any of the people you work with ever fear getting in trouble for the kind of art you're making?

Well, definitely in the daytime. We try to be careful but we don't want to be too careful, because if we're too careful then it's like we're not really putting out our best. It's like we're not really being ourselves. For example, we had a shoot at night in the middle of a public street. It was like 1:00 or 2:00 am, and the girls were all in crop tops and very trashy clothing. They were just showing a lot of skin. But a lot of cars kept passing by, and with every car we tried to hide or duck so that they wouldn't see us, and then we'd go back once the car passed. We tried to hide every time we saw someone in public but we would still go out there with our looks.

Having to constantly set things up and break them down seems stressful and I'd image that it adds an extra layer of work to what you're doing. Do you think that constant underlying fear adds something to the final product or is it more of a personal understanding of what you had to do in order to get the final product?

Even though it isn't simple, I really enjoy doing [that aspect] because at the end of the day, I can remember the story of the struggles that we had trying to get the work done. And it's something I know I wouldn't have to go through in other countries—like in New York, for example. So I think it does make it more special and more intimate to me that I was able to do something great in a public space in a very conservative area. Just even wearing something that I wouldn't really wear in public to walk to a shop or anything. I enjoy the struggle. I feel like if I go somewhere else... Like here, I'm studying film, but I [originally] wanted to go to Europe to study film. I didn't go because I feel like over there they have less struggles. If I go there, I feel like I'm going to have more freedom but I don't want the freedom of trading everything; I want the freedom of creating stuff for my people. I want to have more Arab artists.

On a global scale, I feel like more and more people are getting familiar with the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, the thing with the Israel-Palestine conflict is that I've been living with it since I was born. I just entered into it. It's been a part of my life for so long that it's an issue that has become normal. Some people in the rest of the world get it and some people misunderstand the whole issue—it's just difficult to argue with other people. So I try to not talk about it. The occupation is there. I try to not mention the issue. I'd rather mention the solution, in a way.

I collaborate with a lot of Israeli artists on photo shoots, editorials, makeup, and many other things to show that we can work together. If we both try to understand each other, we can also probably both live together on the same land or in the same country.

Who are some of your artist inspirations?

In addition to M.I.A., I really like Grimes. Oh my god, Grimes, for sure. I really like both of them because I believe that they have full control over their vision and their art, and I want to do something like that. It's not just good music; they direct, they do so much different stuff. I really want to do something like that soon in the future. As for fashion designers, I really like Jeremy Scott.

Finally, how has it felt for you being queer in Jerusalem?

It all comes back to the struggle, basically. I don't know why it seems to always come back to the struggle, but it does. It just comes back to that. It's not easy but it's not hard. And it relates to my art. Like, to frame my whole Instagram, all these colors, all these looks, they all come back to pain. I deal with pain in a very colorful way—with electronic music, with a lot of over-the-top looks. It all comes back to a dark place, but from that dark place comes a lot of bright colors. The colors also have a meaning; they're not just random colors. I'm half color-blind, so I don't see the colors. I feel them. I try to put my feelings into the colors.

All photos courtesy of Shukri Lawrence