Paint the town red, and yellow, and purple, and green…

Ruben Sanchez talks about the very beginnings of street art in Dubai

Spanish artist Ruben Sanchez is making waves across Dubai. He chooses to do so with the most vibrant colours in his palette. Driving down Dubai’s low-rise district Jumeirah Beach Road, one can capture a glimpse of one of his more fantastical paintings in the most unassuming location - on the sidewall of a humble building housing small shops and apartments.

“My work is surrealistic... I create bionic creatures sometimes,” he says. Sanchez’s vivid palette is inspired by his Spanish background and Mediterranean culture.

Here you have everything you need, whether you want to paint or screen print or do some woodwork

“My idea is that people’s first impression is to see something colorful and vibrant that would translate into smiles and a healthy way of life. There is too much beige in this city, some vivid colors sometimes don't hurt anyone, don't you think?” he says.

Bicycamel was Sanchez’s first mural in Dubai. His works go hand-in-hand with the latest efforts by the Dubai government to bring art to the public domain. Earlier this year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced a citywide beautification project, through public art, to expose residents and visitors to cultural, vibrant and scenic images and installations across the emirate.

Sanchez is always on the lookout for new buildings and spots to paint. He endeavours to find out who the building’s owner is and once he has his approval to paint he seeks the green light from municipality to proceed. In Dubai’s Al Fahidi District, formerly known as Bastakiya, one of his pieces breathes life into a sand-coloured wall. The mural shows a man in local attire, sitting by a fire and playing the oud – a pear-shaped, musical instrument similar to a guitar and commonly used in the Middle East. The image, painted in black outlines, rests on a backdrop of colourful Islamic patterns.

ruben sanchez street art
The artist's surrealist works are part of the latest efforts by the Dubai government to bring art to the public domain

“I was studying and understanding Islamic patterns when I got here so I wanted to experiment with that in a mural… I imagined what life was like in the old days in Al Fahidi” he says.

Tashkeel, which started in Dubai in 2008, offers artists the chance to use its space and materials across different art forms – painting, printing, photography, design, jewellery and others – in exchange for a membership fee. The establishment invited Sanchez to join its Guest Artists Program for 2013. When this ended a year later, the two found it hard to part ways, says Sanchez, and he stayed on. Today, he’s part of the studio, works on different projects from Dubai and gives workshops at Tashkeel.

“In Barcelona, it is very hard or impossible to get this opportunity, having the space and the tools. Here you have everything you need, whether you want to paint or screen print or do some woodwork,” he says.

Prior to his arrival, Sanchez was eager to paint murals in Dubai. To his surprise, street art was almost non-existent when he got here. With Tashkeel’s full support, however, he set to change this reality.

Ruben Sanchez
Ruben Sanchez

Dubai’s Rashid School for Boys in Nad Al Sheba hadn’t escaped Sanchez’s creativity. With screaming bright colours, the artist painted the head of a creature that combines the features of a fox and a cat, giving the impression it emerges from the sand and onto the school wall. The mural resulted from a workshop he conducted with the students there. But Sanchez wants to do much more to brighten people’s days and he’s got his eyes set on a particular project.

“I have located some labour camps in Al Quoz that I’d love to paint with more artists and I have some other walls targeted in Deira,” he says. “I’d love to have an art festival in the labour camps, with food and music, and get the workers involved in the murals.”

Until he gets the permissions he’s after, Sanchez is adamant to not put any limits on his creativity, something he derives from the graffiti culture.

“I can work with anything and I’m always looking for new techniques and new experiments. If I would stick to only one style and one technique, that would be like a creative drought for me,” he says.