By Ala’a Sawaf


It’s funny how things pan out in your life… I was extremely frustrated with my job and yearning for change. I felt confined in the corporate world, and was on the verge of quitting. Out of nowhere, I was surprised by one of life’s notorious “curveballs”. I’ll never forget the second my husband came to me with news that he had been awarded an exciting new role with his employer, he did explain though that it came with one little detail – we were relocating to Bangkok, Thailand!

I felt a huge rush of excitement, was this the change I had been waiting for? When is the best time to resign? I wonder what life in the Far East would be like?

Later that week, in another unexpected but welcome turn of events, I got laid off as the company I had been working for was downsizing. When HR took me in to communicate the “bad news” I was over the moon since I received a healthy severance package that I would have not been eligible for had I resigned.

The move to Bangkok was on track, I was free, and found that the best way to celebrate this newfound freedom was to dye my hair my favorite color, purple!

During the first few weeks of our time in Bangkok, after spending a long day in the biggest outdoor weekend market in Asia called the Chatuchak Market, I bought myself a nice classical feminine statue for our new condo. Later that night, Khalid – my husband, had a consultation at a tattoo parlor. The consultation took quite a while so I made use of that time by doing my favorite thing in the world, people watching.

All types of people were walking in, getting inked and walking out proudly displaying their new body art for the outside world to see. It was fascinating to witness their transformation, which immediately sparked an idea and led me to pull out the statue I had purchased earlier and began to doodle on it like a crazy person!

A few weeks later, our good friends, Mathew Dryden, Owner of Cobra Fitness and Founder of HardKnox Fight Gear, and Mira Feghali, Owner of Arlequin Abu Dhabi, were visiting us and when they saw my first piece they started taking pictures of it. I was so shy, I didn’t anticipate that they would notice it let alone be so impressed by my first attempt. Their reaction motivated me to settle on a name and create an Instagram page to communicate, share and further test people’s reactions to what I believed to be a unique art experiment.


A year after our move, my husband’s international assignment was complete and so we packed our things and flew back home. Within days of our arrival with absolutely zero notice, Matt and Mira urged me to join the Tiny Beans Saturday Market at the Yas Marina and they generously offered to share their stand for free so that I may display my art. During the event, we looked like a pretty intimidating bunch, both men heavily tatted and women looking alternative & oozing confidence. But underneath my shell, I felt terrified; it’s not easy to put yourself on display like that. “Do they get it?” “Why do I care so much?” were words that kept ringing in my head as I stood there in doubt.

Slowly but surely, an unexpected Emirati lady came to me and asked “Are you the artist?” – oh that sounded nice, “uh, yes!” “Cool! Why are they called The Original Gangsters?” so I began to explain myself, and, it definitely wasn’t as smooth as I articulate it today. After attending this event, I soon found that I was participating in other markets, did an exclusive interview, featured at the UAE launch of the FujiFilm X-T2 Camera, and was receiving requests regionally as well as from Lebanon & the USA for me to create custom one of a kind pieces.


I best describe my Original Gangsters art series as a bridge between old and new, creating art in traditionally unconventional methods. The Original Gangsters series explores the mechanics of perception, imagination and interpretation. Back in ancient history, these figures were sculpted to perfection because they were the “OGs” of their time. Fast forward to now, in this day and age, and I like to think that I only helped revamp their looks with something that is a bit more with the times – a fresh new look to maintain that “OG” status!


After only meeting Waleed at an art event (at GlassQube’s launch) a couple of days before the shoot, we were certain that we wanted to collaborate. We exchanged numbers and shared our ideas via Whatsapp. I was beyond excited that I hardly slept the night before, but I was also nervous because we don’t know one another too well and it will be my very first collaboration.

On the day of the shoot, the ambiance was just right, and good energy was flowing. We sat down, drank coffee and was pleased that we were on the same wavelength and were vibing well. As the sun began to set, Waleed started to work his magic and for the most part, I was appreciating his process as well as the photos he managed to capture. I learnt a lot that day, about lighting, staying out of the frame, and that throwing money around was really, really difficult! I loved that we wanted to be part of the clique. So we played some rap music, balled out, and perfected ‘making in rain’.

We wrapped up and when Waleed took off, I was almost hungry for more.

As days went by, doubt started to creep up on me again. It was nerve wracking thinking back and wondering if both our ideas and expectations meshed well.

Thankfully, it was exactly what I was hoping for! And my favorite part is that we both went in front of the lens, ending it together in true collaborative style!


I’m proud to announce that I will be working with SushiCentral restaurant on the opening of their new branch in the Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island starting Oct.2nd onwards. The exhibition of ‘The Original Gangsters’ collection will be held at the restaurant for a month.

If you would like to keep up to date with everything “O.G.” from new art pieces to upcoming events, please follow me on the Facebook page ‘The Original Gangsters’ and on Instagram @the_originalgangsters


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Waleed Shah
Official Fuji-X-Photographer
Instagram: @waleedshah
Snapchat: @shahwaleed