Revolution Graffiti: Reclaiming Public Space, Reclaiming Freedom in the New Egypt
by Erin Biel:
Under the 6th of October Bridge in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt, a passerby can find what is perhaps the most indelible image of the Egyptian Revolution. The medium, like the piece itself, transcends the conventional; this Revolution image was not captured through photography or film, but rather through spray can and stencil.
A young boy on a bicycle balances a large tray of Egyptian bread, known as aysh, and is confronted by a life-size tank. A soldier’s profile peers from the top, manning a gun that is poised directly at the boy. This piece, known as “Tank vs. Biker”, is just one of the hundreds of pieces of “Revolution graffiti” that can now be found dotting the walls of the main thoroughfares, back alleys, and street signs of Cairo. During the 18 days that led to the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a form of expression that had long been percolating but had been restricted by the Ministry of Culture during the Mubarak era was finally able to surface. Graffiti became a way of literally reclaiming public spaces for freedom of expression. What once required a permit and a space inside an art gallery—neither of which were easy to obtain—could now be expressed openly and freely for the Egyptian people, the international media, and, consequently, all of the world to see.
And the world has taken note. Myriad international newspapers and media outlets have covered the Revolution graffiti in some form or another, whether through articles or photographic essays. Depictions of Mubarak’s face crossed out; Revolution martyrs immortalized in vivid color; messages damning the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that currently controls the government: it all reveals explicitly political messages that remain pertinent even eight months after Mubarak’s ouster, as Mubarak’s trial is still underway, the SCAF remains in power, and the emergency law continues to be in place. The ultimate goals of the Revolution, albeit still somewhat nebulous, clearly have yet to be achieved. The desire to express one’s opinion and raise one’s grievances publicly has become magnified. Graffiti, particularly given its newfound global attention, is an attractive conduit for such expression. What was once a tight-knit underground network of Egyptian graffiti artists and enthusiasts has since burgeoned. Many are now picking up a spray can for the first time and adding their own thoughts to any remaining wall space.
As the number of “graffiti artists” and the amount of graffiti produced increases, so does the debate over whether this means of expression is truly an art form and, if so, whether the trendy sentiment that has resulted from all of the international publicity will devalue the artists’ work. Even from within the graffiti community, feelings are mixed: the graffiti piece “Tank vs. Biker” is evidence of this ambivalence. The piece was producedby Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by Ganzeer (or “chain” in Arabic). He is often deemed the “Banksy of Egypt,” in reference to the famous British street artist. Looking at the graffiti image under the bridge, there is also a surprising and slightly out-of-place element just to the right of the scene, still close enough to Ganzeer’s work that it looks like it, too, is part of his initial conception: it is a panda, slouched and sullen, also standing in the line of the tank’s fire and staring forlornly at the soldier manning the tank. This aspect was added by another graffiti artist, known as Sad Panda, just hours after Ganzeer finished his piece. The juxtaposition of reality with oddity elucidates some of the disparities from within the graffiti community.
Sad Panda and Ganzeer have been members of the graffiti community, and friends, since before the January 25 Revolution. Sad Panda acquired his name as a result of the images he normally depicts: sad pandas. Oftentimes he will simply spray a sad panda, in a limited number of poses, or spray a crude, frowning face of a sad panda next to a depressing statement in Arabic. The images are black-and-white and rarely encompass anything political, in stark contrast to Ganzeer’s pieces. As Sad Panda explained, “Eighty percent of my pieces are just the sad panda and twenty percent are just random things, and it is all about spreading this sadness. What is there in this life that can possibly make me happy with all of the wars, the oil prices, global warming?”
Sad Panda, whose true identity he keeps secret outside of his close friends and family, always used to draw on walls and desks as a child; after high school, he came to realize that he had no more walls or desks to write on—so he moved on to graffiti. He reemerged on the graffiti scene post-Revolution when a friend of his encouraged him to reclaim some of the public wall space before it was completely taken by new graffiti artists. Sad Panda lamented: “Back in 2007, there was a group of guys mainly in Alexandria that are very good and really old in this business, but they didn’t do much after the revolution because they have other jobs as graphic designers. Now, when I meet other old street artists, we talk about how street art turned [out] these days and my feeling is that it is just a trend. People doing street art these days will get bored and find something else to do. Those who have been doing it for a while will continue to do it. The new ones ruined the streets. It is just ‘cool’ now.”
Throughout his quest to reclaim wall space from the new wave of graffiti artists, Sad Panda has maintained his apolitical stance. He finds both humor and great irony in the political connotations that people have attributed to his graffiti images. “Everywhere I go, people talk about the Revolution. Facebook. Twitter, TV, cab drivers, they are all talking about the same thing and it just made me sad, so if I do make something about the SCAF, it doesn’t mean that it is something political; it is actually the other way around. I am so far from the politics thing, so I find it very weird that someone one day wrote ‘The Political Panda Hits Back.’ There is no such things as a ‘political panda.’”
Both Sad Panda and Ganzeer have repeatedly stated that they do not find graffiti to be art, and the work that they produce is not “artwork.” Nevertheless, the two diverge when it comes to their approaches in completing their pieces. On May 20 and 21, 2011, Ganzeer called for a “Mad Graffiti Weekend,” for which he sought out the assistance of numerous other graffiti artists and friends. He highly publicized the event; newspaper reporters and other supporters flocked to the scene. During this weekend, the “Tank vs. Biker” piece was produced. Sad Panda’s addition to the piece came late at night after the crowd had dispersed. Clinging to the ways of the past, Sad Panda still prefers to perform his graffiti under the cloak of darkness and without observers. Sad Panda fears that it is this new celebrity status that can be attained by constructing pieces openly in the public eye that will taint the allure and authenticity of graffiti.
When Soraya Morayef, who goes by Suzee, proposed to curate an art exhibition solely dedicated to graffiti art in Cairo, it was met with mixed sentiment from within the graffiti community. Many were reluctant to have their work displayed in a confined art gallery space. A long-time art fan and graffiti enthusiast, Suzee maintains a popular blog called “Suzee in the City” in which she documents and provides commentary on graffiti pieces from throughout Cairo. The blog, which began in June 2011, has since attracted well over 30,000 hits. Such publications as the Huffington Post and The Atlantic have even used graffiti photographs from Suzee’s blog in their media coverage.
“During the Revolution, there was this sense that someone should be documenting what was being produced. By the time I started the blog in June, I already had a few months’ worth of images. In terms of volume of photographs, this helped me to become a source of information on Revolution graffiti,” Suzee explained. She credits social media, like Facebook and Twitter, as being the primary vehicles by which she has been able to connect with the graffiti artists and publicize her blog to the international community. She views herself more as an intermediary, a conduit by which many of the graffiti artists can reach the outside world: “It is a mutually beneficial relationship; they will get in touch with me and let me know when and where they are going to do their work. Even though it has been eight months, freedom of speech still has not evolved as much as we’d want it to, so they want their pieces to be documented.” Documented, because it is still possible that they will be removed.
With all the attention that the Revolution graffiti has garnered, Suzee wanted to give the graffiti artists a new creative challenge and centralize their work in a single venue. She approached Townhouse Gallery in Cairo at the end of July, and they agreed to host the exhibition. Thanks to her pre-established connections with many of the graffiti artists, nine different graffiti artists agreed—some more begrudgingly than others—to make their mark on one of the gallery’s walls prior to the exhibition’s September 18th opening. The event attracted over 300 people, ranging from schoolteachers and their classes to European Union diplomats, documentary filmmakers, and art collectors, demonstrating the widespread appeal of graffiti as an artistic genre. The graffiti artists on display included Keizer, Adham Bakry, El Teneen, Charles Akl—and even Sad Panda himself. Partially fueled by the graffiti artists’ initial ambivalence about the concept, Suzee asked for each to address three questions: If graffiti is taken off of the streets, is it still considered graffiti? If it is no longer graffiti, then what is it? Does it lose all of its value and meaning?
Ultimately, the graffiti artists seemed to agree that their pieces were not to be considered graffiti, which inspired the name of the exhibition: “This is Not Graffiti.” Many even utilized their walls in order to criticize the premise of the exhibition itself. “Interestingly, a number of the artists also struggled with this gallery environment. They could take more time on their pieces, but having the luxury of time actually caused them more stress.” The artist El Teneen, or “The Dragon,” produced one of the most involved pieces. “Of course this exhibition was not graffiti. I thought the posed question was obvious. But it was still fun and the fact that we had more time was nice, even if the end it wasn’t any easier,” said El Teneen. His work employed the use of eight different people and required three days—one and a half for cutting and one and a half for stenciling—to construct his final product. The result: a floor-to-ceiling piece, composed of long drips of black and white paint that bent in and out of a zebra shape, along with a large, cartoonish Muammar Qadhafi head perched at the very top. It was a political commentary on the current turmoil in Libya.
El Teneen was part of the new wave of graffiti artists that took to the streets once the Revolution was underway. A long-time supporter of workers’ rights, El Teneen used to go to labor and minimum wage protests, but he had begun to lose hope that the country would ever change. He was galvanized by the events that unfolded during the 18 days of the Revolution, and he vividly recalls when he decided on January 26 to pick up a spray can while protesting and create his first graffiti piece: Mubarak’s face with the word “LEAVE” next to it. Ever since, he has garnered a reputation for creating astute and witty pieces, most of which are politically charged. One of his most famous pieces, which has become another icon of the Revolution, is a chess board sprayed on the wall next to the entrance of American University in Cairo’s Tahrir Campus. The chessboard contains all of the pawns on one end. On the other end, the king is flipped upside down, flanked by some of the other high-ranking pieces. It is a metaphor for all of the citizens of Egypt banding together and deposing the ruler, who is still supported by officials from the old regime.
The Revolution graffiti artists, both new and old, do not plan on retreating from the streets any time soon. The resolution of the political situation will not stop the artists from continuing their work. “We will still have to talk about women and religion and other issues. I have even been collaborating on projects with graffiti artists in other countries, such as in Lebanon and Syria,” said El Teneen.
In addition to the “Suzee in the City” blog, a number of initiatives have also started documenting Revolution graffiti. Maya Gowaily, a young Cairene woman, launched a Facebook page in March 2011 entitled “Revolution Graffiti” which now boasts over 2,000 “Likes” and serves as a repository for people to upload photos of graffiti from all over Egypt. “I realized that after the 18 days of the Revolution, when people started cleaning up the square, they were cleaning away a lot of the graffiti with it. I looked online and saw that no one else was documenting the graffiti, so that was when I decided to start the group.” Gowaily continues to lead the way by traveling throughout the city and creating her own extensive albums of graffiti photographs. She is also in the process of writing the introduction for a book on Revolution graffiti that will be published in November 2011.
Ganzeer, the “Tank vs. Biker” graffiti artist, also created CairoStreetArt.com, which is an interactive Google map of Cairo and its environs that permits people to pinpoint new graffiti and then add their photographs to go along with the map markers. While these documentation endeavors may seem slightly redundant, Gowaily affirms that there are differences: “The Revolution Graffiti Facebook page, for instance, focuses more on archiving photos, whereas ‘Suzee in the City’ generally offers a point of view or a critique.”
The documentation efforts are both noble and necessary as a way of immortalizing the present and, should the graffiti trend ultimately fizzle out, as a way of archiving an integral element of the January 25 Revolution. Eight months after the Revolution, the wave of interest in graffiti is still gaining momentum; these archivists will not be out of a job in the near future. As Suzee mused, “There is a sense right now that graffiti is a trend; it is the start of something that is evolving because it is a social commentary of an evolving situation, and I doubt that it will abate any time soon. As long as the situation keeps on changing, the graffiti artists will keep on taking to the streets.”
Yet beneath the overt political tensions that are depicted in much of the graffiti lies a tension within the graffiti community itself, an ongoing tension between the “old” and the “new” generations of graffiti artists that is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Will the “old regime” of graffiti artists be overturned by the new, or will both contingencies be able to take to the streets of Cairo in harmony?
Erin Biel ’13 is a Global Affairs and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration double major in Ezra Stiles College. She is currently spending her Fall 2011 semester studying abroad in Egypt. Contact her at email@example.com.