So a little revolution happened. The streets filled up, people yelled, a tyrant was dethroned and the world media fixated on Egypt’s younger generation, saying nice (though patronizing) things about us for once.
Cairo street art became the trend de jour, prompting blogs (ahem), at least three book deals and an average of two international media articles a month on the topic. As more graffiti spread out through Cairo’s neighbourhoods and more people took note, it was only a matter of time before major brands jumped onto the trend bandwagon.
In the past few months, Mobinil, Coca Cola and Pepsi have incorporated elements of graffiti into their advertising campaigns; whether it’s Mobinil’s graffiti-font slogan in its Win a Cherokee ad, or Coca-Cola’s billboards that were heavy on the Banksy influence.
But Pepsi really took the cake with an ad campaign literally plastered on Cairo’s walls, and a slogan that called for – get this – creative expression. There could be many reasons for this creative brain fart: maybe the entire creative department at Pepsi was fired and some genius came up with ‘Let’s make graffiti just like those cool kids’. Or maybe they wanted to skank out of paying hundreds of thousands of pounds for billboard space and paint on walls for free (or tips) instead.
In the brilliant NPR article on the Egyptian revolution being marketed, Eric Westervelt wrote: ‘For many young Egyptians who took great risks in Tahrir Square to help bring down a dictator, the commodification of the revolution is offensive and stupid.’
Almost every single graffiti artist I’ve spoken to has been offended by this Pepsi campaign. It is, as Keizer described it; ‘the birth and death of cool.’
Three graffiti artists have singled out Pepsi’s ads and graffiti-bombed them.
El Teneen, Keizer and Adham Bakry don’t know each other; and their attacks on Pepsi seem to have been uncoordinated and uninfluenced by each other. They all have the same belief; Pepsi should stick to its billboards and leave the walls alone. The walls belong to the people, not the advertisers making millions.
Keizer and fellow graffiti artist Zook took on the Pepsi wall mural on Abul Feda Street in Zamalek, decorating the slogan’s words with Keizer’s trademark ants and atomic symbols and Zook’s hummingbirds. The attack is playful, and it’s hard to take the Pepsi ad seriously (well, who does?) when there are birds and ants crawling all over it.
‘These corporations lurk and fest on anything that’s raw, fresh and… sacred,’ Keizer told me. ‘They take it and study it and make money out of it. What Pepsi is doing now is not giving back to the graffiti artists; they’re saying we are graffiti artists just like you, which is like the lowest of the low.’
El Teneen targeted the Pepsi wall mural on Merghani Bridge in Heliopolis, adding logos of rival brands like Coca Cola, Sinalco and Chivas just to stick the knife in a little further. Beneath Pepsi’s slogan of ‘Express yourself from Your Heart, No one’s a match for you’, El Teneen sprayed ‘Spray Cans are Never Exhausted’ a play on the Arabic saying ‘Contentment is a treasure that is never exhausted.’
It’s a pretty basic and obvious warning to Pepsi and co; we will never run out of spray cans, street walls or energy. You stick to your billboards, and stay away from our graffiti.
‘I wanted to show Pepsi that we don’t need a graffiti ad to remind us to express ourselves,’ El Teneen wrote to me. ‘The streets and its walls are the people’s. Greed needs to pay for its billboards.’
He added wryly: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I had subconsciously foreseen the future and asked myself: What would Amro Mustafa do?’
The graffiti war became personal to graphic designer and graffiti artist Adham Bakry, when Pepsi plastered its ad posters over his latest graffiti stencil. Bakry makes very few graffiti pieces, but when he does; they’re quite powerful: Tantawi’s underwear, Afaf Shoeib’s pizza, Safwat El Sherif. So painting over one graffiti stencil IS personal to him.
Bakry counter-attacked the Pepsi posters with graffiti stencils of Vimto and Spirito drinks, and wrote a message to Pepsi on his blog: ‘Keep your advertising campaigns off the streets and stick to your costly billboards. This is what happens when you decide to make a street art campaign and cover my graffiti with your posters.’
Bakry uploaded his stencils onto his blog and invited anyone to join his counter-Pepsi campaign by taking the stencil designs to the streets.
It will be interesting to see if this gains momentum; if more graffiti artists tackle more Pepsis, if the brand’s execs will ever even notice that they’re being mocked by the same people that they’re trying to target with their graffiti campaign. Graffiti can also be a dialogue, and in this case, it’s graffiti talking back to what NPR called the ‘commodification of the revolution’.