If you Google search Cairo Street Art, Ganzeer’s name is your top result. Countless interviews and features on the artist follow. As arguably the most recognized name on Cairo’s art scene today, it’s no surprise that Ganzeer is the most sought-after interview subject and reference on graffiti in Cairo.
Ganzeer has been wary of the media’s fixation on him for the last ten months. He hasn’t made graffiti in Egypt since May 2011, and has since spent his time on a multitude of political and art projects outside the realm of graffiti. And if you didn’t get the hint already, his website opens with the block letters I AM NOT A STREET ARTIST OR GRAFFITI ARTIST.
Why was it important for him to literally spell it out?
‘How long have you known me?’ he asks.
‘Over ten years, how long have I spent working as a graffiti artist?’
‘Very little of it.’
‘How long have I worked as an artist?’
‘All of it?’
‘There you go,’ he answers. ‘The problem is, because there’s a freaky media frenzy about the revolution and street art, journalists who have no idea about anything I’ve done before, they only care about: ‘So tell me about street art in the revolution.’ At the end of the day, if it’s not exactly who you are, there’s no point in being identified as it.’
‘Do you feel boxed in when people describe you as a graffiti artist?’
‘No, it’s just I’m not a street artist; that’s not what I do,’ he says. ‘For example, Keizer, you said in your blog, that’s what he does for a living, how he eat/breathes street art. But that’s not how my brain functions, and it would be unfair to Keizer to describe me as a street artist.’
As the most interviewed and quoted artist on revolution street art, does Ganzeer think the attention is due to his portfolio of art including his graffiti or because of that much publicized arrest for this poster?
‘I don’t think this has anything to do with my portfolio of work, unfortunately, or my very limited street art portfolio,’ he shrugs bashfully. ‘I doubt I would have gotten as much publicity if I hadn’t been arrested.’
The arrest pretty much killed any anonymity that he had left, and the news coverage revealed his face and his real name: Mohamed Fahmy.
‘Does the lack of anonymity bother you?’
‘I have a perspective on being anonymous,’ he answers. ‘I don’t believe that street art should be illegal. I don’t want to treat it like I’m doing something illegal or wrong, it’s my right to do it.’
‘That’s a bit ironic considering you were arrested.’
‘Yes but I was arrested not because I was doing street art but because of the content of the street art. Ironically, the people [on the street] demanded my arrest and the army had to come [to arrest me], otherwise I would have continued normally. ‘
‘One year on from Tahrir, what’s happening with the martyr mural project? Have you given up on it? What’s the deal?’
‘The deal is because of current circumstances, I felt responsibility to get more involved in other things, so I suppose you could say that it’s on hold,’ he says. ‘I knew it was a big ambitious project but I thought it would be a lifetime project, something that will take five or six years to complete.’
‘The mural of Islam Raafat in Bustan was painted on a public toilet, which some thought to be disrespectful for a martyr.’
‘My view that a public toilet shouldn’t be seen as something 3eeb or dirty,’ he says. ‘And the fact that it is in our culture, shows how our culture has degenerated, just assuming that a bathroom is a bad thing. It shouldn’t be. Having a martyr on a public toilet is counteracting a generational culture.’
‘What about Mad Graffiti Weekend?‘
‘My experience with Mad Graffiti was great. It’s impossible to do murals of that size on your own; so team work is essential. I think if one is a little anal about it and has to work in isolation without any collaboration whatsoever, you’re definitely missing out on the benefits of group work. Funnily enough, few of the people who helped out on my murals were artists. I guess we could work together in the same space, but I don’t think we could collaborate on one piece.’
Ganzeer’s arrest sent out waves of panic and wariness among a lot of people, including artists like Keizer and Sad Panda, who said that his arrest made them very apprehensive about going out and working.
‘Yeah but neither of them made Freedom Mask,’ he argues. ‘One makes Snow White with a machine gun, the other draws sad pandas. They’re not going to get arrested for their work. You don’t get arrested for drawing on a wall; you get arrested for the content of your art. And both in terms of their content are really safe.’
‘Like many other street artists, you don’t feel the need to sign your street art. Why not?’
‘Well the Buddha said.’
‘I have a spiritual side, you know.’ He laughs. ‘Buddha said there are three things you can’t hide: The sun the moon and the truth. Or something to that effect. Eventually the truth will come out and people will know. The point of graffiti is the art itself; you don’t want people to be distracted by the signature. That’s how I look at it. The important thing is to get the message out.’
‘What about graffiti that has no message?’
‘That’s bullshit. Art in general that has no message is bullshit. It’s wasting the artist’s time, it’s wasting people’s time. So you’re inspired, but what does your art mean? It’s like in Exit to the Gift Shop, where Mr. Brainwash takes photos of Elvis Presley and adds toy guns. It’s just putting pop art cultural references together. It’s not what any street artist would do. It’s just aesthetic. So although I don’t subscribe to that type of street art I would say that in general there’s a benefit to all types of street art in that it adapts to urbanism and modern architecture.’
‘What’s the connection between the current street art scene and the city’s architecture?’
‘If I was to look at the city now in terms of its buildings and the magazine or a book there’s no connection whatsoever in the way people dress. If you look at middle aged Arabian architecture, you’d see a connection between the architecture and the design of a Koran or a carpet and the way people are dressed, there’s a connection. It’s not completely schizophrenic and detached. The way we live now is like that. But when people start forcing street art onto architecture, they are surrounding people in the city by other element of this culture. So some of this art may be reminiscent of something you’ve seen in a movie like Pulp Fiction and Tawfiq el Dekken with Ismail Yaseen or stuff from magazines; it has to exist. You can’t live in an environment that’s totally detached from the culture.’
‘How do you respond to graffiti artists who’ve criticised you for being in the limelight? You’re not exactly underground or enigmatic on the street art scene.’
‘I find it weird when some artists call me an attention seeker,’ he says, ‘When I’ve been the only one of the bunch refusing to be in shows or exhibitions like ‘This Is Not Graffiti‘ or documentaries. I’m just saying.’
Six Contributions Ganzeer Made to the Cairo Art Scene
- Cairo Street Art Map: Ganzeer enabled a Google Map on his blog that helped other graffiti artists and fans pinpoint the exact location of graffiti around Cairo. This map immensely helped fans like myself track down the new pieces.
- Tank Versus Bike: The largest graffiti to be made in post-revolution Cairo, and one of the longest surviving pieces, this mural was the result of group effort, where friends and fellow artists helped Ganzeer finish it over several hours. The symbolism of the piece is so self-evident; it’s startling that it has survived this long without being painted over by SCAF loyalists. Recently, unknown artists added civilians falling under the moving tank; a poignant reference to the tragic events of Maspiro in October.
- Mad Graffiti Weekend: The first collective graffiti campaign launched in May 2011 via social media to encourage collaborating and making street art in the open. Before this weekend, few of the graffiti artists had met and collaborated on street art.
- Martyr’s Mural Project: Ganzeer tapped into the need to commemorate the martyrs of the first 18 days of Jan25 by launching a project to make a mural of each. Three were completed: Islam Raafat on Tahrir Street, Seif Allah Mustafa in front of the High Court, and Tarek Abdel Latif in Zamalek next to the Gezirah Sporting Club.
- Getting Arrest: Ganzeer’s brief arrest in May 26, 2011 for sticking this poster on Downtown Cairo walls caused public outrage and a swift media reaction that may have led to his quick release. Outed to the press as Mohamed Fahmy, he gave TV interviews afterwards, nonchalant about his face or true identity being exposed. He made it ok to be a publicly recognized graffiti artist; the opposing pole to the underground/Banksy persona that others maintain.
- Mad Graffiti Week: After laying low on the graffiti scene for a few months, Ganzeer is now back with an open call to another graffiti event this January, 2012, to use art as a means of exposing the lies fed by the SCAF to the Egyptian people. ‘Our only hope right now is to destroy the military council using the weapon of art,’ he wrote on his blog. ‘From January 13 to 25, the streets of Egypt will see an explosion of anti-military street-art. If you are a street artist elsewhere in the world, please do what you can in your city to help us.’
PS: he makes good pasta salad.