It’s not that street art never existed in Cairo before January 25th; it’s just that it never breathed this vibrantly before. There’s something raw, quick, witty and unpredictable about street art that gives an identity to the city; be it New York City, Barcelona, London or Cairo now.
Before January 25th, the underground street art scene in Cairo pretty much stayed undercover. Occasionally, a graffiti stencil or a poster would pop up on main streets of Zamalek, Maadi, Heliopolis and Nasr City, but they were often painted over or torn down in short time.
I heard about a group of graffiti artists getting together for graffiti projects in Cairo and Alexandria, where they would work late at night on a street wall, get chased away by police and often come back in the mornings to find their hard work erased. Otherwise, street art in Cairo has been limited ‘Mido Love Sawsan’ and ‘Hamada Bakabort El King’ scribbles along the walls. Not exactly fascinating, but maybe it helped get some people laid.
Now, after January 25th, things are different; at least in my hood. For one thing, graffiti is appearing everywhere in Zamalek, with new pieces popping up on main streets this time, instead of hidden alleyways and the back wall of El Ahly Club. Keen to maintain their anonymity, many graffiti artists go by pseudonyms like Ganzeer, Sad Panda, Kaizer and El Teneen (which –by the way- only makes me want to meet them more to see if they have inartistic, plain names like Hamada and Mohamed and Omar).
I like the fact that my routine drive to work every day has now become unpredictable: will I see a new Sad Panda on a wall, or perhaps a Salafi Tantawi, or a Kalashnikov-carrying monkey today? Cairo has never been boring to me, but this street art has added a new element of excitement to the city.
So now I run around like an idiot trying to take photos of all the street art I can find to document it. Why? Because this type of political street art is so new to this society, I’m worried that many in Cairo may not be prepared for it and may try to paint over it, tear it off, and erase its existence.
A few months ago, graffiti artist Ganzeer was commissioned by Ayyam Gallery in Zamalek to make a mural on the gallery’s wall. His very daring ‘Down With Regime Lovers’ undoubtedly shocked the poor conventional gallery owner sideways with his depiction of Mubarak, Tantawi, Farouk Hosni (the patron saint of arts in Egypt pre-jan25) and Ahmed Nazif holding hands and full of love. The message was clear and bold. Then the mural got completely sprayed over, Whodunit doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s clear that this street art has an expiry date to it.
The bittersweet reality of life in Cairo post-january 25th is that there may be more room for artistic expression, but artists now have different obstacles to face. Instead of being chased by the police, they might end up in military jails. On May 26th, the Egyptian army was stupid enough to arrest four harmless artists, including Ganzeer, and take them to the infamous S-28 military detention center, after they were caught sticking this poster onto walls in Downtown Cairo. Like it or hate it, the poster was clearly criticizing the army’s repression of freedom, and to quote human rights activist Heba Morayef , ‘[the] military does not seem to see the irony of arresting activists for putting up poster criticizing its restriction of freedoms.’
Ganzeer and co were briefly detained then freed, and judging by the plethora of t-shirts, media coverage and new graffiti that ensued, the army’s arrests of the artists didn’t really succeed in scaring them away or repressing them.
The point is, Cairo is filling up with exciting street art, and just to make your life easier, Ganzeer has launched the cairostreetart Google map so that you can locate the latest art piece and also add any art you’ve sighted directly onto the map.
El Gebaleya Street-Gezirah Area
There’s something devilish and darkly funny about graffiti appearing in Zamalek, an elitist neighbourhood full of comfortable aristocrats, politicians and fat cats. Perhaps the location choice has been strategic, or maybe because the walls of Zamalek are virgin territory.
In Wall and Piece, Banksy wrote that there is no elitism and hype in graffiti, that governments say graffiti frightens people because it represents the decline in our society. ‘Graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.’ He added, ‘Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.’
And I’m having fun, photographing the results of this so-called vandalism. Banksy’s influence is evident in a lot of art here, but there’s also an original wit and sardonicism that can only be born from life in #NewEgypt after the revolution and the absolute insanity of the past five months.