We meet under the most peculiar of circumstances. I’d been in touch with Sad Panda over Twitter about photographing his graffiti in the Cairo area of Masaken Sheraton; yet I, having the mental compass of a duck in the desert, get immediately lost. So he puts me in touch with a friend called Hatem, who will show me Sad Panda’s work in the neighbourhood, but first Hatem asks me if I’d like to see a graffiti artist cutting up stencils. I say yes.
Five seconds in his living room and I realize Hatem is Sad Panda. The poster of a large panda being cut up on the table kinda gives it away. When probed, he demurs and says something along the lines of ‘Why does Sad Panda have to be a person? It could be a group, or a theme, or an entity. Maybe I send stencils to someone in Holland to use them there; they could be Sad Panda there.’
He chain-smokes, his mother offers me cold orange juice, I try not to step on the cat lazing on the floor, and I snap away at my camera as he patiently cuts through the outline of his new stencil.
This is why I find him peculiar, or better, intriguing. For someone who says he isn’t a people’s person – he avoids public transportation and crowded spaces, which make him seriously depressed to the point of a phobia – he is incredibly friendly and warms to me instantly like he’s known me for years. And for someone who says that he is depressed a lot and ends all his tweets with a sad face, he is surprisingly good humoured and easy going. He’s somewhat paranoid about his true identity being revealed, and asks me not to take photos of his face or disclose details about him, a common strain that I find in other graffiti artists I’ve met.
Just get him talking about his graffiti and he loses the paranoia and talks animatedly.
‘It’s like cocaine to me,’ he says. ‘When you can only do a small amount of this substance or else you overdose, so you keep increasing the dose inch by inch until you slowly reach the point if you took one more dose; you’re done. And then you go into rehab and you get healed, and you leave so that you go back to taking small doses of cocaine. That’s how I see graffiti. The point is you make art, and then it gets removed, so you make more.’
‘It doesn’t matter to me if the graffiti gets ruined or painted over, ‘ he adds. ‘The point is that the art is made, then it is seen, then it is destroyed and painted over, then it is made all over again. ‘
He came up with the sad panda persona because that was his nickname in school, due to his size and his melancholic demeanour.
‘There was not a single wall or desk in school that I hadn’t drawn a panda all over,’ he laughs. ‘Technique comes with practice. If I showed you my first graffiti piece, it should be torn apart now. ‘
His neighbourhood of Masaken Sheraton is his playground, his turf where he can paint freely to little if any reproach. We drive through the winding streets, as I spot a pair of eyes peeking from a lamppost, a Baradei head on a telephone box, Suzanne Mubarak, Safwat Sherif and Zakareya Azmy on electricity boxes. And of course, the proverbial panda shape everywhere.
‘You know, the day after I made the Suzanne Mubarak poster, she got arrested,’ he giggles, ‘As if my little poster in Masaken Sheraton brought Mama Suzanne down.’
He doesn’t like his art to be pigeon-holed or politicized, even if it is political.
‘Someone wrote about my graffiti and analysed it as the political panda. What is a political panda? How can a panda be political?!’
He prefers to focus on the comedic element of his work, and avoids work that spells out its message.
‘The concept is ‘this art is mine.’ That’s how I see it. I want to make a statement that could be interpreted as political, but I don’t want to have force my message down people’s throats. If I did, I’d get a microphone and roam around the streets, yelling at people till they get my point. That’s the difference between being an activist and an artist. When Picasso painted the Spanish civil war, he made Guernica, and he painted it from his perspective. The way he saw it, not the way the war was. ‘
Hatem uses relatable local personalities in his images that the average man on the street can understand: Saad Zaghloul, Abdel Halim Hafez, the politicians, the protestors, the military; all accompanied by a small panda doodle at the bottom as his signature. One exception is Che Guevara the Salafist, an icon that not necessarily everyone in Egypt would recognize.
‘If you see Ahmed Adaweya holding a machine gun, at least the average man on the street will like it and try to figure it out.’
He adds that the Egyptian culture lacks street art sophistication, and the only posters and banners people are used to seeing are of political banners or posters for elections.
‘That’s the only background knowledge they have,’ he says. ‘So to put up posters and tell them that this is art, they will think: ‘So what? What am I supposed to do with it?’ If you paint something they don’t even understand, they won’t even take pleasure in seeing the artwork. Ahmed Adaweya I know and understand , and I will be happy to see a graffiti piece about him. Our art has to be related to us somehow. ‘
Things have changed for Hatem’s graffiti escapades since the revolution. Before he had to be careful and clandestine, and work in the dark, now he can paint on main streets in broad daylight.
‘When [people on the street] find me painting a panda, they don’t really react much, it’s not like I’m painting the mask of freedom, it’s just a panda,’ he insists.
There is no clear law criminalizing vandalism in Egypt, merely a law prohibiting destruction of public monuments and private property, as far as I know. Your maximum fine is 50LE if you actually get caught, and you may be forced to repaint the wall you just spoiled.
‘But you won’t be condemned to death for graffiti,’ he shrugs.