His car stinks of spray cans. The back seat is filled with enough aerosol cans to make a pyromaniac weep with joy. If he were ever stopped and searched by the police, he’d have a field day explaining the bottles, posters, surgical gloves and tape.
But Keizer is always ready for everything; his furiously fast brain always has an answer prepared with an appropriately innocent smile. To a stranger, it’s hard to tell if he’s being genuine and warm, or if there’s a darker wit beneath the friendly smile.
We’re on his turf, his playground; the back wall of El Ahly Club in Zamalek. Once peppered with pre-revolution graffiti such as the Michael Jackson stencil and the Man on the Cloud, the street’s walls are now filled with new post-revolution graffiti works by the likes of the Sad Panda, CBJ, Zook and Keizer.
In fact, one wall is dominated by Keizer, it’s like his practice ground where he tests out a new art piece. It’s a quiet street, and at night he’s rarely interrupted except by the occasional street sweeper or curious passing car.
That being said, in the half hour that I spend with him, he is stopped by at least five men on separate occasions. They approach him tentatively, so he says ‘7obby’ (my love) and reaches out to shake their hands; it’s a successful formula that saves him from head-on confrontations with suspicious and wary passersby. I’m one of you, his body language speaks; I’m not a crazy person spraying the wall.
They ask him about his art, they want to know what it means. Why the woman with the grenade? What does the English text say? They tell him they wish he would make something they can understand, and he wholeheartedly agrees.
Why is his graffiti predominantly in English?
‘Definitely to attack the upper echelons of society,’ he answers.
This makes sense when you look at his quotes like ‘Who’s Watching the Watchers’ or pieces like the Snow White with the machine gun. These art pieces speak to a segment of Egyptian society that watches Walt Disney and speaks English well enough to appreciate the dichotomy between the cartoon character’s femininity and the brutality of the weapon.
He targets the big-wig corporations, the perpetuators of capitalism and consumerism, the corrupt businessmen, and the SCAF… new names are continuously being added to his hit list.
‘I’m taking on everything that monogenizes humans into a closed space,’ he says simply; as if that could summarise his art in one sentence.
It’s hard to categorize Keizer’s graffiti into one neat box, and he’s wary of being misinterpreted and pigeon-holed. But if I would, I’d say there’s something whimsical and fluid about his stencils, like the little girl on the swing, the 50s style housewife with the hand grenade, or the dark humor of Mickey Mouse and the bomb.
While some graffiti artists in Cairo make an occasional stencil here and there, Keizer has made graffiti his full-time occupation: he eat, sleeps, dreams, talks graffiti. He spends days designing, drawing freehand, cutting and perfecting stencils, and talks about his upcoming projects and ideas with the passion of someone who’s found his calling on the free-for-all street walls.
His most common and widespread graffiti stencil is of the masked face, originally a trademark piece called ‘Obey’ by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, but with some tweaks to the original. Why did he choose to replicate such a famous graffiti icon?
‘There is no such thing as ripping off in art,’ he says. ‘Every master I thought to be the symbol of originality turns out to have been influenced and copied others.’
He sends me some quotes by Picasso and other art greats on the issue of art and imitation, including this one: ‘Nothing is original, steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… […] originality is non-existent, and don’t bother concealing your thievery- celebrate it if you feel like it […] always remember: it’s not where you take things from -it’s where you take them to.’
Fairey himself is considered to be one of the biggest plagiarists on the art scene, having stolen many of his concepts from Eastern European political propaganda. A little googling and researching later, I find that Keizer’s version of ‘Obey’ is awfully similar to Baxter Orr’s, a graffiti artist who imitated Fairey and called it ‘Protect’ with a gas mask on the face. Ironically, Fairey sued Orr in 2008 for using his trademark. Now Fairey is being sued by AP for his use of an AP photo of Barak Obama in his world-famous hope poster campaign. So Keizer is imitating the artist that is being sued for imitating the artist that is being sued for ripping off everyone from AP to Eastern European artists.
This leads me to questioning my own definition of art and plagiarism; is there really such a thing as originality? Is there even a graffiti artist out there who isn’t somehow inadvertently or consciously imitating other artists?
Keizer doesn’t think so.
‘You’re influenced from the day you were born and when you create something you think this is mine, this came from my soul,’ he says. ‘But there was a cartoon you saw, an ad you saw, there’s something that came into play that helped it come out. We always think we’re free of influence, or if we copy or imitate someone, we’re selling out, we’re doomed. It’s not like that.’
Already compared to Banksy by a few fans for his clean-cut stencils with their pop-culture references, Keizer says he’s wary of studying the British graffiti artist in case he becomes too immersed in him. He disagrees that Banksy has become too commercial, too mainstream for the underground graffiti scene.
‘I don’t think he sold out and I don’t think there’s a way to protect [graffiti] from going commercial,’ he says. ‘The only way to do that is to keep sending the right message that Banksy did in his documentary [Exit Through A Gift Shop], which is this is for all, this is not just about the hype and the money. [Graffiti] is accessible to everyone; we should all be doing it. There’s no exclusive club.’