This Is Not Graffiti -Opens at Townhouse Factory Space, Cairo

After two months of seriously hard work, the exhibition ‘This Is Not Graffiti’ opened last night at Townhouse Gallery’s Factory Space in Downtown Cairo.

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Graffiti in Cairo: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Cow?

Having stalked them, befriended them and followed them around like an overenthusiastic puppy for the past six months, I think I’ve sort of figured out the mentality of certain graffiti artists in Cairo.

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This Is Not Graffiti: Group Exhibition at Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art

If you take graffiti off a street wall and put it inside a confined space, is it still graffiti? Does street art maintain its value when you remove the noise, the faces, and the life of the streets and put it on a safe wall?

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Cool Cairo Art Idea: One Year Project

Image by Moe courtesy of oneyearpro.tumblr.com

This really cool tumblr was sent to me by Hashem Kelesh via twitter. One Year Project is an experimental project by three very talented Egyptian artists, Moe Al Hussainy, Islam Shabana, and Hashem Kelesh, where they photograph themselves each day and send the photos to each other.

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Pop Goes Graffiti – The Faces of Cairo Street Art

Artist Shank signs his name with a figure that somehow reminds me of Gorillaz pop art.

Lately, the graffiti I’ve stumbled upon around Cairo seems to be predominantly faces of  pop icons, political figures and cartoon characters, mostly Western references but with several Egyptian icons as well. It’s an exciting and eclectic mix of Ghandi and Batman, Baradei and astronauts.

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Graffiti War – The Street Versus Pepsi

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.

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Protest Graffiti: Solidarity with Syria Spreads from Cairo

Bashar Stencil by El Teneen. Next to it, reads ‘The People Want the Downfall of the Regime’ words made famous in Tahrir. Sighted on July 25th, 2011. The graffiti has since been painted over.

One of the things that we Egyptians have in common with Syrians is our democratically elected rulers’ penchant for killing their own people – only Syria’s Bashar El Assad has thrown caution (and chummy relations with the morally conscious Western governments) to the wind by attempting to wipe out all of the people who don’t like him.

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Protest Graffiti in Tahrir – The Mogamaa

‘Helw Ya Balady’ (My beautiful Country), a popular song by Dalida. Graffiti by HK

The walls of the Mogamaa are filled with protest graffiti. There’s rarely an empty space left between the large and colourful murals by HK, the witty caricature-like pieces by Hosny and the stencils by El Teneen, Sad Panda and many anonymous artists.  Continue reading

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An Evening on The Streets With Keizer

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. Continue reading

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New Graffiti in Cairo – Nighttime Stalking

I think I prefer the streets of Cairo to its people. After the hours of fuming traffic and deafening horns, hostile faces watching and asking questions, I’m finally left in peace after midnight, standing on an empty side street under the orange lamplight, photographing new pieces of graffiti. Continue reading

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Cairo Graffiti -For Whom Exactly?

Ryu versus M.Bison by CBJ on AUC wall, Mohamed Mahmoud Street

‘Stop taking photographs of this, go to a museum,’ he mutters as he walks past me.

I’m standing in front of the American University in Cairo’s library wall, photographing a graffiti piece depicting video game characters Ryu and Mr. Bison, the latter wearing a Tantawi face that has been neatly slashed with red paint.

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An Afternoon with Sad Panda

Sad Panda across tank vs boy on bike by Ganzeer, Across from Al Ahly Club, Zamalek

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.

Safwat Sherif, Former Speaker of Parliament: Warning: Danger. On electricity box.

Baradei's face on the side of a telephone box, masaken Sheraton.

Suzanne Mubarak - Warning, Dangerous

Zakaria Azmy, Warning: Danger. Interestingly, his face got carefully painted over while Suzanne's survived

Gamal Mubarak- Warning: Danger. Sighted under Merghani Bridge in mid-June, the face was scratched off one week later.

Wrestler with Abdel Halim Hafez face, dont know if the scratches were intentional or if someone tried to tear the poster off

Saad Zaghloul as Abo Trika, with the ever-present Panda face signature below

Libyan Tyrant Muammar Gadafi gets the McDonalds treatment, 'Leave Ali' the woman's sign reads. Located right across from McDonalds Merghani.

One of his first posters to go up under Merghani Bridge, this piece dates back to around the January 25 revolution. He's surprised it lasted that long.

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Cairo Street Art – Downtown Graffiti

Mickey, Bush & the Bomb by Keizer

Mickey, Bush & the Bomb by Keizer

‘Excuse me,’ he walks up to me as I hesitantly put my camera down, ‘What does this picture mean?’

He points at the Keizer stencil of Mickey Mouse on the grey wall. Mahmoud Bassiouny Street on a Saturday afternoon is crowded, and people seem still wary of any snap-happy camera-toting thug like me. Who knows, I could be another Facebook-loving Zionist spy.

‘I think that’s Mickey Mouse,’ I say helpfully.

‘Yes but what does it mean? And who is that man next to him?’

He’s bald with a graying walrus moustache, probably in his mid-forties, his full cheeks sweating as he fans at his pin-striped pink shirt.

‘I’m not quite sure,’ I say politely, wishing I could go back to my camera, but he appears adamant for an answer. ‘Maybe it’s a president? It could be George Bush.’

‘Yes but what is George Bush doing with Mickey Mouse? I like this picture, I walk past it every day, but I wish there’d be some writing explaining it so that I could understand.’

How do I explain dichotomy or irony in Arabic? My mind goes blank.

‘Err… maybe the guy who made this wants you to think about it and come up with your own idea?’ I offer weakly.

He seems even more baffled. ‘Well I don’t want to figure it out myself, it’s much easier if he just tells me what it means so I know what to think.’

I ponder on whether I should bring up the whole we-lived-under-a-dictatorship-that-told-us-what-to-think-for-thirty-years-arent-you-happy-to-think-for-yourself-for-once theory, but I don’t. I’d rather move on, plus something about his walrus moustache makes him look like an NDP fan. Yes, I’m racist like that. I judge your political affiliation by your facial hair.

‘I mean it’s nice and everything,’ he continues eagerly, ‘But not as nice as the beautiful flags they paint everywhere, so pretty. You know, I was in Tahrir every day, I was one of the shabab of the revolution…’

Ah yes. The most overused line that launches every conversation since January 25th. Somehow I get stuck between a man and the wall I want to photograph as he talks for a full twenty minutes without interruption about Tahrir, Alaa Aswany, what he thinks of Baradei, the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood, yadayada, while I check my phone, make coughing noises, fiddle with my camera lense, shift from one foot to another, check my phone again. Eventually, he offers me his phone number and I politely say goodbye.

The camera never leaves my protective hands, held up against my chest like ammunition, pointing directly at him.

Snow White with a Gun by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiouny Street

Snow White with a Gun by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiouny Street

Atom by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiony Street

Atom by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiony Street

Kill Your Television by Keizer

Kill Your Television by Keizer

You Are Beautiful by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiony Street

You Are Beautiful by Keizer on Mahmoud Bassiony Street

Graffiti by Charles Akl and Amr Gamal

Graffiti by Charles Akl and Amr Gamal

Graffiti of Amr Beheiry, imprisoned protester, on electricity box off Mahmoud Bassiony Street.

Graffiti of Amr Beheiry, imprisoned protester, on electricity box off Mahmoud Bassiony Street.

Veiled & unveiled women with halos and mouth masks. I'd love to know who made this.

Veiled & unveiled women with halos and mouth masks. I’d love to know who made this.

Tantawi by El Teneen

Tantawi by El Teneen

May 27th Molotov Cocktail by El Teneen on Kasr El Nil

May 27th Molotov Cocktail by El Teneen on Kasr El Nil

Uprising against the Army by El Teneen, note the crescent and the cross on the hand.

Uprising against the Army by El Teneen, note the crescent and the cross on the hand.

Sad Panda with an AK47 on wall of El Horreya

Sad Panda with an AK47 on wall of El Horreya

On the wall of a public bathroom on Abdel Salam Aref across from El Horreya, Sad Panda sits next to a graffiti stencil by Xist of Amr Beheiry, imprisoned Tahrir protester

    Martyr Mural by Ganzeer of Islam Raafat, 18 yrs old, run over by microbus during protest on Jan 28.

    Tantawi Underwear with helicopters by Adham Bakry, appropriately above trash

Tantawi Underwear with helicopters by Adham Bakry, appropriately above trash

Mr. X  (note the scribbles Mortada Mansour the Crazy) on AUC wall, Yousef El Guindy Street.

Chess Mate by El Teneen

Chess Mate by El Teneen

Mural by Hany Khaled with a poster by Mohamed Alaa

Mural by Hany Khaled with a poster by Mohamed Alaa

In the name of Egypt

For exact locations of graffiti in Cairo, check out the Cairo Street Art Map.

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Cairo Street Art After the Revolution: Zamalek

This gallery contains 111 photos.

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 … Continue reading

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