It feels like I keep writing the same post over and over again: images of sexual harassment, police violence, military violence, more martyrs, young martyrs, poems and tributes to martyrs, satire against Morsi, against religious and political hypocricy, against censorship and in support of freedom of speech. Continue reading Street Art and Morsi – Cairo Artists Continue the Fight
Days after the first anniversary of January 25, tensions between anti-regime activists and loyalists to the SCAF have now reached the cement walls and streets of Cairo.
The graffiti war, a showdown between revolutionary street artists and a fanatical nationalist team who whitewash their work, is a new and disturbing manifestation of pro-Army popular sentiment.
In recent months, activists have used the walls to diligently spread messages denouncing military rule and military trials of thousands of civilians, and calling for another 25 January revolution. At the same time, military loyalists have just as attentively erased these graffiti pieces, leaving their own pro-army and nationalist messages.
This war, completely unimaginable during Mubarak’s time, has come to a head on one wall: Ganzeer’s famous mural of the tank versus bike.
This massive mural under the 6th of October Bridge in Zamalek is considered by many to be the most iconic piece of graffiti in post-revolution Cairo. A collaborative work by graffiti artist Ganzeer and his friends, and a blatant criticism of the Egyptian military, the mural has remained surprisingly untouched since May 2011.
But in early January 2012, unknown artists painted new additions (photo courtesy of @Mosaaberizing) onto the imposing mural, adding a row of protesters carrying ‘V for Vendetta’ masks, a pool of blood under the tank and bodies collapsing under its wheels — a clear reference to the 9 October Maspiro attacks, when Coptic protesters were run over by military APCs, leaving dozens dead.
Interestingly enough, these additions incited a reaction of their own: A group of pro-SCAF civilians called Badr Team 1 vandalized the mural 10 days later, erasing everything they found offensive to the Egyptian army. This meant erasing everything, except for the tank, that is.
In an amateur video allegedly captured on 20 January, Badr Team 1 (who also called themselves the Badr Battalion) accused graffiti artists of being foreign agents and traitors to Egypt. The team called on all honorable Egyptian youth to erase graffiti, as it was “a method for agents and traitors to spread their violent ideologies against the police, the army and Egyptian traditions.”
This rhetoric is all too familiar to Egyptians who, for the past year, have had to listen to SCAF members broadcasting such accusations in the media.
Graffiti has spread like wildfire throughout Cairo in the past 12 months, and is used by young Egyptian activists to commemorate the victims of the uprising, and to raise awareness of political injustices and crimes committed by the Egyptian military. In the face of the mainstream media’s campaign to tarnish protesters as criminals and cover up military crimes, many activists have turned to graffiti as an alternative means of reaching the average Egyptian on the streets.
And while this shaky amateur video produced by these antagonists of street art can easily be disregarded as a minor incident, the level of ignorance, paranoia and aggression propagated by the video is worrying.
Its incitement of attacks on graffiti artists, though, is sadly a natural consequence of the past months of hostility bred against all forms of criticism of the Egyptian military.
The irony that the dumbasses of Badr Team have made graffiti to denounce graffiti is clearly lost on them. They say members of the April 6 Youth Movement were responsible for the mural, even though an easy internet search would have led them straight to Ganzeer.
The video also shows the stencils of several martyrs’ faces, which were made after the revolution to commemorate those who died during the January 25 revolution. The stencils once carried their names and the words “Glory to God.” Now, the names are erased, and the words read “Glory to Egypt” instead, showing Badr Team’s fanatical nationalism. It seems Egypt is superior to God in their demented heads.
“These drawings contain Masonic and anarchist codes and symbols,” Badr Team’s statement reads. Badr Team circles those “Masonic” symbols drawn by the graffiti artists, including a sad and fat panda, a bird, a child clasping his hands in prayer and the words “Power to the People.”
They are all clear symbols inciting violence, especially the panda.
The V for Vendetta masks — often used by revolutionary artists, most likely as symbols of defying totalitarianism — are particularly bothersome for army loyalists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It is worth noting here that a recent article in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party newspaper warned of anarchists wearing the ‘B for Bendetta’ masks, a spelling mistake that has since been ruthlessly lampooned all over the Egyptian Twitter-sphere.
At any rate, the graffiti community has been quick to respond to attacks by army loyalists, especially the erasure of SCAF’s victims from the famous tank mural. Badr Team 1 had whitewashed all references to SCAF’s atrocities, leaving the solitary tank standing in all its glory with any reference to the Maspiro massacre, the martyrs and the revolutionary protesters wiped out. The words ‘The Army and the Police and the People Are One Hand’ was ironically scrawled nearby.
Striking back at Badr Team 1’s pro-SCAF erasure of the mural, a giant green monster of a military policeman chewing on the body of a protester next to stencils of Mona Lisa, Lenin, military leader Hussein Tantawi and other faces were sketched next to the tank. The new additions have been made by a group calling themselves the Mona Lisa Battalion, a tongue-in-cheek hat-tip to the Badr Battalion. The new graffiti faces are whimsical, funny and blatantly political; yet it’s quite possible that the Badr Battalion will not understand that this art is directed at them, that this whole joke is on them.
When asked to comment on the Badr Team video, the original mural’s creator, Ganzeer, said that he was initially happy to have this visual dialogue happening in reaction to the tank mural.
“But when I saw the YouTube video by the ‘Badr Battalion’, I felt a certain kind of sadness that this act was done by a group obviously soaked in ignorance and blind nationalism,” he wrote to me.
“Clearly they’ve been brainwashed by our horrible school textbooks and official media, so brainwashed to the point of stating that ‘The Army, police and people are one hand’.”
Ganzeer couldn’t resist adding the jab, “It’s also obvious that these kids have no sense of aesthetic whatsoever.”
This op-ed has been published in Egypt Independent. You can also read it here.
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.
Graffiti is not meant to be permanent; but it is meant to produce a reaction, even if that reaction means removing it because it’s offensive, or an eyesore. However, when you’re a Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo that teaches art, it’s a little strange that you remove the post-jan25 graffiti your students and friends have made on your walls, no?
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.
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?
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.
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 Protest Graffiti in Tahrir – The Mogamaa
‘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.
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.
‘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.
For exact locations of graffiti in Cairo, check out the Cairo Street Art Map.
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.