Definition of irony: I lived almost twenty years in Alexandria, but it was only after I moved to Cairo and started writing about graffiti that I found all threads leading me back home.
It seemed that everyone I spoke to about graffiti claimed that the movement was born in Alexandria in the early 2000s, with visual artists like Aya Tarek, Wensh (check out his behance gallery) and Amir Rizk cited as the pioneers.
Visiting home over three years, I came across a lot of fascinating street art, some of which were quite old (B.T.: Before Thawra) and experimental, more nuanced in their messages.
Like any homesick Alexandrian, I found myself driving along the corniche a lot, noting the architectural and visual changes, the disintegration of the sites of my nostalgia, be it the Dome of St. Marc School, the steps to Sayed Darwish’s house or the forlorn boat hulls next to Anfoushi’s fish market (the real fish market, not the Fish Market restaurant).
I came across this collection of street art by accident, in one case sneaking into the shell of a decrepit building by the sea, and finding the beautiful mural at the top of this blog post.
I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive collection of Alexandrian street art, nor will I claim to know all the names of all the artists who made these pieces. I regret that I didn’t spend more time in Alexandria to document its street art; I have no grasp of what art I may have missed and was never documented. I regret that life took me away to Cairo when the hub of creative expression seemed to be brewing in Alexandria.
As my city falls deeper into a state of decrepit demise, with our heritage sites demolished and cultural icons neglected, I think of these photos as testament to the complexity, creativity and inspiration of Alexandria, but also perhaps, some proof of hope.
The best spots for graffiti sightings are in Smouha behind the train tracks and across from the Equestrian club, on the Corniche after San Stefano bridge, in the back streets of the Faculty of Engineering and the EGC, the Officers’ Buildings on (Roushdy) Corniche, and of course, in the area of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Gleem on the tram.
Egyptian graffiti artists are doing more than just painting art on street walls, they’re creating social awareness campaigns against corruption, media brainwashing, poverty and sexual harassment, and also using graffiti to beautify slum areas of Cairo to restore a sense of pride, ownership and hope to its residents.
It’s a battle, being a woman in an Arab country, but perhaps the dire conditions makes us fighters. Since January 25, so many foreign reporters have waxed on about the awakening of Arab women in the Arab Spring; and how the revolutions liberated us/made us wake up and smell the coffee/made us throw off our headscarves and run happily through the meadows.
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?
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.
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 New Graffiti in Cairo – Nighttime Stalking→
‘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.
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.