| As soon as the morning sun swept across the country on February 12, the day after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egyptian youth took to the streets with the new and unfamiliar mind-set of ‘the streets are ours.’ Some had brooms while others came with buckets of paint and rollers, but all of them began to mark their reclaimed territory.From that day on, the walls lining the streets of our nation would never look the same as different styles of street art covered up that ubiquitous shade of gray that once surrounded the country’s streets.
A few weeks later, Ganzeer was spray painting a wall in Downtown Cairo when two police officers approached him. The 29-year-old graphic designer expected the usual interrogation, but instead, the officers helped him prop up the stencil, handed him the paint and congratulated him on his work.
Ganzeer, who prefers not to disclose his real name, had created a couple of pieces of street art before the January 25 Revolution but admits that it has become much easier now.
“Before the revolution, people would ask me for a permit,” he says. “Now, it’s more accepted. People aren’t weirded out by it. I think, in a way, it’s due to the kids who started going out and painting the streets.”
Painting red, white and black with a yellow splotch in the middle, symbolizing the Egyptian flag, soon turned into a nationwide frenzy, unleashing everyone’s inner artist. Among the good, the bad and the horrifically ugly, a few pre-revolution artists who had been constricted by the tight reins of the former regime were finally able to enjoy the freedom of creating art all over the streets.
“Something about drawing on a wall just seems very natural,” says Ganzeer.
As natural as it may seem to some, street art was relatively unfamiliar to the general public in Egypt. But in post-revolution Egypt, it became a major trend. Even though this new art form is spreading, it remains to be seen if it will continue at the same magnitude or begin to die down once the revolution fever cools off.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how modern street art began, but it started roughly in the late 1960s in the neighborhoods of New York City. One of the first street artists to get recognition was called Taki 183. He would go around tagging subway trains and walls during his job as a foot messenger. The New York Times ran an article about him in 1971, which contributed to the popularity of street art and graffiti, and making it a raw form of expression for young people around the world.
Street art can vary from graffiti, stencils, stickers or installations.
“Street art can be defined within the genre of public art; that is, art being sited or staged within the physical public domain, accessible for a mass audience,” says Nagla Samir, professor of art and design at the American University in Cairo. “Street art is spontaneous, often improvised, and, most importantly, displayed without the consent of authorities — a fact that usually contributes to its popularity and appeal for the young and rebellious.
Regardless of its underground quality, street art is becoming appreciated by the mainstream public as well as by art enthusiasts. Some pieces, specifically by famous British artist Banksy, have literally been ripped off the walls and sold for thousands of Euros.
“Despite the fact that, in many cases, street art is regarded as an act of vandalism […] many contemporary analysts and art critics have begun to see [the] artistic value in it and recognize it as a form of public art,” says Samir.
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While Egypt is no where near catching up with the international art scene, street art is definitely a great starting point.
According to Adham Bakry, a freelance graphic designer who creates street artwork, the street art business is booming, a statement he realizes is quite ironic, since artists don’t actually profit from street art.
The 28-year-old began displaying his art on the streets during the 2010 parliamentary elections. He created a sticker of La Vache Qui Rit, a nickname used to describe former President Mubarak during his time as Anwar El-Sadat’s vice president, with the logo of the National Democratic Party (NDP) on its earrings. Bakry would go around on his bicycle, sticking his stickers on posters of the then leading party’s candidates. After the revolution, he created a stencil drawing of Safwat El-Sherif, former secretary general of the NDP, with lines drawn across symbolizing jail bars just two days before El-Sherif was arrested on April 11 for his alleged involvement in the hiring of thugs to attack protesters in Tahrir Square on February 2 and other alleged abuses of power.
“I feel that street art is a good retaliation to all the billboards [the government] used to do with Mubarak’s face on them or for the Sinai Liberation,” says Bakry. “It’s sort of a way to reclaim the streets.”
Pre-revolution, Bakry would not only get harassed by police officers, but by random citizens who would often feel the need to lecture him about what’s right and what’s wrong. However, when he was spray-painting El-Sherif’s face in the neighborhood of Mohandiseen, he asked two kiosk owners if he could place it next to their kiosks and they happily complied.
“It was sort of a citizen’s permission,” he says while nodding proudly. “Not from the government, but from the people actually living on that street."
Samir believes that while street art started during the revolution as people made banners, murals or installations, it grew even more afterward as a sense of belonging developed within Egyptians.
“I believe it has to do with the recent mass perception of the public space as “home,” a zone people became familiar with during the revolution,” she explains. “[They] felt like rediscovered and regained territory, making it a comfortable domain for artists to extend their public statements.”
As public as their statements may be, some wish they had a bit more privacy while expressing them.
“I have a problem when people stop and ask what I’m doing,” says artist Sad Panda. “I get upset by these interactions.”
The admittedly unsociable Sad Panda chose an appropriate alias that combines a nickname he acquired growing up with an adjective that describes his constant state of being.
Sad Panda was less than impressed by the local art scene and did not believe in the idea of displaying art in a gallery. So instead he turned to the street around two years ago, trading his canvas for walls.
“The main reason is that there are no limits,” he says.
He began with smaller stencils, testing them out at people’s homes to get the technique right. When Sad Panda wanted to go bigger, he would get stopped on the street by police officers asking questions and requesting to see a permit. To ease the process, Sad Panda started making stickers as they were faster to plant on the walls.
“Then it became trendy, everyone wanted to be a street artist,” says Sad Panda. “It started before the revolution even, with people going out in the middle of the night while covering their faces; it became a show.”
“So I decided to pause my work for a while until they finished their games and then [I would] go back out,” he adds.
Unfortunately, the revolution turned street art into an even bigger, more mainstream trend, forcing Sad Panda to wait a little longer. That is until he received a phone call from fellow street artists who suggested that they all retaliate against what was happening to the walls of the city by doing what they go best — going out there and painting. They were specifically upset to see the Egyptian flag colors dripping mindlessly all over walls, pavements and even trees.
“This whole flag thing became a nightmare,” exclaims Sad Panda. “What kind of message am I supposed to take from it? Should I start singing the national anthem? So we decided to go out and save whatever walls were left.”
Sad Panda went out in his neighborhood of Heliopolis and aimed to salvage what was left of Al-Thawra Street tunnel where a long, wavy flag had been drawn with a meaningless vase painted in the middle with bright, uncoordinated colors.
In retaliation against the vase that haunted his dreams, Sad Panda created a two-by-three meter-long stencil of a panda urinating on the tunnel’s wall with yellow paint dripping down from it. Needless to say, it got painted over by yet another flag.
On the other side of the tunnel, Sad Panda created another piece of different people who appear to be screaming out in revolt. That one, apparently, got the approval of the crowd as they painted around it, leaving it intact. “[They painted] a flag that was grey and white at first; apparently they ran out of red,” he says sarcastically.
Running out of red paint is not surprising as paint companies were definitely not prepared for the sudden surge in demand for the three national colors.
While Ganzeer is happy with his newfound freedom to paint all over the streets, he is also disappointed with the work that has come out of this type of freedom.
“Everyone’s doing street art,” he says. “That’s great, but some of it is so cheesy and naïve, and the thinking behind it is not critical. It just gets more people into that mindless nationalism and unnecessary happiness regarding the revolution.”
“If you’re going to take the time to go out on the street and paint, it makes sense to me for it to be critical,” he adds. “However, that’s just my opinion.”
The issue goes beyond that artist’s humble opinion. Street art has often been a collective resistance to the status quo with the most famous example of this being on the Berlin Wall.
The Western side of the wall became street artists’ canvas during the early 1980s until the wall fell in 1989. Even today, Berlin is still considered one of the cities with the most thriving street art. In the contemporary Middle East, the Gaza Wall in the West Bank became another space for expression using street art, with Banksy himself leaving his signature on the wall, the most famous being a silhouette of a little girl being lifted across the wall by balloons.
“Street art may have the reputation of being confrontational in nature and strongly associated with underground subcultures in origin, but it is an act of social and political expression,” says Samir. “Therefore, the celebratory and patriotic messages are honestly echoing the society’s romantic perception of the revolution, simply commemorating what artists perceive as a massive collective experience.”
Ganzeer agrees. “Street art is sensitive of the social situation, in which the majority of the people are being brainwashed by the media and happy with what’s going on while the minority is critical of [the current events] and keeping an eye on the political landscape,” he says.
Which is why, unfortunately for Ganzeer, one of his murals in Zamalek was vandalized as it featured a drawing of former President Mubarak, along with future presidential candidate Amr Moussa and the head of the Higher Military Council, Mohamed Hussein Tantawy.
Samir believes street art is not being censored at any official level, since there is minimal authority currently on the streets of Egypt, but it is an “informal” form of censorship.
“Some groups may have taken into their own hands the enforcement of censorship over publicly exposed [artistic] material due to their moral codes of [what’s appropriate] to public safety and civic oversight,” she says.
For now, the authorities have not interfered with street art, as well as many other things happening on the streets of Egypt, but when the police are back in full swing, is remains to be seen if they follow the same trend.
Legal Versus Illegal
While street art is considered an illegal act of vandalism in many countries, there are no laws regulating or prohibiting the art form in Egypt due to its novelty.
“I don’t think it should be illegal, and in that sense I don’t believe I should treat it as such, because then I’m allowing it to be illegal,” says Ganzeer, explaining that that’s why he goes out in the middle of the day to spray paint and constantly advertises his work through social networks. “You’re a citizen, your street belongs to you. If the government wants to do something on that street, it should go to the people in that neighborhood and ask for their permission.”
Ganzeer clarifies that the reason for withholding his real name is not out of fear of the law, but rather a way for him to differentiate between his artist persona and himself in daily life.
As for Bakry, anonymity was never quite an issue for him, as he would like to be requested by name to paint graffiti in the future. In that sense, he hopes street art does not become illegal.
“It all depends on where the country is going, what are the ideologies of the ‘New Egypt’ and if it’s still going to be based on lack of freedom and expression,” he says. “But I don’t think there will be a specific campaign against graffiti like the 1990s campaign against the alleged ‘Satan Worshipers’.”
While Ganzeer and Bakry hope for the continuity of street art in Egypt, Sad Panda remains skeptical.
“The revolution just ended a few months ago, it’s a trend right now that will probably die down in a year or year and a half,” he says, “and those who were already making street art will continue to do so; it will become more selective.”
Planning on continuing either way, Ganzeer is currently working on a street art project to draw murals of the estimated 840 martyrs who lost their lives during the January 25 Revolution, and he plans on honoring each one in the governorate they are from.
Ganzeer recalls the first martyr he drew a mural of, 16-year-old Seif Allah Mostafa, on the wall of the Supreme Court.
“A lot of people stopped to help me out, and other people were bringing paint,” he says. “I could have left and the would have finished the mural themselves.”