Folk: Graffiti, Egyptian-style

Amira Noshokaty , Friday 16 Sep 2011

Like graffiti everywhere, graffiti in Egypt - especially after the revolution - expresses something unique about society

Graffiti, Egyptian Style
Graffiti, Egyptian Style

Stencils of martyrs, slogans or artistic representations decorate countless walls, coupled with political slogans and witty comments, the January revolution being the main theme of Egyptian graffiti.

“This is my favourite one," says a street vendor pointing to a mural on the outside of the Fine Arts University in Zamalek. He is one many to comment on the graffiti explosion that hit Cairo following the January revolution in "On the Wall," a short documentary by Osama El-Wardani.

City graffiti dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and there is also ancient Egyptian graffiti. Until now, traditional Nubian houses are decorated with graffiti. Meawnhile, in celebration of the hajj, or religious pilgrimage, any pilgrim’s house in Upper Egypt is decorated with vivid images of the shrine in Mecca, angels and holy Islamic figures, as well as scenes of social celebration. Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 80s, commercial graffiti of sorts covered the sides of residential buildings in the form of vast hand-painted advertisements.

Graffiti during and after the January 25 Revolution has a different meaning, however. "I remember that before the revolution, when we tried to write political graffiti we would do so in groups of three: two to do the graffiti and the third to watch out for the police," says art student Omar Hisham. Prior to the revolution, graffiti was used by members of the 6 April Movement to convey political messages. Nonetheless, it was somewhat rare.

Suspected graffiti artists faced a lot of pressure from the security services. Graffiti, unlike banners or posters, cannot easily be taken down, notes Hisham. "A few years ago, graffiti also flourished among football supporters," Hisham says, who adds that supporters even made deals with each other that they would not touch the other team's graffiti.

Like graffiti everywhere, Egyptian graffiti is original, incorporating images and quotations from famous films and plays in order to affect the political status quo. Mostly created by stencil, it is easy to spot legendary singer Um Kolthoum in such graffiti, which includes famous lyrics from her songs, such as "lel sabr hodoud" (patience has its limits). Cinema icons like Soad Hosni and Hend Rostom also appear in such graffiti, as well as quotes like, "I will go down on 8 July," and "Souna ya khayen" (Souna, you traitor), which are intended as comments on the former regime.

There is no graffiti without meaning, Hisham claims. There is always a political or social statement behind true graffiti, he adds, saying that he and his friends generally pick smooth plain walls or garage doors and ask permission from the owners first. "If it's a public space, or just a wall owned by no one, then we just clean it up and paint on it," he says.

Graffiti techniques are numerous, including stencils, and use of spray and acrylic paints. Some of these take more time and effort than others to erase, buying them more exposure time on the street.

After the revolution had begun, graffiti in multiple colours started to dominate street walls, opening the door to more political graffiti.

In the West, graffiti has flourished in various forms from the 1960s to the present day. Unlike in Egypt, it is often linked to developments in popular music or culture, and there has been much debate about whether graffiti is vandalism or a form of art.

However, in the popular Cairo district of Faggala, graffiti reflects a rich social dialogue between inhabitants and artists. “Street Atelier” is the graffiti workshop held there, organised by Al-Nahda Centre for Cultural and Scientific Renaissance, one of many art projects designed to help the district's inhabitants tell their stories.

The idea is to connect the local community with professionals working in the artistic and cultural scene. "I loved the idea of painting in the streets where everybody could see it, beyond the limitations of a gallery," art student and graffiti artist Mohamed Ismail explained to Ahram Online.

The Faggala graffiti workshop is unique, Ismail says, because it "takes graffiti to another level, as a means of connection between Faggala inhabitants and artists. We hear stories from residents, and from these we gain inspiration for graffiti."

Since last October, artists working on the programme have painted the shutters of shops after consulting with their owners. Strolling down the narrow streets of Faggala, it is possible to come across vivid graffiti written across a garage, for example, with the name Amm Othman written on it. In front of the wall is Amm Othman himself, the owner of the garage, sitting in a wooden chair and smiling.

Graffiti is usually done as team work, and it takes an average of two to three days to complete if it is painted and is not stenciled. "During the revolution, we'd paint revolutionary icons and slogans and then we'd write slogans connected with Faggala itself," Ismail added.

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