Egyptians Participate in, Examine the Revolution Through Rise of Graffiti


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CAIRO, EGYPT – Sad Panda, who prefers not to give his real name, is a graffiti artist in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. He says that he started drawing before the revolution began in January 2011, but his work is much more recognized today as graffiti has spread throughout Egypt in the months since.

Many of Sad Panda’s works carry a political message, although he stresses that his graffiti has nothing to do with politics.

“It’s not about politics,” he says. “There is no cause. Everything is pointless.”

But he admits his frustration with the political situation in Egypt has influenced his art.

“The situation in Egypt is very sad right now, and I draw what makes me sad,” he says.

Sad Panda does not draw for a commercial audience in a gallery. Rather, his canvases are walls as he draws in the streets for the general public.

“I draw to express my sadness and frustration,” he says. “Everything makes me sad, so I decided to show it through graffiti.”

In the months since the revolution here, he says the sad panda image, his trademark that he uses to sign his work, has grown even beyond him. Many people have begun to incorporate it into their graffiti.

“The idea of the sad panda lies in the feeling itself, not who is behind it,” he says. “Many people sprayed that sad panda, and when they did, they helped spread the feeling.”

A part of a formerly underground culture that has come to the fore since the revolution, Sad Panda is one of many Egyptian graffiti artists whose work easily catches the eyes of passersby in the streets of Cairo.

Earlier this year, the world watched the extensive coverage of Egypt’s revolution. But passionate youth here continue to comment on and examine the revolution and its aftermath though a unique lens – graffiti. Although graffiti existed in Egypt before the January revolution, it has become more prominent during and since. The explosion of graffiti here has ignited debate about whether it qualifies as art or vandalism.

Egyptians took to the streets on Jan. 25, 2011, demanding the overthrow of the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After 18 days, Mubarak stepped down, turning power over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF. Today, some parties are concerned that the transition of power from SCAF to an elected civilian authority is taking longer than expected.

Although many graffiti artists here may not be known by name and their creations may not be easily linked together, there have been a number of projects launched since the revolution, when graffiti became more popular, to bring the artists and their work to the publics attention.

A Facebook page titled “Revolution Graffiti” was launched to gather all revolution graffiti images in one place, attracting nearly 2,500 devoted fans who continue to post hundreds of photographs that document the street art.

Suzeeinthecity, a blogger from Cairo who declined to give her real name, now documents and shares local graffiti. She says that she always has been interested in graffiti and hoped that Cairo would one day have the same beautiful street art as can be found in other cities around the world.

“Why not?” she asks. “Egypt’s pharaohs were probably one of the first civilizations to write and draw on walls.”

She says that there was an underground graffiti scene in Cairo before the January revolution, but it was harder for her to get in touch with the artists and even harder to photograph their work. When more graffiti began to appear around Cairo during and after the revolution, the artists and their work became more accessible and she started taking photographs.

“Not only because I loved the art,” she says, “but also because I felt someone needed to document and archive these graffiti works before they were painted over and removed.”

Suzeeinthecity created a blog to put all her photographs on one page. It started out as a hobby and then became a project that she has committed weekends and evenings to for the past six months.

Khouloud Said, a civil society activist in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, says that she also had an ambitious project in mind to document the graffiti and other words that were written on walls here during the 18 days and then to analyze them. But she says that the waves of artificial cleanness and renovation that overtook the country after Feb. 11, when Mubarak stepped down, ended that.

“Fortunately, many of these were preserved through photography, and I am glad they are,” she says.

Suzeeinthecity says she believes that graffiti artists draw because they have something to say to the city and the rest of the community. In Egypt, it is most frequently associated with protests and political statements. Still, she says that it’s not possible to generalize the graffiti scene or the artists in Egypt and box them into one category.

“The graffiti scene in Egypt is multifaceted and complex,” she says. “There are many different types of artists. Some prefer to stay underground, while others are embracing the increasing media attention as an opportunity to talk about their art and gain new opportunities in terms of work and exposure.”

She stresses that the graffiti scene in Egypt did not start because of or during the revolution.

“The street art scene has existed for several years but was never given any media attention and didn’t last long because many art pieces were instantly removed and artists worked inconspicuously and undercover,” she says.

The increased exposure that graffiti here has received since the revolution has launched the age-old debate of whether the drawings are art or vandalism.

Last month, Suzeeinthecity organized an exhibition in Cairo titled “This Is Not Graffiti.” She says the exhibition aimed to bring graffiti artists and their fans into an art gallery space and see how they would react to the artificial atmosphere off the streets.

“I also wanted to see how the art gallery would react in dealing with artists that don’t follow rules, deadlines or any form of restriction,” she says. “They are two juxtaposed worlds, and I don’t necessarily think that art exhibitions can capture the same spirit that the streets do with these artists.”

Judging by the reactions she has seen while documenting graffiti and the feedback on her blog and artists’ blogs, she says that the Egyptian society is torn between fascination for this burgeoning art form and wariness of it.

“Is it art or is it vandalism?” she asks. “That probably depends on if it’s your property being vandalized. You may not look at it too fondly then. But as a spectator, all you need is an appreciation for art to enjoy graffiti, and you don’t need to be educated or well-read on art and graffiti to like it. That’s what I like about graffiti.”

She says there are no strict laws regarding graffiti here.

“There’s no explicit law equating graffiti with vandalism and illegalizing it,” she says. “There is also no harsh penalization. You might have to pay 50 [pounds EGP ($8.40 USD)] and be forced to paint the wall you just vandalized, but that’s pretty much it.”

In Alexandria, graffiti is less political, and most of the works have an aesthetic side. Although, not everyone agrees.

Shereen Elsayed, a teacher in Alexandria, says that graffiti cant be classified as art.

“Art works belong to galleries,” she says. “Graffiti is just writings on the wall. It gives the impression of chaos and is forced on the public.”

But Rasha Omar, a freelance graphic designer and painter in Alexandria, disagrees. Omar says that graffiti is definitely art, just not the kind of art taught in fine art schools.

“Any drawing on a surface can be classified as art,” she says. “Only its aesthetic value is what is relative, depending on how it is perceived.”

She says that graffiti is the unspoken words of the revolution. But she does say that this tool can fall into the wrong hands, as not everyone is qualified to create it.

“Some people are just not qualified to draw on the walls,” she says. “They produce unattractive works, especially when the artwork cannot convey the message behind it.”

Said agrees. She says that while many of these drawings are truly art by all means, some are just jotted sentences on walls, and others are failed attempts.

But she says that graffiti artists are not vandals because graffiti merely reflects sentiments that are already present in society.

“But we have to remember that this is just the reflection of the people, for art is the reflection of society,” she says. “If it is vandalism, then probably there is someone else to blame rather than the artist.”

One thing that threatens the existence of graffiti is the possibility of it being sabotaged or erased.

But Said says she doesn’t think that these actions reflect society’s attitude toward graffiti. She thinks that people in Egypt generally perceive graffiti pretty well.

“Some of the works are really very well-appreciated,” she says. “We also have to bear in mind that many of these works are rebellious and shocking, especially for people who prefer security to prosperity.”

She says that graffiti is a means of self-expression, just like Facebook or Twitter.

“From another perspective, graffiti reflects how the people themselves felt after the fall of the regime, that the public sphere was theirs – something they never were allowed to sense before the revolution,” she says.   

She says that graffiti is not only art but also the one art that best reflects the revolution, since it is revolutionary by nature.

“It doesn’t abide by any of the ‘traditional’ art regulations, nor the social or cultural ones,” she says.

She says it’s also better than what typically covers walls, buildings and other public spaces here.

“Walls have never been empty anyway,” she says. “They were always used for advertisements, and during election times there were ‘wall battles.’ Graffiti is, to say the least, better than names of candidates and their silly slogans.”