Though street art has existed in Egypt for several years, if not decades now, it was the revolution of January 25, 2011 that sparked a sudden and irrepressible tide of graffiti on the streets of Cairo. The birth of revolutionary graffiti in Cairo took place during the first days of the revolution, where Egyptian protesters would freehand messages on walls to leave their mark and relay their opposition to the Egyptian regime. Others began designing, cutting and making stencils that they would take with them onto the streets, creating graffiti during, and sometimes ahead of, the protests.
As the sit-in demonstrations in Tahrir square began to take own their own shape, turning into a microcosm of a united community, graffiti artists began to assume their own artistic identities – creating personas that matched their political messages, refining their own styles and choosing their hunting grounds. Some continued to work during protests or make graffiti to serve the revolutionary cause. Others went on to create their own non-political graffiti, tapping into Egyptian pop culture like the artists Charles Akl and Amr Gamal, or to talk about social stigmas like Kareem Gouda, who made graffiti about street children, or Hend Kheera, who launched a graffiti campaign against sexual harassment.
More than a year later, it’s hard to separate the graffiti community from the Egyptian revolution and all the political events that have unfolded since; and it is equally difficult to tell the story of graffiti in succinct sentences: groups united, artists collaborated, and other artists attacked each other in words and graffiti. Exhibitions were held, photographs displayed, t-shirts sold, and gradually Cairo’s graffiti imprinted itself on the city’s pop culture, embedding itself in the street’s sub-conscience.
Today, it is rare to see a wall in Cairo untouched by graffiti in some form or other, but it’s also just as rare to see an official institution condoning and protecting the graffiti on its walls, which is the case of the American University in Cairo, whose Main Campus on Mohamed Mahmoud Street is home to perhaps the most magnificent open memorial mural made yet in Cairo. The Mohamed Mahmoud mural was made by Alaa Awad and Ammar Abo Bakr, both of whom teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Luxor. The mural commemorated the deaths of 75 young men who died in a football stampede at Port Said. Awad and Abo Bakr worked on the mural with several friends for over 21 days. Eventually, the AUC succumbed to an internal petition by its faculty, staff, and students to preserve the wall.
There’s nothing an ambitious artist likes more than a virgin, untouched, and unguarded wall
Today, the streets of Cairo remain tense but the artists have become more audacious; increasingly making graffiti in broad daylight and in populated areas, unperturbed by hostile onlookers or the risk of getting arrested. There’s a confidence that has been gained over months of running, arguing, painting quickly and holding guard. There’s also a confidence that street art cannot be controlled or stopped by authorities, and that it should be embraced by the masses.
Cairo’s street artists today are being sought after by art galleries, cultural institutes, international art exhibitions, advertising companies and many more. Some have gone on to create art for magazine covers, others have exhibited in Europe, and others have seen their stencils recreated on t-shirts that are worn by the young revolutionary segment of Egyptian society.
All this was hardly imaginable one year ago, when many graffiti artists assumed that this sudden trend, the sudden interest in street art would eventually subside; like any other short-term pop culture phenomenon. But Cairo graffiti prevails, because of the diversity of the artist community and the reach of their network, communicating and exchanging stencil designs online with hundreds of other artists around the country. Perhaps it has also prevailed because the political unrest continues, because the streets remain uncontrolled – and there’s nothing an ambitious artist likes more than a virgin, untouched, and unguarded wall.
Soraya Morayef is a writer and freelance journalist based in Cairo. Her blog suzeeinthecity provides insight into the burgeoning graffiti scene in Cairo.
All images copyright suzeeinthecity