Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Graffiti & Street Art in Egypt

A cry on the walls

Jano Charbel / Special to Daily News Egypt
First Published: March 3, 2010

In contemporary Egypt, graffiti — an ancient art form involving the inscription of lettering and/or images through the etching, marking, or painting of surfaces — and street art typically take the form of hastily prepared messages of a commercial, electoral, religious or personal nature.

Elaborate street art and large murals are far less common.

Graffiti has existed as a popular art form for millennia, evidenced on the tombs and temples of Ancient Egypt. In fact, graffiti far precedes Ancient Egypt, dating back to the cavemen — approximately 30,000 BC.

In modern day Egypt, the most prevalent forms of graffiti are hand-painted, spray-painted, or stenciled onto innumerable walls across the country, including commercial advertisements for plumbers, marriage registrars, driving instructors, private tutors, and slogans in support of football teams.

Religious graffiti is also common, including depictions of pilgrimages to Mecca — with a drawing of the Kaaba, along with an airplane or ship. While the two words Uzkor Allah (mention God) are graffitied on countless walls and surfaces across the country. Personal graffiti is universal — including the painting of signatures, stylized name “tags,” amorous messages (i.e. an arrow-pierced heart between two inscribed names) along with sexually oriented graffiti written or scratched onto bathroom walls, often accompanied with telephone numbers.

In the law books of virtually every state, graffiti is closely associated with vandalism of public and/or private property. In Egypt, such acts are punishable by law according to the provisions of the criminal code.

Two graffiti artists from the opposition grouping known as the April 6 Youth, Ahmad Maher and Amr Ali, were arrested for spray painting political slogans on Feb. 17. Maher said he and Ali were spray painting — in Giza, Dokki, Agouza and Imbaba — for two nights prior to their arrest.

“We managed to paint tens of slogans onto walls in these neighborhoods and drive off. But late on Tuesday night (Feb. 16) a microbus began trailing us.”

Maher was forced to stop at a police checkpoint in the neighborhood of Zamalek.

“Policemen in civilian clothes jumped out of the microbus brandishing their pistols, and turned us over to the officers at the checkpoint,” Maher said. Maher's car, laptop, camera, along with the two youths' cell phones and spray cans were all confiscated. He added; “the prosecutors will return the car, but they said they will hold on to all our other belongings — for ongoing investigations.”

Pending further investigations and legal action, the North Giza Prosecutor ordered the release of the two activists on February 18 on a bail of LE 200 each.

“I agree that graffiti may be perceived as vandalism,” Maher argued, “However, our aim is not vandalism, but rather the posting of messages on the streets in order to raise political awareness amongst the Egyptian people. We want to express our opinions openly where everybody can see them. We're simply calling for democratic change, and supporting (former IAEA chief) Mohamed ElBaradei as a candidate for such change.”

“Graffiti can be found just about everywhere — in the form of spray painted advertisements,” he continued, “While the authorities may object to such graffiti, what they will never tolerate is graffiti with a message of opposition. All our graffiti has been painted over since our arrest.”

On the other hand, a growing number of graffiti/street artists in Cairo and Alexandria are attempting to prove through inventive visuals how street art is not vandalism. Youth from these two cities meet in Alexandria for their periodic outdoor artwork sessions.

During one of their sessions, on Dec. 25, they encountered resistance and reprimand from the police. Cairene Street Artist, Mohamed Gaber, said that a police colonel stopped them while they were painting.

Gaber was painting a clenched fist gripping a roll-brush with the Arabic stylized inscription “Be pro art.”

“The officer told us, ‘You need permits from the Ministry of Culture so that you can display these works in galleries.’” Gaber explained that “this is street art for public display,” to which the officer responded, “Finish this one and leave, or else you'll come with us where you can spend the night in our company.”

The artist added “while the officer was unconvinced, he was fairly patient and tolerant with us.”

Gaber, along with other Cairenes, has been working with a small group named Alex Street Art which organizes graffiti workshops, and takes to the streets engaging in their collective art work. Based in Alexandria, the group, a brainchild of fine arts student Aya Tarek, started off in 2008 as a graffiti-art collective known as Foq wa Taht (Above and Below) before it was remodeled and renamed as Alex Street Art last year.

“We prefer to use the term street art rather than graffiti,” Tarek said, “This is because we use a variety of art styles on the streets, including paint brushes, spray paints, stencils, stickers, posters, freehand sketches, and mixed media.” She added that Alex Street Art is “developing Arabic stylographies which are unique, and quite different from the hip-hop styles of graffiti prevalent in the West.

“Several years ago I began painting and submitting my works in art galleries, for display and for sale. However, I realized that I wasn't making any real money, and that my works were being seen by only a few people who visit these galleries.”

To increase the exposure for her paintings, Tarek decided to openly display her artistic talents on the streets of Alexandria.

“Graffiti and street art are not very popular here for a number of reasons. First of all, the materials are quite expensive. Second of all, there's only a small variety of colors, paints and spray cans to choose from,” she said.

Tarek explained that the aerosol cans available are for spray-painting cars and refrigerators, not for the artistic spray-painting of walls. “Abroad, you can find specialized graffiti art stores which sell a wide array of colors, spray cans, nozzles, stencils and brushes. This culture is generally lacking in Egypt.”

On Dec. 16, another graffiti workshop was organized by the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center hosting prominent French DJ/Graffiti Artist Missill. Located in the Cairo district of Fustat Al Gadida, Darb 1718 made use of this workshop to beautify their environs. In the adjacent neighborhood of Kom Ghorab, an area which has been turned into a garbage dump, trash was cleared out, and gray lifeless walls were decorated with colorful murals.

The Center's Director, Moataz Nasr, said “this is the first graffiti art workshop that we have organized here, and it will not be our last. We plan on organizing similar graffiti workshops in the future.”

He added, “the local residents of Kom Ghorab have welcomed this clean-up and beautification project. They are quite pleased with the new artsy look, as are we.”

A Cairene graffiti artist participating in this project referring to himself by the initials AB said, “My main problem is that I can't find the right sprays and colors to work with.” AB said he has not encountered any difficulties with police as of yet.

Squatting next to him, another artist, AS, said “personally, I've encountered problems with the police. Once they stopped me and four friends while we were working on a wall. They arrested us for a couple hours. The police officer took down our personal ID numbers and promised to lock us up if he saw us working on graffiti again.”

A few feet down the wall, Alexandrian artist, Winch, said, “I love this form of art because it involves interaction with the street, and with people on the street. For example, there is one street corner where a lot of youth do drugs. So we painted a portrait of (Egyptian Movie Star) Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, from the (drug-themed) movie ‘Al-Keif’ extending his arm out with a piece of hashish in his hand.”

Fellow Alexandrian artist Amr said, “We use these themes frequently. If there is a wall on which people usually urinate, we'll paint a urinal, or somebody taking a pee. Some people, especially the police, may consider this vandalism, but we're only making art. This art beautifies dull walls and empty spaces.”

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