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GREAT GRAFFITI

The Cairo wall scrawl

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846 killed, 6, 000 injured. It's been over two years since pro-democracy protests erupted in Egypt on January 25, 2011. The Hosni Mubarak-led government attempted, somewhat successfully, to eliminate access to the Internet in order to inhibit the protesters' ability to organise through social media. But the web was not the only space where the revolutionaries voiced their dissent. The walls of Egypt were hardly quiet during those tumultuous days.

The role of the social media in the Arab Spring is a well-documented fact, the role of graffiti less so. But Mia Grondahl, a Swedish journalist based in Cairo, makes a case for the prominent street art found in many lanes of Egypt. "Not everyone in Egypt has an account on Facebook, access to the Internet, or can read, " she says. "But almost everyone has walked through Mohamed Mahmoud Street. It is like walking through an open art gallery. It's a gift by the Egyptian artists to their county. "

Ever since the revolution, Mohamed Mahmoud Street - one of Cairo's main arteries leading from the Interior Ministry into Tahrir Square - has been plastered with slogans of social unrest. "The Egyptian state media lied from day one of the revolution, " says Grondahl, whose book Tahrir Square: The Heart of the Egyptian Revolution (2011) documents the catalysing role of street art. "They didn't take responsibility during the revolution and were forced to tweak their reporting. The people are sore with the state media. They don't trust them and graffiti has filled this vacuum. "

One of the major influences for young Egyptian graffiti artists was the modern godfather of graffiti, the anonymous British artist Banksy. Banksy has said that graffiti is only "dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place". "Graffiti has won us freedoms we had never dreamed of before, " said Mohammed Hashem, a prominent publisher, in an interview to a local daily. Hashem, whose office in downtown Cairo was a frequent meeting place for leftist revolutionaries, stated, "It has been the strongest voice of the revolution. "

Ironically, graffiti has also broken into an Egyptian art world long dominated by elites who leaned towards traditional landscapes or abstract art. In a first, renowned Egyptian artist Ganzeer adapted his graffiti work to traditional tools - oil on canvas, wood or watercolour - and took it to a gallery in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. He called the show The Virus Is Spreading, a name he chose to suggest the evolution of graffiti from being a street art to a genre that could win acceptance and respect.

Popular Egyptian blogger Soraya Morayef explains the phenomenon as something that started out as a new art form heavily influenced by western graffiti, but which has since developed a more local style, weaving in Arabic calligraphy and Egyptian pop culture icons. For instance, she says, "A quote by Nietzsche is stencilled in Arabic next to the smiling face of Mohamed Reda, a popular singer and actor, symbolising the fusion of past and present, western literature with Arabic cinema, in this evolving, raw and vibrant street art. "

In her award-winning blog, suzeeinthecity, Soraya says of the art form, "Most of the graffiti I have documented are intrinsically connected to the ebb and flow of political currents in Egypt. I like to think that you can read my country's recent history through graffiti, tracing back the chronology of protests, triumphs and failures, deaths and celebrations. " In fact, walking through Cairo's streets one can see that the walls are covered in so many layers of graffiti and posters, grime and fumes, that as suzeeinthecity puts it, "studying the layers is like reading a book on everything these walls have witnessed".

Due to graffiti's anti-establishment nature, most artists don't use their real names for fear of persecution. NeMo, a street artist, explains how he goes about drawing under the cloak of darkness. "At night I go to a quiet street where I mean to draw and measure the dimensions of the mural, " he says. "Then I go home, finish off the painting either on the computer, or draw images on paper depending on the size of the wall. "

Drawing graffiti is generally a solitary activity, but most graffiti artists need a little help from their friends while they are busy with their art. "I head back to the chosen wall generally around midnight, with some friends who guard either end of the street, " says NeMo. The entire process ends at the break of dawn.

Sometimes artists are not that lucky. Like Ganzeer, who was arrested after he was reported for distributing stickers depicting the Mask of Freedom image that depicts "a mannequin's torso with a head sheathed in a gas mask". The accompanying caption read, 'Greetings from the Supreme Council to the free youth of the nation'.

Despite the fall of Mubarak, 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 arrest. The new Egyptian government is playing a catand-mouse game with this new form of protest. On the one hand, it has launched a crackdown on street art, on the other Prime Minister Hisham Qandil condemned the whitewash of Mohamed Mahmoud Street in September 2012. This encouraged street artists to produce new graffiti on Tahrir Square "true to the spirit of the revolution".

The response to the whitewash was almost immediate. "If you change your trousers without having a wash, you get a rash" was scrawled on a wall in Talaat Harb Street. On Mohamed Mahmoud Street itself, there was a face poking out a defiant tongue, saying: 'Erase it again, you cowardly regime'.

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