Walk down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off the square, and you will find yourself in the aftermath of a warzone. The carcass of a burnt out car lies casually on a pavement strewn with garbage; an elementary school’s walls are filled with shrapnel and burn marks.
Shops have shut down, residents have relocated, and the air is pregnant with a heavy silence and the memory of the past years’ bloody riots where many died and many others were injured. On one wall, a hand-painted sign reads “The street of the martyrs’ eyes”; a homage to the countless injuries and fatalities suffered here. Amidst this all, what is remarkable is the graffiti on walls; a chaotic blend of dirt, grime, shrapnel, and color. Faces of martyrs and fighters call out to passers-by, their names marked next to lewd scribbles, poems, and protest slogans. A large pink army camouflage spreads across the longest wall, on one sided carrying the face of a crying man eating a piece of bread, on the other a martyr with an eye-patch staring at you defiantly.
It is hard to imagine that exactly three years ago, none of this existed; that street art had barely surfaced in Egypt besides the odd wall here and there. In 2011, Cairo’s walls were still dirty and ugly, but there was no free art, no chaos, no unbridled creativity.
Mohamed Mahmoud Street was a bustling hub of school kids and students of the American University in Cairo (AUC). Pavements were filled with kiosks and cafés, the air filled with the scent of shisha and the horns of restless cars waiting for a parking spot.
Any attempt at creative or political expression was confined within walls. Outside, you could sense a restlessness in the air, a fear that the city was about to self-combust. For better or worse, things were about to change.
Fast-forward to February 2012. The night a football stampede leaves at least 75 young men dead, a small group of artists led by Ammar Abo Bakr begin to paint the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud.
The artists paint through the riots that continue for days; through gunfire and tear gas, they keep working day and night. Within days, the group has grown to more than 30 artists. After 51 days of painting, the massive mural is complete. The 30-meter wall carries colorful paintings of martyrs in angel wings, peasant women carrying gas tanks on their heads, and pharaonic battle scenes. The artists have channeled their anger, grief, and frustration into a space bursting with color, narrative, and imagination.
It is unprecedented in Egypt that artists can freely make graffiti in broad daylight for so long without arrest or assault. And what happens next is also extraordinary.
So powerful are the images that people flock to the wall on a daily basis for the next year, making a pilgrimage of sorts where families and friends of the dead leave wreaths and framed portraits on the wall. One man comes every day to sweep the same spot in front of a particular martyr. Photographers and filmmakers surround the artists, street peddlers and the neighborhood’s kids help with the painting, and a community develops.
Then, a petition by alumni and faculty pressures the AUC into protecting the graffiti. Begrudgingly, the institution consents and for nine months, its security guards prevent municipal workers from defacing the graffiti. It is unheard of that an official institution would condone the vandalism of its own property in Egypt, but the AUC goes one step further by inviting the artists to give a talk on their work.
In March 2012, the military blocks off all side streets to Mohamed Mahmoud, erecting massive concrete blockades that paralyze traffic and separate neighbors. This time, the artists paint beautiful trompe l’oeils on the blockades, challenging the walls’ oppression and creating an illusion of space and freedom for the neighborhood. Their murals restore hope in a desolate area worn out by frequent violence.
With so many streets shut off and traffic diverted, Mohamed Mahmoud is transformed into a cul-de-sac where people walk slowly up and down, taking in each mural as they would in a museum, and often stopping to read the slogans or to pose for photos in front of their favorite paintings.
The street becomes an open, living museum; one where graffiti appears whenever a wall is painted over. The fact that the martyrs are depicted so grandly makes it impossible for anyone to touch the murals without experiencing public wrath. Graffiti in Cairo has gained immense power.
It is September 2012. The street is filled with angry artists and activists, painting furiously over the barely dried paint of the AUC’s wall. The night before, municipal workers were sent to deface the now-sacred street art, protected from the expected backlash by two trucks of armed soldiers.
Clashes ensue and new layers of angry, lewd graffiti appear over the following days. The news is reported in the papers and TV hosts interview the artists on air, allowing them to criticize the government. Public outrage is so rife that Prime Minister Hisham Kandil is forced to apologize to the graffiti artists on TV, denying his involvement in the murals’ defacement. The state is humbled into acknowledging a group of artists it has tried to disparage, arrest, and disenfranchise. This is a turning point in graffiti history – and not just for Egypt alone.
It is June 2013. Millions fill the street in support of the Egyptian military. The dramatic change in political tides – from a revolution to the military to a Muslim Brotherhood president and back to the military – has left many artists demoralized and disenchanted. Public support for the artists has waned and several are assaulted when they attempt to make anti-military graffiti.
A few streets from Mohamed Mahmoud, the artist Abo Bakr, fellow artist Ganzeer, and several others create a mural of Arabic calligraphy with the face an Egyptian woman, a monkey with a gas mask, a pharaonic bird god, and a cat smoking a cigarette. It is a strange and eclectic representation of the Egyptian identity and a refreshing change from protest art and politics.
December 2013. A few days before the New Year, an exhibition opens in a decrepit building close to Tahrir Square. Ganzeer’s game machine stands in a corner next to Ahmed Hefnawi’s fridge with tear gas canisters. The floor is covered in tear gas smoke made from cotton buds while miniature replicas of the Mohamed Mahmoud graffiti by Hani Rashed are spread throughout the rooms.
Graffiti of bare legs dangle from the ceiling with the Egyptian police logo on their crotches and in one corner Ammar has painted a larger-than- life mural of Gamal Mubarak, scion of the former president deposed in 2011.
There is a defiance and resilience to the exhibition’s work, one strikingly similar to the sentiment of the 50-day mural. It feels like a museum of the relics of the revolution, but the vivacity and versatility of the art gives hope to the future of public art in Egypt. Ammar may have moved indoors, but he hasn’t relinquished his ties to the street: At the door, he welcomes guests with a thick marker, urging them to write whatever they want on the walls. The results include a few Fuck You’s directed at the artist himself.
Today, Cairo’s walls are covered in so much graffiti and grime that it is hard to appreciate it the way we once could in Mohamed Mahmoud. People are tired of politics and change; many reminisce about the Mubarak days as better times and the streets no longer welcome those who think differently.
It is hard to imagine that this fantastic art is only three years old, that such vibrant creative expression was stifled for decades until January 25th. The city’s landscape is now inconceivable without street art: Just as dust and dirt, car horns and cat calls make up the fabric of Cairo, so does graffiti.
Text and all images: Soraya Morayef