For Egypt's Graffiti Artists, Revolution Brings Inspiration and Uncertainty

A counter-culture arts scene is helping Egyptians make sense of the new world they live in — and their ability to make a mark on it

Art as protest, a means to express complex political and social ideas, is not a novel concept: just think of Picasso's statement on the tragedy of war in Guernica, or Banksy's murals on the West Bank barrier. But in Egypt, where the Ministry of Culture controlled all public expression, protest art was hard to find — at least until this January, when 18 days of mass revolts toppled President Mubarak's regime and unexpected freedoms flourished, including the right to make art.

Yet to tell it this way isn't entirely fair; art wasn't just a product of the burgeoning democracy. From the very beginning of the revolution, street art and artists played a significant role in the protests. On January 27, TheAtlantic.com published translations of a 26-page illustrated pamphlet being handed around Cairo. The pages explained how to protest, including how to prepare for clashes with riot police, and specifics of what protesters might do. The author was anonymous, but the design, layout, and illustrations bear a striking resemblance to the subsequent work of popular artist Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by the alias Ganzeer, or "chain" in Arabic.  When I asked if he was the person behind the pamphlet, Fahmy declined to comment, but with an emoticon wink. You can judge for yourself below.

Untitled-2.jpg

The two page spread on the left is from the protestor pamphlet. The flyer on the right was created by Ganzeer for Mad Graffiti Weekend.

Fahmy is skinny, with a halo of black curls and a wry smile. He is a private man, especially for an artist. He mostly uses his alias online, and before the revolution he appears to have been cautious about maintaining distance between it and his real identity. Tracking him down took several days: queries of domain registrations, tracking an IP address to a server host, a call to Maderia, Portugal, and endless Google searches.

His style is playful and heavily influenced by comic books, even in his more formal work completed pre-Revolution. At a show in 2010 called "Why Not," attendees were made to walk through a door decorated as the mouth of a huge face, using a wooden ramp painted as a tongue. He told the reviewers at Almasryalyoum, "With a tongue, I can do good or I can do evil. I can tell so many stories with the tongue."

In an interview over email, he told me why he rejects being labeled as a mere graffiti artist, explaining that he reacts to things in many different ways. On February 11, Fahmy began his Martyr Mural series on walls around Cairo, painting large portraits of the men and women who had been killed in the colors of the Egyptian flag. The murals were an expression of grief and an answer to the popular desire to see the martyrs commemorated publicly -- as well as a big middle finger to Mubarak's vanquished Ministry of Culture.

Like any artist who attempts to provoke, Fahmy has gotten himself in trouble. He was arrested on May 26 for pasting stickers of what he called the "Mask of Freedom," depicting a mannequin with a gas mask and text that read, "Greetings from the Supreme Council to the free youth of the nation." He was released unchastened later that day, a sign of how much things had changed, or at least of the new military leadership's disinterest in a young graffiti artist.

Presented by

Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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