Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spray-painting a revolution

It is with great joy that I present to you my first published piece of writing! Thank you Campus Magazine for the wonderful opportunity. Working on this has been so much fun!


Like any other form of art, graffiti is a means of personal expression. An outlet for one’s hopes, desires, anguish or humor to manifest themselves into alluring combinations of lines and colours. Uniquely, though, it’s an art form that is usually associated with an element of danger. Wondering about the artist’s consciousness and perception as well as the general context in which a graffiti was made adds to the piece, making us appreciate the work even more.

Historically, graffiti has been condemned as disorderly conduct, which merited considerable attention and preventative investment; an antisocial behavior that needed to be eradicated.
This was -and for the most part, still is- the case in Egypt. Little did people know, that the silent power of graffiti actually lies within its enormous ability to reach out to the community.

More than anything, it reveals what the people are suffering from or need to express the most. Whether it is an “Ahmed loves Salwa”, or the dissing of a prominent political figure, it exposes a few clues about a city’s soul.
Moreover, it possesses the capability of making the community itself more aware about certain topics by presenting them to the public, such as advertisement banners attempting to convince us of the greatness of consumerism, for example.

Needless to say, it takes more for what some might consider mere scribbles to become powerful messages that actually affect the observer.The more creative the implementation and the more important the message is, the bigger impact it would have on its audience. That, among a number of other issues that are beyond the scope of this article, is why drawing any politically oriented graffiti in Egypt has been banned for as long as any of us could remember.

It’s always been a very common sight over here, to see painted advertisements on the walls of empty blocks of land, or on the sides of old buildings, for nurseries, plumbing services, or marriage conductors (ma’azouns). What we rarely saw up until the revolution started though, were graffiti against the government, on high profile people, or for the betterment of social values.

This wasn’t due to a lack of interest in such issues, however. Rather, there have always been tough restraints concerning expressing one’s opinions regarding “sensitive” topics. Artists often underwent harassment doled out by the police, which sometimes amounted to personal threats if they were to draw anything to criticise the system, or anyone responsible for it. Citizens would also mock such attempts at artistry, deeming them useless and serving no purpose. And according to the law, it falls under vandalizing public property.

Graffiti was an inhibited form of expression. Graffiti artists, a rare breed.

The Egyptian populace mostly prefer visual forms of presentation to literary ones, as Mohamed Gaber, a prominent Egyptian visual artist, told us.

He has been working on his “Graffiti Against the System” project since 2007, hoping it would instigate unrest among the people against the tyranny of the government, the corruption which goes unnoticed and giving a louder voice to the desperate cries of the oppressed that usually fall on deaf ears.

His “Be With the Revolution” icon was one that possessed very significant presence during our revolution, and was passed on to sister countries for their own uprisings.
He remembers a time, a few years back, when he was painting an older version of this icon, “Be With the Art”, on a wall in Alexandria and received cynical feedback from a police officer. He was told to take his art somewhere where people wore suits, that the people on the street would rather watch a belly-dancer and that there was no such thing as street art.

The days went by, the revolution took place, and there seemed to have been an explosion of a long inhibited talent on the Egyptian streets, especially downtown. It was as if the people were on the edge of their seats, waiting for any chance to let their creativity run wild.

Mohamed remembers that police officer today and smiles, thinking of how the people had proven him wrong.

The revolution managed to play a massive role in encouraging graffiti, and altering the community’s perspective of it. People are now inclined to express themselves more often and through any means available to them. Schakels on our freedom of expression have been broken. Fear, a monster overcome.

The most interesting graffiti were the ones found downtown; the ones made by the people who were at Tahrir square, at the heart of it all.

The people there weren’t feeling comfortable, safe, or tranquil when they drew them. For days on end, they were protesting, screaming their lungs out, eating, sleeping, cheering, crying, erecting tents, protecting their grounds and dying in the square. Their graffiti, more than anything else, was genuine and full of heart. Most importantly, their graffiti truly exhibited the emotional roller-coaster the whole nation was experiencing. It documented history.

Mohamed, as well as Ahmed Saad, a graffiti enthusiast of over four years, both agree that the expunging of the graffiti done at Tahrir was a crime. It was, in a matter of speaking, deliberately erasing the blood, sweat and tears that went into this revolution. This art should have been preserved and revered. A museum in Germany was established especially for sheltering parts of the Berlin wall. Some of Banksy’s work, a famous English graffiti artist, are treasured and kept safe, surrounded by glass frames. Our art should not have received any less respect.

The future of graffiti in Egypt is something to be optimistic and excited about, though. As people realize that freedom of expression is one of life’s most essential and god-given rights, more and more graffiti artists are starting to surface. It won’t be as easy to suppress them, or control them with fear anymore. They have been set free, and it is that freedom that is expected to give birth to a lot more talents than we can possibly imagine.

What is important at this stage, is advocating awareness about graffiti and its importance, convincing people that its not merely a disease or vandalism that needs to be quashed out. Also, it should be noted that teamwork is essential; artists with prior experience and knowledge lending a helping hand to the aspiring ones, teaching them techniques and tricks of the trade. That way, such artists would always be able to express their ideas in powerful, effective and beautiful means, that would stay in our hearts and minds no matter how wildly the social or political maps of our country morph.

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