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Writing on the wall
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 09 - 2011

Amira El-Noshokaty roams the streets of the capital in search of graffiti
"I remember that before the 25 January Revolution, when we tried to write political graffiti we would do so in groups of three, two to do the graffiti and the third to watch out for the police," says art student Omar Hisham.
However, since the revolution such methods have not been necessary, and graffiti has flourished in the streets of Cairo. Stencils of martyrs, slogans or artistic representations decorate countless walls, coupled with political slogans and witty comments.
Graffiti covers images or lettering scratched, painted or inscribed on walls in any shape or form. The idea is hardly novel, since graffiti dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and there is also ancient Egyptian graffiti. Not so long ago, traditional Nubian houses were also decorated with graffiti. Upper Egyptians decorate their houses with images of the shrine in Mecca and an airplane often appearing on traditional houses as a sign that their owners had returned from pilgrimage.
In the 1970s and 80s, commercial graffiti covered the sides of residential buildings with hand-painted advertisements. "A few years ago, graffiti also flourished among football supporters," Hisham says, who adds that supporters even made deals with each other that they would not touch the other team's graffiti.
However, graffiti has only really started to flourish since the revolution, with the streets around the Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek, for example, bearing all the signs of post-revolutionary graffiti.
Egyptian graffiti is original in that it incorporates images and quotations from famous films and plays in order to affect the political status quo.
Mostly created by stencils, it is easy to spot legendary singer Umm Kolthoum in such graffiti, which includes famous lyrics from her songs, such as "lel sabr hodoud" (patience has its limits). Cinema icons like Soad Hosni and Hend Rostom also appear in such graffiti, as well as quotes like, "I will go down on 8 July", and "Souna ya khayen" (Souna, you traitor), which are intended as comments on the former regime.
Prior to the revolution, graffiti was used by members of the 6 April Movement to convey political messages. Graffiti artists commonly faced a lot of pressures from the security services, since graffiti, unlike banners or posters, could not easily be taken down.
Another phenomenon has been commercial graffiti, where big companies commission young graffiti artists to paint murals including their logos in summer resorts on the North Coast.
There is no graffiti that has no meaning, Hisham claims. There is always a political or social statement behind true graffiti, he adds, saying that he and his friends generally pick smooth plain walls or garage doors and ask permission from the owners first. "If it's a public space, or just a wall owned by no one, then we just clean it up and paint on it," he says.
Graffiti techniques are numerous, including stencils, spray and acrylic paints. Some of these take more time and effort than others to erase, buying them more exposure time on the street. After the revolution had begun, graffiti in multiple colours started to dominate street walls, opening the door to more political graffiti.
In the West, graffiti has flourished in various forms from the 1960s to the present day. Unlike in Egypt, it is often linked to developments in popular music, and there have been many debates about whether graffiti is vandalism or whether it is a form of art.
In the popular Cairo district of Faggala, graffiti has also taken on the form of art at the graffiti workshop organised by the Al-Nahda Centre for Cultural and Scientific Renaissance, one of many art projects designed to help the district's inhabitants tell their stories organised by this NGO.
The idea is to connect the local community with professionals working in the artistic and cultural scene. "I loved the idea of painting in the streets where everybody could see it beyond the limitations of a gallery," art student and graffiti artist Mohamed Ismail explained to Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Faggala graffiti workshop is unique, Ismail says, because it "takes graffiti to another level as a means of connection between Faggala inhabitants and artists. We hear stories from residents, and from these we gain inspiration for graffiti."
Since last October, artists working on the programme have painted the shutters of shops after consulting with their owners. Strolling down the narrow streets of Faggala, it is possible to come across vivid graffiti written across a garage, for example, with the name Amm Othman written on it. In front of the wall is Amm Othman himself, the owner of the garage, sitting in a wooden chair and smiling.
Graffiti is usually done as team work, and it takes an average of two to three days to complete if it is painted and is not stenciled. "During the revolution, we'd paint revolutionary icons and slogans and then we'd write slogans connected with Faggala itself," Ismail added.

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