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Cairo’s graffiti scene, full of populism and political satire, flourishes after the revolution

Mos'ab Elshamy
Graffiti on a wall built near Tahrir Square.
CairoPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you want to know what’s going on in Cairo, just look at the walls. Over the last two years, as clashes and political conflict were raging on the streets of Cairo, another war was being fought on Egypt’s walls with paint brushes and spray cans.

The graffiti scene barely existed prior to the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. But as the uprising and protests gained momentum, murals have become the way for artists to dare to dream for something better for their country.

Mos'ab Elshamy
A child on a bike who had come to inspect the wall was photographed by the artists and added on the final painting.

A political dance has emerged between graffiti artists and the authorities that seek to paint over the prismatic walls. The cycle has ensued for almost two years–the graffiti goes up, the authorities paint over it, then something even bolder is portrayed on top. And so it continues.

The back-and-forth between artists and the authorities has captivated many–and as a photographer, Cairo’s wall’s present rich material for me. I have been able to document the progression from the birth of modern political graffiti to the current struggle between art and regime.

Mos'ab Elshamy
An onlooker watches graffiti artists.

Though the political tones are always prominent, it is not the only theme to shine through. Cairo’s walls have played host to anti-sexual harassment graffiti and calls for gender equality. Female artists have also played a considerable role in reclaiming public spaces with stenciled icons encouraging female empowerment.

Most Egyptian graffiti artists remain anonymous but are still widely known by their nicknames like Ganzeer (which means “bicycle chain”), Keizer, and Sad Panda.

Mos'ab Elshamy
During the presidential election, graffiti which originally showed half faces of Hosni Mubarak and SCAF leader, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was modified to include faces of candidates Ahmed Shafik and Amr Moussa

Perhaps the strongest messages delivered by graffiti are those painted on walls originally meant to barricade protesters. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) walled off access to Tahrir Square in November 2011 after deadly clashes erupted and killed many civilian protesters. More than four walls were erected last year (and two last week), turning downtown Cairo into a maze. Egyptian graffiti artists arranged “No Walls Protests,” painting the barricades away with trompe l’œil murals that commemorate the dead.

The Sheikh Rihan eye-deceiving, (trompe-l’œil) mural, painted during a “No Walls Protest.”

A few months after Mohammed Morsi was sworn in as president, Cairo’s authorities moved in to erase some of the most iconic and popular graffiti on Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square. Recently, protests have started again over Morsi’s expanded authority, and the graffiti rebels rose to the occasion to redecorate Cairo. Artists took to the street and, within a few days, murals and political statements were painted afresh on the new canvases.

Mos'ab Elshamy
A graffiti artist painting graffiti on a wall near Tahrir square.

All images by Mos’ab Elshamy. Follow him on Twitter: @mosaaberizing

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