That quickly changed. As the number of people in Cairo’s streets grew, so did the number of artists taking their expression straight to the city’s walls.
“As soon as the revolution broke out, street art and graffiti kind of exploded along with it,” a well-known Egyptian artist who works under the pseudonym of Ganzeer told VICE News. “By the end of the year, so many people were doing it. It started being everywhere, and it was very politically motivated.”
'Street art is not just art, it’s like the newspaper of the revolution... In time of revolution, it’s the walls that are talking.
Satirical caricatures, portraits of slain protesters, tanks, and flowers filled the walls of the city “organically,” he added, “kind of the same way the revolution was never planned by anyone.”
“When the revolution started, I just went to the street, to put my experience into the street,” Ammar Abo Bakr, another popular Egyptian street artist behind some of the most iconic images of the Tahrir revolution, told VICE News. “I believe only in revolution, not politics. The meaning of revolution for me is the street.”
Artists who took to the walls of the city and activists who turned into street artists overnight became a sort of vanguard for the movement itself.
They were some of the first, for instance, to call the military out on its contradictory support for the revolution, and almost simultaneous crackdown on protesters.
“Within the first months of ousting Mubarak, there were thousands of people in jail for protesting,” said Ganzeer, who himself was arrested during the protests. “The street artists were the first ones to bring this to light.”
Fast forward three years and Egypt has seen another president — Mohamed Morsi — overthrown, countless more protests, and yet another wave of repression against political dissent at the hands of the Egyptian army.
The latest crackdown has swept up students, journalists, and ordinary Egyptians, in addition to the real or alleged members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood the military has claimed it is targeting.
It has also sent some street artists underground, while forcing others to go to great lengths to protect themselves while working.
'Who the hell has the guts to do something like this?'
“These days any protesters are associated to the Muslim Brotherhood, even if they are not, and they’re called terrorists, and with that label the police have cracked down has hard as they want on any form of dissent,” said Ganzeer, who opposed the Morsi regime but like many activists is even more critical of the military rule imposed by army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Nobody was really happy with the Brotherhood, but now those that are not very happy with the idea of a military government are getting cracked down on just as hard as Brotherhood supporters.”
Sisi’s announcement, in March, that he is stepping down as head of the military to run for president, sparked violent protests across Egypt.
But the announcement has also reignited the spirit of street artists and more generic graffiti “taggers,” who have sprayed the streets of Cairo with the ubiquitous “Sisi is a killer,” "Sisi war crimes," and “vote for the pimp” — catchphrases that have simultaneously grown popular on social media.
The video below shows some street artists at work.
Regime censors have been dispatched to the streets to quickly erase the insults, but the slurs hurled against Sisi have multiplied so quickly that the government has had little time to bother to erase more “subtle” street art.
Still, artists are facing increased pressure. A recent law, for instance, criminalized "abusive" graffiti, punishing culprits with prison sentences of up to four years or fines of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($14,516).
But the pressure won't intimidate them into stopping, artists say.
“Street art is not just art, it’s like the newspaper of the revolution. When you don’t have newspapers, you don’t have TV channels, you will go write the news and the truth on the wall,” said Abo Bakr, referring to what many Egyptians complain is a mainstream media complicit with the regime. “In time of revolution, it’s the walls that are talking, not the media.”
But street artists, as well as other activists, have been singled out for repression. Most work under pseudonyms, taking advantage of power outages to work in the dark, and devising strategies to avoid scrutiny.
“I try to make sure that the political message is not clear until the very end. So I can alter the piece at the very end, when nobody is looking, and then get away from the scene,” said Ganzeer, who recently painted a huge mural in downtown Cairo of a figure in military fatigues, with blood on its mouth, towering over a pile of skulls. He did not add any detail explicitly referencing the military until the very end of the work, he added.
Other times he takes greater risks, like painting his murals while military tanks are parked nearby.
“Anyone passing by is probably just assuming that any street art I’m doing is pro-military,” he said. “Because who the hell has the guts to do something like this?”
As it turns out, not everyone does. In his latest series, Ganzeer featured a number of victims of the military's repression of political dissent. But so far, no printer has been willing to take the risk of printing the images, which for now are being shared widely on social media.
The series of portraits includes one of Mona Eltahawy, a well-known Egyptian activist and outspoken critic of the regime, who was assaulted and arrested while covering protests in Tahrir Square in 2011.
"I'm honored. He has poignantly captured an assault on me that broke my arms as well as heart, but inspired me to move back to Cairo from NYC," Eltahawy tweeted at VICE News, commenting on Ganzeer's portrait of her. "The regime assaulted me and many others to scare us away from opposing them. But the assault just made me more determined."
International street artists have also taken to the streets in solidarity with their Egyptian counterparts, and a group of them has publicly singled out Sisi for its repression of dissenters.
'Within on year of mowing down a thousand people, this guy walks right into the presidency.'
“In Egypt, some of these street artists are being visited by police weekly,” Sampsa, a street artist also known as the “Finnish Banksy,” told VICE News. “They are in no way going home, but they are trying to find more subversive ways because they are being tracked via social media, physically. Thousands of people have been picked up and put in jail and a lot of them were activists and artists that were instrumental at the beginning of the revolution.”
Along with an international group of artists, and activists with the Occupy London movement, Sampsa has vowed to raise global awareness about the recent wave of repression under Sisi, whose candidacy to the presidency he called “a travesty.”
The group released the video below, part of a campaign of solidarity with Egyptian street artists.
“Within one year of mowing down a thousand people, this guy walks right into the presidency,” said Sampsa, referring to the August 2013 Rabaa massacre, during which hundreds of Morsi supporters — thousands, by some accounts — were killed by Egyptian forces. “There are travesties and then there are fucking travesties. This one would be the latter.”
On Wednesday, the collective of international artists published an open letter on the activist-run Occupied Times of London, calling on the United Nations Security Council to refer Sisi to the International Criminal Court for war crimes. The full text of the letter is available here.
“To be honest I don’t think that anyone in a position of power is going to act upon it,” said Ganzeer, who is a friend of Sampsa. “But I am hoping that it can succeed in getting normal people’s attention to what’s happening."
“There is no way the UN Security Council can look the other way,” said Sampsa, more optimistically.
In an effort to raise awareness about this cause, the Finnish artist has taken to the streets of New York and Paris with tributes to his Egyptian colleagues.
In Paris, he has outlined the corpses of the regime’s victims, marked with the words “Sisi war crimes,” while in Brooklyn, he has sprayed the portrait of a young Egyptian protester, his hand raised in the sign for peace.
“That’s directly from the video of a guy on YouTube grazing his finger in the peace sign, walking towards a tank, with nothing in his hand, and you’re watching bullet holes through him, you can see in the video, he literally drops to the ground and dies,” Sampsa said. “That’s a memorial to him. The reason why he has a graffiti mask on is really in honor of the target that’s been made of street artists in an attempt to stop them from catalyzing the next revolution.”