On a recent night, friends and volunteers joined Ganzeer under a bridge in the Egyptian capital after 10 p.m. to help paint one of his images. Working in the yellow light of a street lamp, they taped to the wall huge sheets of paper with large shapes cut out of them. As they rolled the first layer of white paint over the stencils, passersby stopped to stare. Off came the first set of stencils. Up went another set. They slopped on black paint.
As curfew drew near, the image on the wall had become clear: a man riding a bicycle, carrying on his head a tray of bread, known in Egypt by the word that also means “life.” Confronting the bicyclist was an almost life-size tank, a soldier’s profile at the top aiming the gun turret at him.
In a nation where the military has been in control since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February, the message was as black and white as the palette.
Surge in political street art since uprising
Political street art was never prevalent in the Egyptian capital before the uprising. There were scrawled names, of course, and hard-core soccer fans tagged walls and painted designs. But nothing like the tank.
That all changed with the uprising. Suddenly, graffiti was everywhere. “Down with Mubarak” was a popular message. Graffiti, says an artist who goes by the name El Teneen, was “part of the protest.” His own work during those days included a depiction of Mubarak with the word “Leave” underneath.
“At the beginning, people wanted to make a mark. They didn't know how the protests were going to go, so they wanted to make sure there was something permanent left even if the protests didn't succeed,” he says.
Later, he painted a red and white chess board on a downtown wall. On one side were rows of pawns. On the other, the king, toppled.
New artists, new themes – not least of all 'Tantawi's undies'
Like many of the artists who are now using the streets as a canvas, El Teneen was not an experienced graffiti artist before the revolution. Many of Cairo’s artistically inclined seem to have simply picked up a spray can or a paintbrush and decided it was time to do something.