It is said that ‘art has always been the handmaiden to revolution and culture its fuel’, and this was certainly the case during the revolution that spread through Egypt in 2011.
Around the country people flocked to the city centres, most notably Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, armed with placards and megaphones, expressing their dissent for the authoritarian regime. Others took to the neighbouring backstreets, using stencils and spray paint as their weapon of choice.
Graffiti also granted Egyptian citizens the ability to express their opinions without the strict censorship found in Egyptian media.
Graffiti has the world over been acknowledged as a medium of social and political commentary but despite the existence of an underground community long before the Revolution, graffiti as an agent for change flourished throughout the uprisings.
The medium rendered Egyptian citizens, many of whom were considered powerless by social class or gender, able to engage in protests anonymously, which was beneficial in avoiding the sometimes fatal consequences of police brutality and torture that could be imposed as a punishment for protesting in Tahrir Square or its equivalents.
Graffiti also granted Egyptian citizens the ability to express their opinions without the strict censorship found in Egyptian media. When it came to street murals, whitewashing was the only form of censorship the regime was able to implement.
This attempt at censoring political opinion was received with delight by artists around Cairo and Egypt, who tagged newly painted walls with messages such as ‘thanks for the new paint’, as though by painting over the former art, the regime had supplied the revolution with another blank canvas to express their dissent and attempt to encourage social change.
The cycle of constant undoing and redoing emphasises the ephemerality of graffiti, and by giving artists the ability to change their opinions as the protests evolved, Egyptian graffiti became the barometer of the revolution.
In addition to the explicit political message of graffiti, even the location itself was a political move. Through its placement on the street graffiti attracted more attention than a canvas in a museum would. The Egyptian artist Ganzeer explains that street art has the ability to ‘plant a flag’ in public domain, representing the location’s transformation into a revolutionary space, or at least one outside of real government control.
Graffiti was an effective form of visual culture that implemented social change during the Egyptian Revolution. The deterritorialisation and re-territorialisation of graffiti hotspots acted as a microcosm of the uprisings in Egypt and all over the Arab World, expressing the constant struggle between the elite and the street.