Egypt’s official announcement that it is looking into a draft law to ban “abusive” graffiti on public and private buildings has angered graffiti artists across the country. The move was, of course, marketed as one aiming to preserve the streets’ civilized appearance after “walls were distorted.”
According to the current government, “distorted walls” and “offending public taste” refer to the wave of graffiti that has covered walls for the past two and a half years.
This wave continues, because it has become an artistic echo of the country’s politics. Of course, the military rule and the violations it has committed got their share of criticism via graffiti.
The truth is graffiti has become directly linked to political activity. It has become a dedicated form of expression—even in the most populist and bizarre of its situations—as it reflects an energy that exploded in the Arab world.
We’ve seen graffiti in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and then Syria. Kids from Dera’a in Syria imitated graffiti artists in Tunisia and Egypt. As a result, they were beaten up and their nails were removed, and the revolution thus erupted.
Slogans and drawings became a characteristic of any popular activity. Graffiti is a means of expression mastered by the revolutions’ activists. The latter used this skill in their battle against dictatorships and against the many attempts and repression our societies witness.
Before the revolutions, graffiti was exclusive to regimes.
We haven’t yet forgotten the writings and photographs on Baghdad’s walls that glorified Saddam Hussein and his statements. The same applies to Syria, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, as rulers’ statements and miserable murals depicting their alleged heroic acts occupied streets and public spaces.
A Syrian activist from Kafr Nabl—which is known for its slogans and drawings—said: “Syria’s walls were occupied, but they have now been liberated.”
This is exactly the formula which accompanied the spread of graffiti in Arab Spring countries.
Yes, people’s view of graffiti differ, as some see it as art while others see it as sabotage. Graffiti is contemptuously viewed in many countries, where the act is punishable by law. This is the case in the US: graffiti is considered “an act of sabotage.” But graffiti has currently taken a turn and is becoming an acceptable form of expression.
Not everything written on walls is art or representative of freedom of expression. That’s certain. But graffiti is the only space available for struggling Arab youths who have not yet found another means of expression.
Do you think we would have seen these slogans and drawings if there had been stability and real means of expression?
Commenting on tyrants’ monopoly of graffiti before this phenomenon spread in the Arab world, writer Hani Naim said: “One must understand the relationship between the tyrant and the general space. Tyrants work to subjugate this space in order to dominate, control citizens’ consciousness and add the characteristic of continuity to their existence.”
At this point, we cannot help but be confused that Egypt’s regime is more worried over the public taste than it is over street children and slums. It seems the public taste has become accustomed to their presence.