When the graffitied slogan Ben Ali Degage (“Ben Ali, get out!”) made its first appearance in Tunisia, Ben Ali himself failed to take it seriously. How could he have known that the Arab Spring had begun and that the people of the Arab world had decided to bring down their regimes? The people rose up, and graffiti came to the public squares to help them as they tried to break apart the foundations of the regimes that ruled them.
Egyptian Graffiti: The street speaks revolution!
Graffiti artists participated in the Egyptian revolution since it began on January 25, fighting police oppression in their own way: on the walls of their cities. The security forces assassinated a young man, a young man who was transformed overnight into a symbol, his iconic image proliferating through Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura and the other major Egyptian cities. In this way, these walls became a Tahrir Square of a different kind: visual, mobile, interconnected.
The techniques of Egypt’s street artists vary between straight graffiti and stencil. Each graffiti activist has his own way of expressing himself, or uses a limited set of phrases and images that with time become a part of his graffiti identity:
a) The martyrs first.
Works belonging to this subset resist the dictatorship’s attempts to make people forget, to turn their victims into mere statistics with no voice or identity. In response, the graffiti artists insist on recording the names of those killed by security forces during demonstrations and telling their stories.
One of the most famous of these campaigns was mounted by the graffiti activist Ganzeer, who drew the martyrs’ names and faces all over the Egyptian capital. One of these portraits became an iconic symbol of the revolution: that of Khaled Saeed, the young man who was arrested, tortured and murdered in the dungeons of Alexandria. Today, his face adorns walls across Egypt, and next to it the words: “We are all Khaled Saeed.”
There is also graffiti of the martyr Islam Raafat, run over by a security vehicle near the Ministry of the Interior on January 28, 2011, the first day of the revolution and a watershed moment in the history of the modern Egyptian state.
Alongside all these images, the artists have positioned phrases praising them and promising them that they will not be forgotten.
b) The laughing cow.
The deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak was long referred to by Egyptians as “the laughing cow” or La vache qui rit, a reference to the logo of the famous French cheese brand. Graffiti artists incorporated this logo into their work as part of the popular movement’s campaign to shatter the imposing reputation of the regime and its symbols. One artist drew the logo alongside the slogan of the president’s National Democratic Party. The artist received a phone call from the advertising agency representing the company’s brand, informing him that this use of the logo depreciated the reputation of the brand and the product and would make children unwilling to eat the cheese!
Graffiti attacking President Mubarak could be found in streets throughout Egypt’s cities, including one piece that combined his features with the word “Stubborn” a reference to his clinging on to power despite the strength of the popular campaign to unseat him. Following his abdication a second edition of this work appeared in which the phrase was altered to read: “He used to be stubborn”. This work also appeared in Beirut.
The word baltagi or “thug” frequently accompanied depictions of Mubarak and stylized images of central security troops or was found in phrases such as “The Ministry of the Interior are thugs” (a reference to the ministry’s use of paid thugs and mercenaries). This last phrase and accompanying drawings was especially common in the streets leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo.
In response to pro-regime taggers who described the revolutionaries as thugs, one graffiti activist drew a demonstrator holding an Egyptian flag and next to him the phrase, “If they’re calling the demonstrators thugs, then I’m proud to say, ‘I am a thug.’”
c) Post-revolution graffiti.
The Egyptian revolution continued after Mubarak was toppled and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power. It continued, but the popular movement underwent a noticeable decline in intensity, especially after the Islamists (the Brotherhood and Salafists) departed from the scene leaving only civil society activists, secularists, liberals and Leftists—i.e. all those equally opposed to both military and religious rule—to continue their activism in the streets.
Then it was the turn of the Security Council Army Forces (SCAF), semi-sacred and respected by a good proportion of the Egyptian people, to receive the graffiti artists’ attentions. It was the turn of General Al Tantawi, Supreme Commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces and one of the military council’s most powerful men.
One artist depicted the SCAF member famous for reading the council’s communiqués out on television as deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, wearing a military uniform, waving his forefinger in the air and uttering, “Who are you?” the question that Gaddafi had famously directed towards Libya’s revolutionaries. A picture of the head of the military police, Hamdi Badeen (accused of killing revolutionaries) appeared on one wall with the slogan, “Wanted for trial!” In another picture he appeared next to the words, “Know your enemy!”Graffiti art against the –Military Council surfaced everywhere. There was, “Communiqué No. 1 from the Egyptian People to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: Get out!” an echo of the message the protestors delivered to Mubarak at the outset of the peaceful revolution back in January.
Graffiti activists also turned their attention to the return of repressive policing and security activity following Mubarak’s removal. One work showed a security trooper clutching a truncheon with the legend: “And… We’re back!” Another had an ordinary citizen raising his hands to heaven and saying, “Tear gas, shotguns and bullets… Thanks, God,” a wry reference to the security forces’ use of tear gas and live rounds against anti-SCAF demonstrators. The return of military security coincided with a wave of arrests of political activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Omar Al Baheeri, who had previously been detained in military prison during the revolution against Mubarak, and the faces of these individuals and others also began to find their way to the streets of the city.
In the space of a single year the SCAF proved itself incapable of retaining the most modest levels of the trust and respect in which the average Egyptian had previously held them. The slogan, “The people and the army are a single hand,” chanted by protestors in Tahrir Square just before Mubarak’s fall from power appeared in altered form on the street walls around Tahrir as the security forces prepared to renew their assault on demonstrators: “The people and the people are a single hand!” was an unambiguous proclamation that the link between citizen and soldier had been sundered.
The most eloquent commentary on this period—the “unspoken alliance” between the army and the Islamists—was an artwork by Al Teneen (“Dragon”) on the walls of Qasr al Nil Street. It showed General Al Tantawi in military uniform with a long Salafist-type beard, as if to suggest that the military and the Islamists were no longer two separate groups but a single body seeking to impose a new repressive regime on the country.
d) The revolution continues.
This slogan, in its stencilled form, constituted a major graffiti campaign to accompany the popular street movement. The street walls now focussed on the need to continue the revolution to its end, because, “The revolution comes first,” “The true revolutionary finishes his revolution,” “The revolution has revolutionaries to protect it, “Freedom is coming for sure,” and because, too, “the people that only completes half a revolution is a people that will come to grief.”
It was to complete the revolution that the protests returned to Tahrir Square in November 2011. The soldiers were there, too, of course, but this time not to kill peaceful demonstrators but to shoot out their eyes. Thus it was that many of Egypt’s youth lost an eye in the battle for their country’s freedom. In response activists took their graffiti campaign to the walls of the American University in Cairo commemorating a moment that they regarded as the birth of a second revolution by covering a vast wall with eight portraits of male and female demonstrators who lost an eye. One artist painted the face of Ahmed Harara who lost both, the phrase January 28 filling his empty eye-sockets. The walls of the American University in Beirut were never free of graffiti, either: a canvas for messages of a socio-cultural and political bent.
During the parliamentary elections in which the Islamists won an overwhelming majority of the seats, activists took to their walls to mount their own special election campaign. Their slogan, “Elect the revolution,” was directed first and foremost at the Islamist movements that had left the ranks of the revolutionaries and entered into an “unspoken alliance” with the military. They also put up anti-Islamization slogans, like: “Egypt will not be another Afghanistan!”
Graffiti activists also worked to highlight the historical icons of the revolution. On the birthday of the late political balladeer Sheikh Imam, the famous oud-player was depicted with his instrument, a salute to the spirit that inspired generations of revolutionaries.
e) Freedom of the body in the face of political power.
In moments such as these, one senses a new epoch beginning to take shape. Everyone “comes out of the closet” so to speak. Things that were once taboo stride onto the public stage, and foremost amongst them, the liberation of the body.
But why this issue in particular? Let us take another look at the scene as it stands. The soldiers are in power. Their rule is pure oppression, unrelieved by the cosmetic gloss commonly employed by politicians. Machismo in all its brute violence has captured the public sphere by main force. That is one half of the picture. On the other side one has the Islamist movement, which now controls a large portion of the Egyptian street. This movement’s attitude towards women and women’s freedom can be readily gleaned from a poster which carries the photograph of the husband of a female candidate for parliament, instead of her own portrait! In sum, there is a new regime, built on an alliance of two despotic forces: the soldiers and the Islamists.
The issue first came to prominence when the army arrested 35-year-old Sameera Ibrahim and subjected her to a forcible “virginity” examination. Sameera refused to accept this male violation of her body and brought a court case challenging the procedure and those who had practiced it against her. The judge sided with her and found that such types of examination were unjustified and unlawful.
Later, the young blogger Alia Al Mahdi published naked photographs of herself on her blog, challenging male dominance of the female form and provoking widespread debate in Egyptian intellectual circles and abroad. There were loud calls for her to face the severest possible punishments, including the death sentence. She faced many criticisms on a variety of pretexts, the most common being that “this was not the right time, since we have other priorities right now…” the very pretext that had propped up nearly half a century’s worth of crumbling political regimes in the Arab world.
Both these events were reflected in wall paintings of both Sameera and Alia (the latter nude), highlighting the complicity of the media (and the general public) in portraying these incidents. While Sameera, who was forcibly stripped and humiliated, failed to receive adequate coverage in the media, Alia, who stripped and published images of her body of her own free will, was the subject of great popular and media interest.
In my view, the procedure that Sameera was forced to undergo demeans us all and is utterly unacceptable. What Alia did is her right and her right to do so should be protected. Though both events are very different, they share one essential particular: a new spirit of rebellion abroad in Egypt. This time, it is a female rebellion against despotic male power.
f) The blue bra against the regime.
A group of soldiers in Tahrir Square beat a woman in a niqab, dragged her on the ground and stripped her. This young woman became known as “the woman in the blue bra” and the scene (which was recorded and put on YouTube) entered the popular consciousness, partly because it seemed to express an exceptional degree of hatred and violence and partly because it managed to summarize whole eras of male domination of the female body.
Back in 1969, women radicals staged a sit-in protest against the venue for the Miss World beauty contest in Atlantic City in the United States, hurling female beauty products and clothes (including bras) symbolizing the persecution of women into a large container that they dubbed the “freedom trash can”. The performance was imitated around world, in Western Europe, other American cities and Canada. The well-known Egyptian activist and graffiti artist Al Teneen painted an image of Superwoman in a blue bra on the walls of streets around Tahrir Square, alongside the word, “continuing…” a reminder that the revolution would not stop. The blue bra also inspired activists from around the globe. One female activist from the United States demonstrated outside the Egyptian embassy in Washington wearing a blue bra. In Beirut, always in the thick of the fight against dictatorship, activists came up with a new symbol, covering the Western and Eastern halves of the city with a campaign whose slogan ran: “The blue bra against the regime!”
The battle against the male infrastructure and patriarchy of the regime is sure to be long and drawn out. The appearance of the “blue bra against the regime” campaign in Beirut shows that what happened in Cairo cannot stay confined to Cairo and vice versa.
g) Violent graffiti week: organized campaigns.
One of the principal reasons for Egyptian graffiti being so much more developed than its counterparts elsewhere is the fact that it has become so much more organized since the start of the revolution. A number of activists organized a “Violent graffiti week” after the revolution, with a focus on works displaying the faces and names of martyrs in cities throughout Egypt. The second Violent Graffiti Week was held from January 13-25, 2012, to mark the first anniversary of the revolution, and was used to mobilize public sentiment against the SCAF.
One benefit of these campaigns is that they have helped convert many potential activists into proactive artists, taking their ideas to the street. The pool of activists has steadily grown, especially after the last but one such campaign included tips on graffiti techniques and instructions on the self-protection measures that any artist must take to avoid falling into the hands of the security services. All this gives the Egyptian graffiti scene a greater socio-political, artistic and visual diversity and increases its confrontational nature and prevalence.
Syrian graffiti: A risky business
Graffiti was the spark that ignited the Syrian revolution. A schoolboy called Ahmed Sami Abou Zeid (13 years old and still in prison) and his friends wrote slogans demanding the fall of the Baath regime and the ruling family on the walls of their school in Deraa: “Get out Bashar! We don’t love you!” and “The people demand the fall of the regime!” Syrian security then arrested the boys. It had been about a fortnight since the first demonstration had been held in the alleyways of the al-Hariqa neighbourhood in Damascus.
Before the uprising began in earnest, the regime tried to contain the graffiti movement that emerged in tandem with the protests. Since time immemorial, the security forces had daubed the approach to Damascus with slogans supporting the Baath party and “historic” quotes from the late president Hafez Al Assad. One never used to see slogans against the regime. They were all of the “We’re with you for eternity,” type: “Our leader for eternity, Hafez Al Assad,” “March 8 is glorious date” and other lines hymning the powers that be. If one happened to chance across the hammer and sickle of the Communist party or the “red cyclone” of the Syrian Nationalists beneath a bridge or down some narrow alley, that was only because these were parties loyal to the regime, who operated within its political system and could not be classified as street-level “opposition” graffiti.
When the uprising began graffiti took a new direction, becoming one of the most visible tools in the psychological war against the regime. The scene was turned on its head and the slogan that accompanied Bashar Al Assad’s inheritance of the presidency—“We love you”—became “We don’t love you”, evidence that the Syrian people would welcome tyranny no more. This was one of the first slogans to be written on the school walls in Deraa, which was in turn the first place to be bombed, besieged and attacked by the regime’s armed forces.
The uprising spread and the activists started to draw their inspiration from the “spraycan man” a character from a 2008 comedy series called Buqaat Dou (A patch of light). In one episode a man decides to express his anger at society by writing on public walls with a black aerosol, earning him the nickname “spraycan man”. People begin to talk about him and finally the government demands he turn himself in. The government throw him into a cell full of aerosols and he is free to write on the walls what he wants, only to wipe it off, with the help of a couple of guards, the second he is finished. Every city and village in the uprising had their own Spraycan Man, spraying anti-regime and pro-freedom slogans across the walls.
Graffiti in Syria differs from its counterparts in Lebanon and Egypt in a number of ways and for a variety of different reasons. For a start it is by and large devoid of sophisticated visual imagery, limited to short slogans usually improvised on the spot and written in great haste. This is only to be expected given that activists throughout the country are liable to be abducted and murdered by the security forces. The simple act of writing on a wall is a challenge to the regime.
Writing on walls is a supremely risky endeavour and given graffiti’s importance as a psychological weapon in the uprising Syrian activists set up a blog dedicated to graffiti entitled Spraycan Man, which aims to help artists to prepare sophisticated drawings and to instruct them in protective measures to take during the spraying process itself, which should really be performed at night. Pieces that are put up in broad daylight are from areas outside the regime’s control.
Then there is the Spraycan Man from the coastal city of Latakia who was murdered by the security forces after many near escapes, and his Damascene counterpart who was captured and tortured for writing “Your turn next, dictator” beneath a bridge on the night Hosni Mubarak was deposed in Egypt. We should not be surprised to learn that every Syrian who wants to buy an aerosol in Damascus must present their identity card and answer a series of questions about why they want it.
Finally, it seems that the Syrian graffiti movement has recently entered a more overtly pictorial phase with the appearance of an artwork in Daria that has the slogan “Down with Bashar” next to a portrait of Bashar looking like Hitler. This was the same image used in the “King of the Jungle riding a tank” campaign in Beirut, Cairo and Gaza (and other world capitals such as Berlin and Paris). Then there was the one from Homs showing a soldier carrying a rifle with the words “The Free Army protects us”.
These developments all herald a new era in which Syrian graffiti has evolved quite different visual and creative characteristics. For all that the uprising is nearly a year old it should not be forgotten that it is still in its infancy.
The Beirut scene
The scene in Beirut is very different to that elsewhere in the Arab world. Here. In the city whose loyalties are forever uncertain, the Arab Spring has made its presence felt in two ways:
1. On the one hand, one has the Down with the sectarian regime and its symbols campaign. This campaign had its flaws, and has made mistakes, not least of which its attempt to mount an Arab Spring-style movement in a social and political environment that is fundamentally ill suited to this approach. Nevertheless, it managed to keep going for a few months, reaching its high point just before the fall of Mubarak when some thirty thousand Lebanese took to the city’s streets calling for the fall of the regime, a huge number in a country of only four million citizens themselves divided up between eighteen competing sectarian identities.
This movement was accompanied by an anti-sectarian graffiti campaign, which despite managing the rare feat of being country-wide, was somewhat weak in terms of content. It comprised of a number of coupled questions and responses, such as: “When will the civil war end?” (Answer: “When the sectarian regime falls,”); or, “Why have the missing not returned?” (Answer: “Because of the sectarian regime,”).
Like all civil society campaigns it first faded then disappeared entirely and Beirut dropped out of the great movement of Arab change to return to its daily political tugs-of-war and social crises that no one ever seems to want to change.
2. On the other hand, Beirut also managed to remain at the heart of the Arab Spring. Its activists worked tirelessly in the streets and on the walls, championing the Arab uprisings through graffiti campaigns that first begun as the Egyptian revolution gathered steam and continued even as the Baath regime began to falter in the face of Syria’s peaceful demonstrators.
a) Beirut’s graffiti before the Arab Spring.
Before any detailed examination of Lebanese graffiti campaigns in support of the Arab Spring it is necessary to take a quick look at the pre-2011 graffiti scene in Beirut. This overview is necessarily focused on graffiti that deals with social, cultural and political issues, not that which is produced for purely artistic reasons.
The walls of Beirut are the newspapers of the marginalized and the defenders of freedom. Here you find documented all events, great and small, that take place in the country, the Arab world and perhaps the globe as a whole. Issues that concern the marginalized and public freedoms are defended and championed. The city’s graffiti activists focus their activity in the neighbourhoods of the Raas Beirut district, which contains the American University and its environs as well as Hamra Street and the surrounding area. This is because this district has preserved its social, cultural, religious and political diversity despite the lurking presence of imminent war that roams the city like a phantom.
Since 2007, supporters of sexual freedoms, the champions of gay and lesbian rights, have transformed these walls into a place where they can express their beliefs in a country that treats its homosexual citizens in accordance with article 534 of the criminal code, which describes them as “criminals” (the gay movement in Lebanon has tried to get this article abolished through a variety of campaigns, such as raising public awareness and utilizing the courts). The gay graffiti movement’s contributions to the city’s streets constitute one of the most significant pieces of gay activism anywhere in the world: the World Day for Fighting the Terrorization of Homosexuality (on March 17 every year). On this date, members of the movement stage a series of activities accompanied by a gay graffiti campaign.
In late 2008 another issue came to capture the city’s attention, when Saudi preacher Mohammed Al Munjad issued a fatwa calling for “the assassination of Mickey Mouse” who he described as one of Satan’s foot-soldiers. Beirut’s graffiti artists responded by painting pictures of Mickey Mouse with the slogan “We’re with you!”
Graffiti activists in the city also gave their support to Iraqi journalist Montazer Al Zeidi, who hurled his shoe at the US president, George Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. The walls of Hamra Street were filled with images of red shoes and the phrase, “You can make an uprising even with shoes.”
The Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009 prompted a wave of graffiti artworks in Beirut, like the missile wrapped up like a present and captioned “Gaza” in reference to the rockets that smashed into Gazan neighbourhoods during public holidays and festivals. The artists were also provoked to action by the wall which Mubarak built to separate the Gaza strip from Egypt and his closing the crossings to Palestinian civilians. A campaign took shape that displayed Hosni Mubarak’s face with the English inscription, “My wall kills Palestinians.” One of the simplest images of all was also the clearest expression of solidarity with the Palestinians: a red arrow with the legend, “To Palestine.”
Though graffiti in Beirut might have been primarily concerned with freedoms, other issues also featured prominently. Music in particular was an important part of Beirut’s graffiti identity. Thus the legendary singer Fairouz appeared on walls during the campaign mounted by the children of Mansour Al Rahbani to prevent her performing those songs that Al Rahbani had had a hand in writing or composing.
All you need is love is the title of a song written by John Lennon in the 1960s and one of the anthems of the Hippie movement. This, too, found its way to Beirut’s walls, an expression of young people’s yearning for free love. Then there was the picture of the great Umm Kulthoum singing Kiss the Wawa by controversial contemporary pop star Haifa Wahbi, an ironic commentary on the commercial music industry that rules the world from West to East.
b) Beirut’s Graffiti Spring.
Following the fall of the Ben Ali regime, and as the revolution by the Nile gained momentum, Beiruti graffiti entered a more vibrant and organized phase, one we might term Beirut’s Graffiti Spring.
Before Mubarak was removed from power the walls of Beirut teemed with graffiti supporting the Egyptian revolution. It was noticeable that the artists used imagery and techniques developed by the Egyptians themselves, as if to signify a united front against dictatorship and oppression. The slogan, “Stand with the revolution,”—one of the Egyptian revolution’s most famous cries—became a fundamental part of the Lebanese city’s graffiti. The same process could be discerned in another work that showed Mubarak’s face alongside the phrase “Stubborn” in reference to his grim refusal to give up power.
But it was the Syrian revolution that was to take the preeminent role in the city’s street life. The first piece of graffiti appeared when the uprising began in Deraa, with Beirut’s activists making a Syrian banner that read “Deraa Undaunted” the centerpiece of a graffiti campaign against the regime. In a few days, supporters of the Syrian regime had removed the drawings (only a very few survive to this day) so a second campaign was started, this one entitled “The King of the Jungle Riding a Tank,” which in turn was defaced and erased. However, activists were determined to keep the campaign alive, especially because the Syrian king had written his tank through Beirut’s streets for decades, during the civil war and after, spreading destruction, death and suppressing freedoms. This campaign deserves further discussion as it started as a Lebanese project before crossing continents to appear across the world.
The words were written in a childish scrawl. Next to them, a picture of Bashar Al Assad as Hitler. It was the work of two activists, one from Beirut and the other from Cairo, and it began to spread across the two capitals, an image announcing a coup. For decades regimes had collaborated and covered for one another to remain in power and now it was the turn of their subject peoples to band together, if only symbolically, against them. Like a snowball it gathered size and speed, starting in Beirut and Cairo and sweeping into Gaza, where activists began to put it up on the walls of their city. Days later The King of the Jungle found its way to a most unexpected place: the Saudi city of Jeddah, where a young man made his own humble contribution by painting on the wall of a house. The campaign spread to a total of twelve countries including Malaysia, India, China, Germany, France, Russia, Sweden and finally Boston in the United States.
Beirut also saw a campaign entitled “Homs, the Mother of Heroes” after that central Syrian city had been under attack for weeks. Slogans such as “No to oppression in Syria” appeared in different neighbourhoods throughout the city and though the regime’s supporters set to work painting them over and substituting them with lines like, “God protects Syria,” the activist groups did not abandon the streets and remained ever present with their paint pots in their hands. The proof of this was their successive graffiti campaigns.
In one, activists depicted Abdel Baset Sarout, former goalkeeper for al- Karama and composer of anthems against the regime that tried to assassinate him, making a two-fingered victory salute above the words, “God protect you, Abdel Baset Sarout”.
These anti-Baath campaigns were focussed in the neighbourhoods of Raas Beirut, especially al- Hamra Street, which is the location of the Syrian embassy and the stronghold of militias from pro-Syrian Lebanese parties. It was an act of open defiance by activist groups, a statement that the Syrian people were not alone in their fight for freedom.
The revolution in Bahrain only made a modest impact in Beirut. Images of Pearl Roundabout (the preeminent icon of the Bahraini uprising) and the slogan “Our eternal symbols” found their way to the city’s walls, along with tags that linked the struggle in Bahrain with its Syrian counterpart: “Hail to the revolutionaries in Syria and Bahrain!” and “No to oppression in Syria and Bahrain.” It was as though the artists linked the two in order to assert that the struggle for freedom was a united one, a message especially relevant in a country where some parties (like Hezbollah) supported Bahrain’s revolution but regarded events in Syria as a part of a foreign conspiracy, while others (like the Future Party) stood with the Syrian uprising yet described the revolution in Bahrain as a series of destructive acts sponsored by Iran.
Libya was represented by a single piece of Lebanese graffiti. This depicted a NATO plane dropping food aid onto a image of Muammar Gaddafi a single image that summarized the entire complex situation: NATO’s intervention and the militarization of the revolution failed to achieve any essential changes in the country’s set-up and today it is the militias that rule the street, a sad state of affairs to which reports of human rights violations issued by international humanitarian organizations bear witness.
Every revolution and uprising enjoyed its share of the graffiti artists’ attentions but the city also contained works that dealt with the Arab Spring as a whole. When the movement began, the regime backlash across the region was accompanied by a discourse that described the uprisings as foreign conspiracies. They were partly right: conspiracies, yes, but not foreign ones, but plots hatched by the people against their regimes. In this vein, Beirut offered its own mocking contribution to the idea of conspiracy: a wall painting in Hamra Street with the word “conspiracy” daubed in big, vibrant letters. The biggest wall painting of all was located in the northern suburbs and depicted the Arab Spring as a series of falling dominoes with the line, “Courage is contagious.”
A quick overview of graffiti in other Arab countries
a) In Libya, graffiti grew more prevalent with the spread of the armed revolution. Most focused on the person of Gaddafi and depicted him in a variety of ways: a pirate, a Nazi officer and most frequently as a rat, the very term he had used to describe his rebellious people. There were wall paintings commemorating battles and confrontations with Gaddafi’s troops and others showing artillery shells, machine guns and Kalashnikovs.
b) Despite the media blackout, Bahrain’s graffiti movement also showed some signs of evolving, especially on the visual level. Images started to appear on walls in the country’s cities and villages depicting icons of the revolution such as detainees and martyrs. Just as happened with Khaled Saeed in Egypt, the image of one of Bahrain’s martyrs became fixed in the popular consciousness: “We are all the martyr Ali Jawad Al Sheikh,” in reference to the fourteen year old killed by Bahrain’s security forces, whose funeral procession in August 2011 triggered more extensive demonstrations.
Bahraini graffiti concentrated its attention on the person of King Hamad Bin Eissa Aal Khalifa. The slogan “Down with Hamad” spread to all corners of the small kingdom occasionally, activists would even scrawl it on the ground in the middle of the street. As the regime’s security forces became increasingly repressive the graffiti grew more extreme. “Death to the Khalifa family,” began to appear on the walls along with pictures of the king with a noose round his neck: the street’s rejection of proposed “reforms” and mooted suggestions to enter into “dialogue” with the regime.
Despite the existence of slogans of a religious tone and nature, the majority of activists strongly rejected the sectarianism which the regime used to manipulate them. They expressed this rejection in numerous slogans daubed up in the towns and villages, the most famous of which was, “With my blood, I sacrifice myself for my Sunni brother and pledge that his descendants will eat bread.”
Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of the Bahrain protest movement, was ever-present in the country’s graffiti: an iconic symbol of the defiance of the authorities and their agencies of repression. Images of the roundabout were commonly accompanied by the tag, “We’ll be back,” a reference to the fact that the uprising against dictatorship would not stop.
The piece of Bahraini graffiti that best summarized the current reality of the Arab world, read: “This is the age of the people and the end of the age of dictatorship.” The line was written up in Satra, the most vibrant and defiant region in Bahrain.
c) Tunisia created its own unique style of street art through a blend of traditional graffiti techniques and fine art. Tunisia’s graffiti artists drew on old icons of the anti-colonialist struggle against France, such as the political and labour activist Farhan Hashad, who enjoyed great popularity among the country’s working classes in the 1940s and who assassinated by a French gang known as The Red Hand in a suburb of Tunis on January 5, 1952. Now he is back on the walls of the capital, his features once more youthful and full of hope: “I love you, my people.”
There is also Bouazziz of course, who has been transformed by the graffiti artists into an icon of the global liberation movement to rank alongside Che Guevara. And then there are all the slogans and tags that address the issue of freedom in Arabic and French: “Freedom is a daily habit.”
One distinctive aspect of the Tunisian graffiti movement is the involvement of the “People of the Cave” activist group. Originally a thirty-strong collective, the group has no become a movement with more members than can be counted, who fill the streets of Tunisian cities with street art signed only with the group’s tag, the individual artist remaining anonymous.
The graffiti movement in the Arab world emerged to reflect the profound and entirely unanticipated change experienced in the region. It sought to sketch out, in its own way, the lineaments of a new era of freedom, by helping the Arab people reclaim the public spaces of squares and streets and walls from half a century of regime monopoly.
We are all now familiar with Tahrir Square in Cairo, al- Aaasy Square in Hama, Pearl Roundabout in Manama and Taghreer Square in Sanaa, having watched them transform from transport hubs to the wellsprings of freedom and change: of gathering.
The graffiti movement shows signs that it can become a viable form of civil resistance against any dictatorship that might arise in the future, just as it is a potent weapon against the dictatorships of our day.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger