Egyptians walk past graffiti with modern and pharaonic motifs in Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, Cairo in 2014. The famous wall is being systematically knocked down. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
The struggle behind Cairo’s revolutionary graffiti wall
The graffiti murals that sprang up on the walls of Cairo were a spontaneous reaction to Egypt’s revolution. But, despite their cultural importance, they’re being demolished in an attempt to clean up the city … or is it to erase the past?
Mia Jankowicz in Cairo,
Ammar Abo Bakr came for the revolution, and stayed for the graffiti. On 25 January 2011, the fine art professor was sitting at home in Luxor when he saw YouTube videos of protests gathering in Tahrir Square. Two hours later, he was on the train to Cairo to join them. As those demonstrations wore on, he picked up a spray can.
“Back then, I just did simple things, like anyone would make – spraying messages on the wall,” he says. “I liked how the walls were like a newspaper; people wrote things like, ‘Don’t go down this street, there are baltageya [plainclothes thugs] down here’.”
That November, Abo Bakr joined a sea of protesters who flooded Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, trying to reach the interior ministry. The central security forces fought back with unprecedented new tactics: “non-lethal” crowd control, such as birdshot and teargas, that proved lethal after all. By early December, 40 protesters were dead, and many more had been blinded by birdshot.
Abo Bakr responded with a mural on the same street, portraying the blinded protesters. It was the first of his many large-scale graffiti murals, and the wall on which he painted it – owned by the American University in Cairo (AUC) – was becoming the most iconic graffiti wall in the city. The murals acted as an evolving visual commentary on Egypt’s revolution: the faces of Field Marshal Tantawi and Hosni Mubarak merging; a parade of martyrs as angels and corpses; pharaonic armies of women deposing mythical oppressors; a boy eating street food with tears in his eyes.
The graffiti on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud street are a visual reminder of the fighting between protesters and security forces. Photograph: Amr Dalsh/Reuters
Many places in Cairo are home to revolutionary graffiti art; many others have become synonymous with revolutionary conflict. What makes Mohamed Mahmoud street unique is that it has become both.
I decided to translate the sound of the people to the wall