Political and social protests can take many shapes, and be represented by both people and art. In the case of the Arab Spring, widespread demonstrations not only led to a number of regime changes in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, but also inspired people across the Arab world to express their opinions, feelings, dislikes, joys, and hopes in innovative ways through graffiti.
What better way to demonstrate the reach and breadth of the region’s street graffiti than through an interactive map? The idea of creating this tool to represent these outbursts of creativity came after I overheard my students discussing the Arab Spring and the different mediums used to document the events that had taken place over the last three years. The map includes thirty-two examples of graffiti from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, countries at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Each instance of graffiti has two points: the first point, in red, includes a visual representation, the story behind it, an English translation of the text, and the name of the artist. The second point, in blue, and includes a video related to the graffiti. The title for each graffiti piece includes the medium used.
The number of conferences, articles, books, and other discussions on post-Arab Spring graffiti has become so numerous that they are hard to catalogue. This map is, however, an attempt to add a multimedia layer to the existing repertoire of graffiti documentation. Through this map, users can not only appreciate the visual power and context of various pieces of graffiti, but also understand the regional dimensions of Arab Spring graffiti art.
Arab Spring Graffiti
In the West, graffiti and street art have always played an integral part in social demonstrations. In the Arab world, before the revolutions, political street art may not have been wholly absent, but it also was not common.
During the revolutions, city walls were transformed from display areas for commercialism or government propaganda to vibrant locales of political and social commentary. The streets of Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Sanaa, and Barbar (a village in the north of Bahrain) became places where artists say they could rebut tyrants, and that provided the canvas on which they could share stories, remember fallen heroes, and speak directly to dictators.
Graffiti can come in many forms and includes writings or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in the public sphere. Messages displayed in the streets reach people in a direct way, without censorship or adjustment by the government. Having no TV stations, newspapers, or other media outlets, protestors only have public walls on which to broadcast their message.
As the revolutions have continued, repressive governments in the region have come to understand the real danger of this art form and started to whitewash graffiti images. Undeterred, protestors and artists have consistently returned to the streets, covering walls in new images and anti-government slogans. Some of these new creations have directly confronted attempts to censor creative expression. For example, one piece of Egyptian graffiti art reads:
You are a regime that is frightened by paint brushes and pens; you oppress and stamp on the oppressed. If you were doing the right thing, you would not be afraid of what’s painted … but you are a coward in your heart of hearts.
By contributing to the burgeoning graffiti movement, the Arab Spring launched and accelerated the careers of many artists, such as Tunisia’s el Seed, who created his first large-scale mural in 2011 in the city of Kairouan. The mural was a calligraphic representation of a passage from a Tunisian poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Husayfi, dedicated to those struggling against tyranny and injustice.
Zoo-Project is a Franco-Algerian graffiti artist based in Paris who traveled and spent time in Tunisia between March and April 2011, creating forty life-sized figures representing some of the 236 people who were killed in the Tunisian uprising.
The Huffington Post selected “Tank vs. Bicycle,” a piece created by Egypt’s Mohamed Fahmy, known as Ganzeer, for its list of “25 Street Artists from Around the World Who Are Shaking Up Public Art.” Ganzeer was also cited by Germany’s Arte as one of Egypt’s highest-selling living artists today.
El Teneen, who is also from Egypt, captured the people’s struggle to take control of their nation with his chess-inspired piece, “Check Mate.”
Aya Tarek, seen by many as the first serious street artist in Egypt whose work pre-dates the revolution, is one of the youngest and most talented artists in Egypt today.
Yemen’s Murad Subay received the “Art For Peace Award” in 2014, which is given annually by the Italian Foundation “Veronesi” to artists around the world who are committed to spreading the culture of peace through art.
The work of these artists and activists speaks louder than words. These individuals have kept the spirit of the revolution and the protestors alive not only through their own art but also by encouraging others to express themselves through graffiti. In this spirit, a number of regional graffiti artists have organized public events to give people a chance to express themselves.
In May 2011, Egyptian graffiti artists hosted “Mad Graffiti Weekend,” as a response to government censorship of Islam Rafaat’s portrait in Bab al-Loq. Painted by Egyptian artist, Ganzeer, the image depicts the eighteen-year old boy, who was killed during the January 25 revolution. It is one of the many portraits painted of the men and women who died during the protests, fighting for freedom and democracy.
The event was followed by “Mad Graffiti Week,” in January 2012, a global event in support of the Egyptian revolution. An initiative also spear-headed by Ganzeer, the event involved several artists gathering together and painting graffiti images in both Zamalek and downtown Cairo. Among the event’s highlights was a new martyr mural, dedicated to Islam Raafat.
Yemen’s “The 12th Hour Campaign,” which was organized by Murad Subay and took place in July 2013, tackled twelve cultural concerns being debated in the country at the time. Gun control, sectarianism, and state executed kidnappings were among the issues addressed by the campaign.
In April 2011,“Freedom Graffiti Week,” which was organized by Tarek Alghorani and Ahmed Abdullah and took place in Syria and across the Arab world, invited people to pick up a can of spray paint and peacefully express their feelings in a public place.
The Interactive Map
The interactive graffiti map took almost three months to finish. I began adding pieces as I found them in books and documentaries, and compiled a total of 32 works from across the Arab world. I may continue to add pieces from Syria in the future.
The interactive map is useful in any course dealing with the region. The map was sponsored by Crossing Boundaries, an interdisciplinary humanities project at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York and made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Click here to view the map in full size.
I’d like to acknowledge the following people, without whom, this map would never have been completed:
1- Judith DeGroat, Associate Professor of History and Mellon Grant Faculty Director, St. Lawrence University
2- Matt Lavin, Mellon Grant Associate Program Coordinator, St. Lawrence University
3- Carol Cady, GIS Map Specialist, St. Lawrence University
4- Dakota Dakota Casserly, GIS/GPS Technician, St. Lawrence University
5 – Catherine Tedford, Director, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery , St. Lawrence University