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Cairo's walls of graffiti trace history of a colourful revolution

I like to think of street art as having the ability to reshape space, reconstruct reality and provide an alternative to the sobering reality we live in.

A street artist once told me: "Graffiti is the one tangible thing we have gained from the revolution," and I agree with him.

Over the past 18 months, since graffiti began to appear on walls around Egypt during the January 25 uprising, street art has evolved into a scene of diverse styles, inspirations, methods and characters. While it is still perceived by many Egyptians to be "pointless scribbling" on the walls, Egyptian graffiti has garnered international attention and recognition.

Today, many of the artists that I have followed and whose work I have photographed over the past year have exhibited their work in international art galleries; they have been commissioned for magazine cover art and have given lectures and been featured in documentaries about their work.

It is heartening to see them receive the credit they deserve. The past months of documenting street art around Cairo have been absolutely fascinating, with thousands of graffiti produced, many of which share intelligent concepts and clean execution.

Most of the graffiti I have documented are intrinsically connected to the ebb and flow of political currents in Egypt. I like to think that you can read my country's recent history through graffiti, tracing back the chronology of protests, triumphs and failures, deaths and celebrations.

Now the walls of Cairo's streets are covered in so many layers of graffiti and posters, grime and fumes, that studying the layers is like reading a book on everything these walls have witnessed.

The uprising, the downfall, the unity and the coming apart are all shown in street art pieces like the checkmate on a chess board or the imposing tank pointing its loaded snout at a man on a bike carrying bread on his head.

There are the simple, heart-wrenching scribbles of "I want to see a new president before I die" or the more poetic "Let us unleash a revolution of love".

There are faces of cartoon characters, like the sad panda with its drooping belly and forlorn expression, or the angel-winged martyrs Mina Daniel and Sheikh Emad Effat, who have now become icons of the revolution and of religious unity in Egypt.

Daniel was shot dead by security forces during protests outside the Maspiro state TV building in October, while Sheikh Effat, a cleric at Al Azhar, was shot in the stomach by military police during protests in Tahrir Square in December.

The different influences of street art in Cairo reference everyone from Banksy to Egyptian comedic actor Ismail Yaseen, from Street Fighter to former interior minister Habib El Adly.

What started out as a new art form experimenting with different styles but heavily influenced by prominent western graffiti has since evolved into a more Egypt-conscious style, weaving Arabic calligraphy with Egyptian pop culture icons. A quote by Nietzsche is stencilled in Arabic next to the smiling face of Mohamed Reda, a popular singer and actor, symbolising the fusion of past and present, western literature with Arabic cinema, in this evolving, raw and vibrant street art.

Controversial street art rarely lasts on the streets of Cairo, especially if it touches on the army, the Islamists or sexuality. Blatant criticism of popular figures is rarely tolerated: the head of controversial Salafi politician Hazem Abu Ismail on the body of a rooster was painted over hurriedly just hours after the artists finished.

Other short-lived visuals include the soldier who carefully places a baby into a fire, and the female silhouette warning men of castration if they sexually harass a woman.

Simple but poignant graffiti resonates with me personally, such as the puppeteer wearing a military beret controlling the strings to which presidential candidates are attached. Another perfect visual is a voluptuous woman dressed in a belly-dancing outfit, carrying the scales of justice and sporting a military beret and moustache.

Much of the graffiti in Cairo has been political, if not influenced by political events. Faces stare back at you from walls all around Cairo, especially near Tahrir Square - the heartbeat of all protests since the January 25 uprising.

The faces are either heroes or villains: the enemies of the January 25 revolution have changed from Mubarak and his aides, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), and finally to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other politicians accused of betraying the revolution.

Meanwhile, the faces of martyrs lost and activists incarcerated continue to proliferate on the walls; their names too many to remember, but graffiti serves as a visual reminder and an emotional stimulus of our recent, often traumatic history.

The Mohamed Mahmoud mural is a great example of history being recorded through street art.

This mural on Mohamed Mahmoud Street - just off of Tahrir Square and the site of violent protests late last year - depicts dozens of young Egyptian men as angels, just some of the 75 young football fans who were beaten, stabbed and crushed to death in the Port Said football stampede last February.

A group of artists began painting the mural the night after the massacre. As riots unfolded on the streets around them, the artists alternated between painting the just-buried martyrs, and running to the front line to join protests.

To me, this was art and history in the making, the first time I had personally observed graffiti as an art form to reflect reality and record history - and in real time as well.

As I watched the artists paint, a group of young men in black stood in front of a particular mural and began to cry. The mural was of their friend, who had died in Port Said and had just been buried hours before.

The mural not only resonated deeply with these young mourners, but it eventually transformed the whole of Mohamed Mahmoud street into a living museum, as one writer described it, where passersby would regularly stop to have their photos taken in front of the mural and read the names of the martyrs depicted.

The mural, which took artists more than 50 days to complete, has since branched out into pharaonic murals, collages of paint and newspapers showing impoverished Egyptians wrestling with gas cylinders on their backs, and a long serpent carrying the heads of the Scaf.

It also paved the way for the seven-wall project: a collective initiative where street artists tackled the seven concrete walls built by the military to close off all side streets around Tahrir Square, transforming the walls into artistic mirages of rainbows, playgrounds and quiet streets, extending the reality of confined space into a surreal openness.

What the street artists did was profound and incredible; they visually liberated the neighbourhood of the military's imposed walls and gave the residents perspective on what life after the walls would look like.

In this sense, I like to think of street art as having the ability to reshape space, reconstruct reality and provide an alternative to the sobering reality we live in.

The past 18 months have been psychologically exhausting to say the least, but street art continues to inspire and motivate Egyptians like myself, not only for the artists' ideas and messages, but also for the resilience and determination that they demonstrate in continuing to enlighten, protest and educate passersby with their art.

Soraya Morayef is a journalist and writer based in Cairo. Her graffiti blog suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com has captured hundreds of graffiti images around Cairo since May 2011. She is currently working on her first book about street art in Cairo

Updated: August 18, 2012 04:00 AM