Using graffiti to paint politics in the Arab world

Diana Moukalled

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“Oh government, drawing is not a crime.”

Egypt’s official announcement that it’s looking into a draft law to ban “abusive” graffiti on public and private buildings angered graffiti artists in Egypt. 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 targeting public taste refer to the wave of graffiti that has filled walls for the past two and a half years.

This wave continues as it’s become an artistic echo of the country’s politics. Of course, the military rule and the violations it’s 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 Daraa 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 restraining attempts our societies witness.

Before the revolutions

Before the revolutions, graffiti was exclusive to regimes.

We haven’t yet forgotten the writings and photographs on Baghdad’s walls which glorified Saddam Hussein and his statements. The same applies to Syria, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia as rulers’ statements and miserable murals on their alleged heroisms occupied streets and public spaces.

Graffiti has become directly linked to political activity. It has become a dedicated form of expression

Diana Moukalled

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 U.S. as 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 haven’t 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 relation 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.

This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Nov. 11, 2013.


Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV. She can be found on Twitter: @dianamoukalled.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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