Society and Culture

Egyptian Political Artist Ganzeer on Street Art and Political Protest

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Egyptian political artist Ganzeer was first featured in Political Graffiti two months ago after the Egyptian government and state-sponsored media conducted a campaign to tarnish the artist’s image. Since then, Ganzeer was profiled in The New York Times and is in New York City. After meeting him for the first time after his talk at Interference Archive in Brooklyn on July 23, he agreed to sit down for an interview.

Ryan Purcell: Where does the name “Ganzeer” come from? 

Ganzeer: Ganzeer is Arabic for “speed chain,” the sort of chain typically seen on bikes. My thinking behind the name is that these chains aren’t usually the source of motion on a bicycle, but as a mere connector it enables the motion to happen, which is very much how I feel about the role of artists in society.

RP: Can you describe the first time you produced graffiti? 

G: The very first time was in 2008. I knew nothing about making street art; I was not very much a hands on person. I was sketching a lot, but a lot of the work I was doing also involved using the computer a lot as opposed to using paint and spray-paint, and like messy tools. You know? Some friends of mine in Alexandria, much younger than myself — Aya Tarek, Wensh, and Nabil — they had already been doing street art for a while in Alexandria, and they were telling me that I should come up to Alexandria, which is a few hours away from Cairo by train. We scouted some walls, each one of us came up with an idea, and we helped each other. Without their knowledge, I wouldn’t have been able to make my first piece. 

It was three monkeys, but instead of the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, it was reversed. So there was a monkey looking — seeing through binoculars — another monkey who was speaking through a mega phone, and another monkey who was listening through this listening device. I sketched it out first on a piece of paper, and then had it scanned and fixed it up digitally. We printed the image on transparent sheets, and cut through them to make a stencil. Then you staple them to the wall you’re doing.

That piece lasted only about a week before it was censored, covered in black paint. But my friends had been doing street art for two years, and none of their pieces were ever censored. 

RP: When you were making art during the Egyptian revolution, were you aware of how it was influencing the protests? 

G: Everyone cheered for my slogan “Down with Mubarak and his Family;” it was meaningful to a lot of people to see it in public space. Imagine you and everyone you know knows something, which is spoken at little cafes and on the street. And one day that thing is finally chanted out loud in big numbers; and not only that, but that thing is written in public space; this thing that everyone knows but no one’s allowed to talk about in public. It’s kinda like that, but this thing has kinda been weighing on people’s chests for so long, just being spoken, and being written in public space was so massive and so important. 

Sarah Carr cc via Flickr

Sarah Carr cc via Flickr

Of course, the more its written, though, the more it exists in public space, the less significant it is. You need to up your game. For example, if you spray the same slogan the people cheer the first time they see it, and maybe the fiftieth or the hundredth it just becomes so normal and so whatever in public space. But maybe there are still things that need to be pushed, and there are still nerves that need to be pressed, right? There will always be an elephant in the room. 

You realize that you always have to up your game, whether that means saying the same thing differently, or saying something different. So, maybe just a shitty little slogan sprayed quickly is not impactful anymore, and you need to do a nice designed stencil and that grabs people’s attention. And when you have more of those, you take it bigger to a mural size. Also, maybe the message itself must be changed. So when Mubarak was out of the picture, “Down with Mubarak” is out, and now we have to move on to “okay, actually the military that everyone is cheering is actually the problem.” 

Everyone was ready for “Down with Mubarak” — it had been thirty years, everyone was sore. But with the military, everyone was like “What do you mean, they were with us?” And maybe they’re not so ready about it. That’s when things become a little tricky, a little more difficult, when you start tackling things people are maybe no so willing to accept so easily. You have to become more subversive, less direct. 

So, with the Tank vs bicycle piece, the subversiveness is in the process of making it, where the tank takes the most time to make. When people pass, especially military police, they think you’re making a pro-military piece; they only see you drawing a really big tank. But once you’re done with the tank and you put in the bicycle, the message becomes complete, which alters the entire message of the piece. So the aspect that gives it bite should take the least amount of time so you can do it quickly and get away.

RP: Who censors Egyptian political graffiti? 

G: When it’s officially a government decision, the military would cover the murals and graffiti with paint — this really horrible color on most walls in Cairo, this beige, off-white “blah” color. It’s kind of the official government supply of paint they use to cover all the walls in Cairo anyway. But for the most part, acts of censorship have been done by citizens, more so than the government.

RP: What is the greatest source of inspiration for the content of your art?

G: It’s there in the public discourse. It’s what people are taking about; it’s an important issue. We’re all aware of it, it’s there. Other pieces require actual research for concrete information. But in general, it would be based on some kind of idea. 

One of the pieces I am working on right now, has to do with a cop who was charged with the murder of a suspect [Eric Garner]. Everyone knows about it, and it was in the news for a while, and now its just gone. 

RP: Do you perceive injustice in the United States? 

G: Police brutality, which in probably endemic everywhere in the world. The United States, and New York City in particular, is not exempt from that problem. The last incident is the guy who was choked to death for no reason whatsoever. He did not have any weapons on him, and all the eyewitnesses even claimed that he was breaking up a fight. The police arrested him for selling cigarettes illegally — which were not in his possession — and in the process of arresting him, choked him to death. The NYPD does not show shame for these acts. 

Police brutality definitely exists in Egypt and Bahrain. I think it exists in most places. Maybe we must reexamine the very concept of a police force in general, because there was a time when police forces did not exist. 

"Be Brutal"  (2014) courtesy of Ganzeer

“Be Brutal” (2014) courtesy of Ganzeer

RP: Do you perceive economic injustice in the world today?

G: The global economic system, as a whole, which is heralded by the United States in particular, is to a large extent to blame for injustice throughout the world. There is already a lot of evidence pointing to the United States and the IMF leading to a lot of huge economic gaps in a lot of places in the world, and the United States itself is not exempt from that issue. There are places like Switzerland or Sweden, which have a more mixed economic system where the government is involved in providing public services; but in the United States you find that almost everything is done by a private company, and private companies only seek profit. So that is the problem. Then there is the problem of exporting that mentality throughout the world. 

I think the United States has done a pretty good job at propagating the notion that a dictatorship  is somehow linked to communism and socialism, because a lot of America’s enemies in the past have been countries like Russia or Cuba. Now, to a large extent, it has a touchy relationship with China. And it’s not like China is communist anyway, for that matter. But where I come from, the notions of dictatorship, fascism, and authoritarianism can very much be linked to capitalism, because we in Egypt have been suffering from a capitalist dictatorship for a very long time, supported by the United States — it is a capitalist dictatorship. Somehow in the vocabulary of Americans, capitalism does not go hand-in-hand. Where I come from, it is exactly the same thing, because that is what we had for a very long time; we have never experienced capitalism and democracy, it’s only been capitalism and dictatorship combined. Having capitalism obviously doesn’t mean that you’re living in a free world. Finally enough, dictatorships can also relish in capitalism — having power consolidated between yourself and a handful of businessmen, that’s pretty much the idea. 

RP: Do you have any advice for artists who want to use graffiti as a political force today?

G: Street artists are going to go out there and do something risky and dangerous, but they are going to put their ideas in public space. My only advice is make it worth while, whatever it is — worth the risk, and danger of putting it out there.


Ryan D. Purcell (@RyanDPurcell) holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University where he explored the intersection between hip hop graffiti writers and art collectives on the Lower East Side. His research is based on experience working with the Newark Public Arts Project and from tagging independently throughout New Jersey and New York.

Featured image courtesy of [Wolfgang Sterneck via Flickr]

Ryan Purcell
Ryan D. Purcell holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University where he explored the intersection between hip hop graffiti writers and art collectives on the Lower East Side. His research is based on experience working with the Newark Public Arts Project and from tagging independently throughout New Jersey and New York. Contact Ryan at



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