Monday, August 1, 2011

Germany and Egypt: graffiti, art or vandalism redux

Sam Tarling for The International Herald Tribune
An Egyptian street artist who goes by the name Keiser works on a stencil that depicts an ant in an underpass in the Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek.
 While writing about graffiti is perhaps a long way from humanitarian travel, it can be linked to an aspect of human rights - or can it? Is graffiti, as I've read many many times in the past few months, art or vandalism? In Brazil, it's an emblem of cultural identity promoting tourism while in Afghanistan it promotes political solidarity and protest artists are encouraged and supported by foreign donors. This week, two news articles addressed graffiti. In Germany, an artist, while famous, was jailed. In Egypt, the proliferation of graffiti has 'revolutionized' a country where tolerance for all kinds of street art symbolizes not just political protest and a regime change, but freedom of expression.

On Friday, a judge in Hamburg, Germany, dealt a 14 month prison sentence to 61 year-old street artist OZ (aka Walter F.) whose been painting graffiti for 20 years. According to the article reprinted in Worldcrunch from Die Welt, Walter F. , or OZ,  has been saying he’s half-Jewish since the 1990s, which is why – in his opinion – “Nazis and the squeaky-clean brigade” are after him. Since 1992 he's been at times arrested and medically evaluated, but for now he is simply jailed as way to keep the peace.Not everyone finds his work a nuisance. Sometimes referred to as “The Wizard of OZ,” a coffee table book called Sprühling features his 'sprayings' the Spiegal has described him as a hero in the hip-hop scene, while in Hamburg and Berlin you can find his work on gallery walls. Asks author of the article, Martina Goy, "Is OZ a pioneer who, after a long career, can now be considered a recognized graffiti artist, or a stubborn maniac using spray painting as a way to get attention that – were he to lead a socially acceptable and unremarkable life – would not otherwise be forthcoming."
Graffiti-Sprayer "OZ"
Foto: dpa  Walter F. in Schanzenviertel in Hamburg

In The Maturing of Street Art in Cairo, New York Times writer Josh Wood recognizes emerging graffiti artist with the pseudonym Ganzeer, a 29 year-old graphic designer. According to Ganzeer,  “After the revolution broke out, I think there’s just a wider, just a general reception for seeing people doing something on the street.” Wood notes that a thinning of police forces and a "more tolerant atmosphere among residents toward the public art" has allowed graffiti to flourish. Beginning with slogans supporting the overthrow of Mubarek, the writings and the art itself have become more sophisticated and it is not always political, for example, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.” The article states that in May, Ganzeer created what he called his "freedom mask." It is described as "a sticker depicting a head in a gimp mask, the mouth gagged and the eyes covered. Arabic text relayed greetings from the military council that rules Egypt and announced that the new freedom mask was now available." Frustrated with the military assuming the role of a figure of authority and governing powers — and basically doing everything we’ve been protesting against,” together with other artists, Ganzeer  created a  tank facing off with a bread seller under a bridge in Zamalek. 

Perhaps, like all things cultural and subjective, historical, social and political contexts need be considered. So what's your take, vandalism or art? 
For "OZ," Germany's unrepentant graffiti artist is going back to jail" click here.
 For the Maturing Street art of Cairo click here.

Graffiti: At 'Home' and in the Street
Graffiti: vandalism or art?

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