Revolutionary Graffiti of the Arab Uprisings: Between City Walls and the Digital Sphere

TitleRevolutionary Graffiti of the Arab Uprisings: Between City Walls and the Digital Sphere
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Kraidy, M. M.
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Pennsylvania
Section or WGPopular Culture Working Group
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodePOPW4b
Slot Code (Keyword)POPW4b
Time of Session16:00-17:30
Session TitleDe /Formations of the Popular
Submission ID5479

Drawn from a book project on creative dissent in the Arab uprisings, this paper examines graffiti of these popular rebellions. Based on (1) a personally photographed corpus of hundreds of graffiti, (2) an examination of blogs and Facebook pages dedicated to this street art, and (3) personal interviews with a handful of graffiti artists, conducted during 13 months of residential field research (from June 2011 to August 2012) in the Arab world, this paper makes the argument that revolutionary graffiti is a unique form of creative dissent that is reflexive, dialogical, and viral, across multiple media platforms—from city walls to mobile media. Beginning with an analysis of a series of stencil graffiti that critique media and popular culture, I argue that graffiti can be understood as heterotopia, an elsewhere to the media system, from which critiques of that media system can be articulated. It is in this sense that revolutionary graffiti are reflexive: they are a prime site for critiques of television, video, Facebook and Twitter, etc. Iconographic stencils spread between Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, reaching audiences who have no access to social media. By connecting various media platforms, graffiti play an important role in constructing what I called elsewhere hypermedia space—a space of signification woven across multiple media. Graffiti are viral because stencils are easily duplicated and proliferated, uploaded by their creators on Facebook pages, downloaded by activists in other locations, and within hours appear on walls in multiple cities. Stencil graffiti designs created by Egyptian artists have through Facebook postings, tweets, and in some cases multimedia text messages, been appropriated by Syrian revolutionaries and appear on Beirut walls, with the Lebanese capital becoming a vast canvas of Syrian revolutionary and counter-revolutionary graffiti, since Syrian cities have become exceedingly dangerous. In many instances various individuals unknown to each other or to the original creator proliferate one stencil. Because stencils are standardized cultural forms, they can be proliferated by multiple activists, including those with low artistic skills, who simply print, cut, paste and spray. Graffiti are a dialogical form because once they are sprayed on walls, they are subverted, modified, and appropriated by various actors who wage representational battles on city walls. The paper will feature the example of a stencil of the Syrian opposition, ubiquitous in Beirut, featuring a television screen with the caption: “Syrian Media: Liar,” and will show how this stencil triggered a heated visual “debate” on city walls, between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, escalating from attacks on Syrian regime media, to opposition media, to Al-Jazeera and other Arab media, and finally to a critique of media and representation at large. I tracked these anonymous discussions by taking photos daily, mapping how one stencil yielded a dozen different messages.

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