Garbage art

A new work from Tunisian-French graffiti artist eL Seed pays tribute to Cairo’s rubbish collectors.

From street level in the Cairene neighbourhood of Manshiyat Naser, Tunisian-French graffiti artist eL Seed’s new work Perception appears to be made up of disparate elements. Orange, blue and white paint covers the top-left corner of one building and half the facade of another. The piece in its entirety is only visible from a cathedral carved within a cave on Mokkatam mountain. From this vantage, the elements come together and the script reads “anyone who wants to see the light clearly needs to wipe his eyes first”, a quote from the third century Coptic bishop Saint Athanasius.

With this work, eL Seed sheds light on Manshiyat Naser and its inhabitants, the Coptic Christian community known as the Zabbaleen, which translates as “garbage people”. They are responsible for gathering and recycling Cairo’s rubbish, a crucial yet underappreciated task.

“When I went there I realised these people are not living in the garbage, they are living with the garbage, which is totally different,” says the artist.

The Zabbaleen, whom eL Seed describes as “the most generous people” he has met, are impoverished and viewed as second class citizens. They collect rubbish from homes in Cairo, transporting it with donkey carts and living amid piles of refuse in their own neighbourhood, which they sort through industriously. Sorted garbage is sold to middle men or repurposed while organic waste is fed to animals.

“The Zabbaleen are so well-educated, well-mannered and honest,” says the artist. “One of my team members lost his wallet but it was returned to him with everything inside. Yet just because of what they do, people will look at them the wrong way. The poorest of the poor will view them in a condescending way and the richest of the rich will do the same.”

EL Seed, who briefly worked as a rubbish collector as a teenager in suburban Paris, says he identified with them. “Garbage is something we are connected to every day. I worked with the garbage trucks in France and I saw how people looked at me. When you are a cleaner or a garbage guy, there is always this stigma.”

It took eL Seed and a team of 21 artists three weeks to paint the mural. The anamorphic artwork covers more than 50 buildings, beautifying a section of Cairo that for decades has been associated with squalor. Once complete the image, partially composed of fluorescent white paint, was illuminated for one night only for the community as a tribute to their unsung work. The reaction, he says, “was overwhelming”.

“I feel like these people are the perfect mirror of our society—how much we waste and how much we consume,” he says. “Everything they have is not their own, it is from Cairo. They themselves say they are not the people of the garbage, the people of Cairo are the people of the garbage because they create it.”

Born to Tunisian parents in France, eL Seed spent his youth in the suburbs of Paris. He channelled his multicultural upbringing into a form of artistic expression, blending Arabic calligraphy with graffiti, an art form now known as calligraffiti. Though his work has gained significant popularity, with exhibitions from Los Angeles to Melbourne and high-profile collaborations with the likes of the label Louis Vuitton, eL Seed says he is careful to stay true to the essence of street art as a political tool, even as it becomes increasingly mainstream and lucrative as a genre.

“The commercialisation of street art has changed its nature,” he says. “Sometimes I feel we have really lost the meaning of it. Some artists now don’t work on anything unless it is within the frame of a festival or an event or a brand.”

Perception, which is being turned into a documentary, was entirely self-funded. El Seed used money from the sale of his artwork— which typically fetches between $5,000 and $15,000 at auction—to fund the project.

From the few canvasses I sold in the last few months, I told [the buyers] that I was working on this new project and the sale would help me fund it. It is really up to the artist to stay responsible to what they are doing. It shouldn’t be about the money. It’s nice to be able to keep your independence