Epic Mural Spanning 50 Buildings Is Only Fully Visible From One Spot
Looking out from Mokattam Mountain towards the Cairo, Egypt neighborhood of Manshiyat Naser, you’ll notice something beautiful. There, in the center of the neighborhood often referred to as Garbage City (named so for its trash-lined streets) is a painted mural that spans more than 50 buildings. From any other perspective, the swirl of orange, blue and white is beautiful but illegible. But from this mountainside, a quote from a 3rd century Coptic Bishop clearly reads in arabic calligraphy: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
The massive, anamorphic mural titled “Perception” is the work of eL Seed, a Tunisia-born, Paris-raised street artist known for his distinctive brand of “calligraffiti.” eL Seed has left his mark all around the world, but his work in Cairo has gone viral recently, partly due to its location, partly for its technical execution, and partly because of its poignant symbolism.
Manshiyat Nasr is famous for its “Garbage City” slum, where residents have created what amounts to a highly efficient human-powered recycling system. Every day residents collect garbage from around the city and bring it back to Manshiyat Nasr to be sorted by families who often specialize in a type of trash, be it paper, plastic, cans, or glass. The recyclables are then then sold, creating a self-sustaining economic model for the community. From the outside, Manshiyat Nasr looks like a landfill, covered in the stuff no one else wants. When el Seed began thinking about painting a mural in this neighborhood years ago, this was his initial perception. He figured at the very least he’d bring something beautiful to community accustomed to squalor. Then he visited the city a year ago and saw something completely different. “I was wrong idea about the people, and wrong about the place,” he says. “They don’t live in the garbage, they live from the garbage, which is something totally different.”
One day during his visit, eL Seed climbed the mountain that overlooked the neighborhood and began to plot his painting. Manshiyat Naser is built from asymmetrical brick buildings that line up like crooked teeth. To make a truly impactful mural, the painting would have to span these buildings, blending from one to the next. eL Seed has made plenty of large-scale works, but he’d never done an anamorphic painting before. Typically the artist paints freehand, eyeballing the calligraphy as he goes. “This was a totally new process,” he says. “Usually I never sketch, but on this one I had to sketch.” eL Seed took a photo from the mountainside perspective and overlaid a transparency of his circular calligraphy sketch over it in photoshop. This would be his blueprint.
Using the bricks as a grid, eL Seed began to trace the black outline, leaving the negative space blank so it could be filled in by his team of eight like a giant paint-by-numbers canvas. “I didn’t think the piece would be this big,” he says. The painting looked much smaller on his sketch, but once he began painting, the true scale hit him. “It was like, what are we gonna do?” he recalls. “It’s going to take three years to make this.” In fact it took 3 weeks to paint the walls.
Even for those who can’t read Arabic, eL Seed believes calligraphy itself—its form, its motion—is powerful enough to evoke emotion. Like a song whose words you can’t translate, “Perspective” has as much to do with feeling as it does understanding. From streets and rooftops alike, the constituent loops and curves of “Perspective” resemble the pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit together, its seeming imperfections a means to a more poetic end. “It’s a symbol,” eL Seed says, for how, “if you want to see the right image, you must change your perspective.”