This Artist Will Change Everything You Think You Know About Graffiti

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The artist eL Seed came with the best of intentions.

The French-Tunisian wanted to bring his colorful “calligraffiti” to one of the poorer neighborhoods in Cairo, one whose residents earn their living providing the city a vital service: They collect its trash, bring it back to Manshiyat Naser and then process and sort the stuff. Technically, it would be a challenge, as photos in his TED Talk, above, suggest: narrow roads stuffed with trucks, themselves filled with garbage; wary bulls; a population isolated and margnalized.

Cairo would be lost without its so-called Zabbaleen, or “people of the garbage,” but historically, they’ve been disdained. Their pigs, which chow through much of the city’s organic waste, are periodically subject to slaughter by the government. The smell is intense. As eL Seed recounts, he aimed at “beautifying a poor and neglected neighborhood by bringing art to it and hopefully shining a light on this isolated community.”

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French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed poses in front of his mural on a wall of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, France.

Source Stephane De Sakutin/Getty

But the prominent artist, who’d painted all over the world, never could have guessed what would happen. The Zabbaleen made him question the whole point of his project, he recounts.

The project involved painting on the facades of 50 buildings, so that the image itself became coherent only from a distance. Here’s what the calligrafitti said, in Arabic: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.” It took a long time, and eL Seed and his team drank countless cups of tea and had hundreds of chats in the homes of the garbage collectors of Manshiyat Naser. The artists got used to the smell. They became friends with individuals in the neighborhood and came to understand, firsthand, its ecology and dynamism. By the end, eL Seed says, he had become the very embodiment of the quotation he had painted.

“It was not about beautifying a place by bringing art to it,” an emotional eL Seed explains in his TED Talk. “It was about switching perception and opening a dialogue on the connection we have with communities that we don’t know.”

Check out more great graffiti artists and their work:

eL Seed was part of a collective that exhibited its work in Tunisia in a museum like no other.

The so-called “Banksy of Yemen,” Murad Samay, took on forced disappearances as his main subject. Quite unlike Banksy, Samay painted out in the open.

Brazilian Eduardo Kobra’s murals are crazy colorful, and you can see them in Rio, Paris and New York.

Ana Teresa Fernandez erased the U.S.–Mexico border … all the while wearing a little black dress.

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