From the living room of my Brooklyn apartment, I’m having a conversation via Skype with a self-described “part-time vandal and photographer” who’s lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the last 3 years. I tracked him down because I was curious about a workshop he and his friends organized there last year to teach local youth to paint graffiti and murals using spray paint. His name isn’t John, but let’s call him John anyway. John tells me Kabul is “a pretty safe place to live.” I am more than skeptical, but he presses, backing up his claim. “Last year the city endured the least number of attacks since…” To be honest, I didn’t write down the “since” part. Sure, he said, when you hear about something happening, it gets headline attention, but lately the attack is a small one, on a small structure, and only every few months. He’s clearly hopeful about, and invested in, Kabul’s future.
John is part of Combat Communications, a loose collective comprising a few creative-minded friends in Kabul who plan events like the workshop, hoping that, along with their own public art efforts, they can encourage locals to express themselves and demand a stake in their rapidly changing culture. In the last five years, population in the post-Taliban city has surged from half a million to over 5 million. But cultural growth has lagged far behind. There’s little art, no music, no sports; John tells me. “Kabul is a city waiting to be reborn, as far as culture goes.” He describes the messages that are showing up in public space– billboards advertising cell phones, and social marketing such as NATO billboards urging citizens not to make opium, or not to become suicide bombers. “But there’s no voice back,” he said.
For all the ugly, blank walls in Kabul, John and his friends noticed some basic graffiti, but no art, no murals. “We thought we’d see what would happen.” They started pasting up flyers and painting stencils on walls, hoping to get people to start thinking about the complex issues facing the population–for instance, the cost of war itself. How much does the war cost? (About $1,000 per second, apparently.) The guys stenciled helicopters; they tried blending graphics with iconic symbols. Some symbols are universal, such as the question mark and our dollar sign. “Everyone knows exactly how much a dollar is worth here,” John said. (About 47 afghani, at the time of this writing.) Some messages were sprayed in the widely spoken Dari language, some in English. Sometimes they simply painted street names, as guys with machine guns stopped to watch.
John’s descriptions of painting and pasting up art during the day caught my attention. Businesses often advertise through hand-lettered signs on buildings, he explained, so painting on a wall in a city where many different nationalities, ethnic groups and languages coexist does not necessarily cause alarm. I was impressed with his freedom to be subversive, and concluded, “so it’s not really illegal, then?” That’s when John confided a story to me about an unfortunate experience he had pasting up flyers at night. Sneaking around after dark in an effort to vandalize a military base in Afghanistan, it turns out, is–well, a bad idea. The moral: if you want to be a vandal in Kabul, hide in plain sight.
I thought about cultural attitudes toward public art in New York, about how cops tracked poor Moustache Man for two months until busting him in Manhattan recently. And just this weekend I had the misfortune of watching a city worker paint over a pristine original QRST painting that had been minding its own business on a temporary wall in Brooklyn.
A world away in Kabul, John and his friends were getting up enough that the Internet took notice, dubbing the group Talibanksy for its provocative, Banksy-esque graphics and messages. They began with simple stencils, such as poppies and Taliban figures, just to see what would happen, John said. “Everyone has an opinion, but I don’t think everyone is used to expressing it through street art. So we wanted to put it out there and see what we got back.” When “Talibanksy” attracted some attention, the friends started wondering what other ways they could contribute to Kabul’s nascent culture. “Music, art, graffiti, whatever we can do,” John said.
Someone came up with the idea of teaching street art, but no one in the group is primarily a painter, so the guys invited a friend, UK artist Wayne “Chu” Edwards, to come to Kabul and lead a workshop to teach young locals about spray-painting really big walls. Some walls were offered at an unused factory a few miles outside of Kabul, in Bagrami, and the workshop became Combat Comms’ Wallords of Afghanistan project. Chu spent a week teaching nine young artists, including three women, how to translate their own designs and sketches onto walls. He had to teach the students how to use spray-paint, but he didn’t have much to work with. “It’s hard to get paint,” John says. “It’s pretty crap, obviously you can’t get any good nozzles. You use what you can.”
In addition to paint technique, Chu found he first had to instruct the artists about this form of expression itself. As Chu explained how painting on big surfaces would work, one student asked, “don’t you think that [the work] will be disturbing?” Well, yeah, John says, recounting how innocent some of the students’ questions were, “that’s kind of the point.”
Chu said the artists all took to the project remarkably quickly, and when asked what he hoped the artists would get out of participating in the workshops, John told me, “We’re just trying to give them some tools and let them find their own way, really.” But he’s also hoping that the new knowledge of how to translate their ideas to big walls will pave the way for opportunities to see public art get a foothold in a city which has a lot of ugly walls. “We obviously don’t want to get young artists put into prison; we’re looking for legal ways to beautify the city in some way.” John noted that the United Nations and all of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the area have huge compounds, and he’s hoping some of them will grant artists permission to create murals on those walls.
According to the description of the project posted on the group’s Vimeo page, “Combat Communications are not trying to start a revolution. That’s the last thing this place needs, but we do believe that self-expression has a place here as much as the streets of Tehran or Palestine. Besides all that there’s a lot of blank, ugly looking, bullet-riddled walls crying out for a bit of color.”
John told me that since the workshop, held last December, one of the workshop’s female students has been commissioned by aid organizations to paint some murals. Perhaps it will lead to more work, and more art, because, he says, Kabul is a very small community, a bit of a village. “Everybody knows everybody here, much like Brooklyn, probably.”
With this comparison he gets me thinking more about similarities than differences. When I had asked him about living in Kabul forever, he had told me, “It’s the most frustrating place in the world. The longer you stay, the less you know. After a few months you think you know it; after three years, you realize you don’t know anything.”
But then, after he spends a week away, he said, “you feel like you have to get back. You wonder, oh, what am I missing. It’s like a really bad relationship.” It’s funny, that’s how I’ve heard many people describe New York. He adds, “There are holes in the road, nothing really works properly, but, things work, you know. It’s kind of a miracle.“
But, unlike New York, Kabul is a city of concrete blast walls engaged in a war that costs an estimated $1,000 a second. After the drawdown, what then? The vandal/professional journalist says, “When troops pull out of a city, the media follows…and it becomes just another country no one cares about.”
I hope not.