Afghan Graffiti

How a street art campaign in Kandahar City got under the Taliban's skin.

Casey Johnson
Casey Johnson

KANDAHAR CITY — “We’re targeting mosques,” Haidar Mohmand says to me as we dodge convoys of Afghan National Army Humvees on the road into Kandahar City, “and sporting grounds, and generally high traffic areas.” It is my third time in this southern Afghan province in as many months. As we race from the airport in a silver Corolla, the minarets of a mosque on the outskirts of town come into view and Haidar turns to me in the back seat. “Like that one,” he says. “We really wanted to make sure that we hit that mosque. It’s in a perfect location.”

Haidar is not an insurgent. He is the program manager of a small youth cultural organization based in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, that is pioneering a graffiti art campaign in support of Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential and provincial council elections scheduled for April 5th. We pull into the parking lot of the mosque, surrounding which are bright murals reading “Ballots not Bullets” and “Your Voice Your Vote.”

“People in Kandahar come in and out of this mosque five times a day, and we wanted to put something up for them that directly challenged what they might have been hearing inside.”

Though much has been made in Afghanistan of late about the rise of social media and Twitter and the way that technology is shaping these elections, often the most innovative ideas are still the most self-evident.

“In all these years, no one has ever worked with spray cans,” one of the street artists explained to me later that day as he was putting his personal tag — “Wali” — on his latest peaceful elections-themed mural downtown.

“There is a lot of painting, but there has never been any spraying. Painting is for advertisements, but what I’ve learned over the last month is that spraying is not just an artistic medium, it’s a political medium.” As far as anyone can tell, the Kandahar graffiti campaign is the first of its kind in Afghanistan. The artists working on the project learned to paint by downloading YouTube tutorials and then taught other young artists in isolated and abandoned parking lots, away from the skeptical eyes of both the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. Though the project had the official nod of the government, the fear that working in the open would provoke Taliban retaliation or wear on the anxieties of the government forces who might nix a mural midway meant the artists had to work fast.

But the Taliban soon took notice. When the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and local media began running photos of the murals to illustrate their election stories, Haidar Mohmand and the artists (whose identities must be protected for security reasons) began receiving cease and desist phone messages from local Taliban. “That’s how we are measuring our impact,” Haidar Mohmand told me. “In Kandahar, the Taliban isn’t threatening the IEC [Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission, which has come under attack recently in Kabul] they are giving us phone calls because they know these kind of messages, especially in a place like Kandahar, can have an impact on getting people to the polls.” 

The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; evident in the way that motorists and pedestrians were slowing down to take a look as some of the 30 murals across town that we visited, and the instant crowd of 30 that formed when the artists took to the street to create the final two pieces in the week before the elections.

“You see everyone thinks that just because this is Kandahar — because of the Taliban and all that — that something like street art wouldn’t work. But Kandahar has always been an artistic place. The people love color, they love art, and I think they are happy to see messages that aren’t in favor of one candidate or another, but are in favor of the act of voting, of choosing our future, not just choosing this candidate or that candidate,” one of the artists summed up as we sat in his paint strewn studio and crop of young, impressionable artists all poised over their sketch books stopped to listen.

If anything the ability to carry out a campaign like this in a city that has seen so much violence in the last decade is itself a success in itself. The fact that the community has responded positively, and most Kandaharis seemed excited about going to the polls this Saturday to choose their future, to choose “ballots over bullets,” was a sign that despite all odds, the Afghan elections just might be an incredible success.

Casey Garret Johnson is a researcher and an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.

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