Amidst the forgotten walls of old warehouses and battle-scarred buildings, a graffiti crew in Mazar-e Sharif is gradually turning the city into a gallery while raising awareness of societal issues. But can they inspire an aerosol era?
One of Talalo's two female members sprays a well-known battle cry. (Photo: Rahimi)
Their words scream from the crumbling walls of an abandoned government warehouse now squatted by drug addicts on the edge of Mazar-e Sharif: “Camp for abandoned addicts,” reads one spray-painted slogan. “No more silence,” demands another.
After Philadelphia, New York, London, Paris and Rio, graffiti has arrived in this northwestern Afghan city, along with the 'tags', or signature marks, of indiividual artists. And true to the genre, the focus of the urban art crew 'Talalo' is on social issues - inequality, oppression, alienation, poverty, drug addiction, all condensed and jetted onto the cityscape with an angry rush of compressed air: “Graphic art is a kind of silent protest,” photographer Qees Osyaan, the crew’s founder, told Afghanistan Today. "It is a way to fight social problems.”
Drawing from the global currency of pop culture icons like Che Guevara, Osyaan and Talalo want to make graffiti as common as other arts in Afghanistan – focusing initially on targeting students and graduates.
The raw materials and environment are in plentiful supply in the country, points out Osyaan - Shattered buildings, forgotten facades and plentiful supplies of old paint. What to many is a landscape of war, to graffiti artists is a blank canvas.
“Graphic art is ideal because it is cheap, accessible and less time consuming,” says Osyaan, his face covered by a bandana. “It is a way for people to help raise questions and issues.”
Qees Osyaan, Talalo's founder. (Photo: Rahimi)
In a recent project, Talalo painted an old abandoned government factory that is now a shelter for 500 or so opium addicts, chosen by the group for three reasons. “Firstly, drug addicts are a forgotten segment of Afghan society," said Osyaan, adding that in the case of the factory, it is more a case of 'swept from view' rather than forgotten: According to him, the provincial authorities actively relocated many drug users from the Silo area of Mazar-e Sharif to the factory in the last two years.
"Secondly, warehouses that were once productively used by the government have now turned into ruins." The walls now adorned with Talalo's graffiti once belonged to a sesame and raisin factory destroyed during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
“Finally, this is also a route through which foreign forces mostly commute,” Osyaan said, describing two different intended audiences for the art work. "The first dimension is protest aimed at foreign troops, leaders and institutions in powers. The second part of the message is directed at ordinary people. It's trying to raise awareness."
Talalo’s members are drawn from a diverse cross-section of mainly educated graduates: doctors, lawyers, journalists, poets and authors are all active in the crew. Two are young female students. And while their work might be conceived as something new for the city, Osyaan points out that it can be viewed as a more spontaneous progression of the public signposting that already exists: “Election posters and commercials already do this,” says Osyaan.
Balkh police have no time to keep track of these youngsters street by street." Sheer Jan Dorani, police spokesman.
Despite the burgeoning street gallery, the police have not yet set up an anti-graffiti squad. And it seems they don't intend to any time soon. “Balkh Province Police does not know about this group and besides, we have so many things to do that we have no time to keep track of these youngsters street by street,” said Sheer Jan Dorani, spokesman for the Balkh Provincial Police Headquarters.
Nor do the artists see why they would be concerned. “We paint public walls,” said Osyaan. “Neither people nor the municipality have anything to do with these walls. We do not have to inform the security forces or the municipality of what we do,” believes Talalo's founder.
Spray nozzle versus stone chisel: A man peruses verse inscribed in the marble plaques of the Wall of the Educated. (Photo: Rahimi)
Interestingly, Talalo are not the only people trying to turn Mazar-e Sharif’s streets into a gallery. In 2006, the Wall of the Educated, paid for the by Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, was inaugurated at a high school east of the Blue Mosque to celebrate Balkh’s cultural heritage.
While Talalo draws on contemporary influences, the Wall of the Educated celebrates the rich history of engravings, which date back to the arrival of Islam in Afghanistan over a thousand years ago. The ornate wall is adorned with images, biographies and quotes of poets, authors and scholars from Balkh’s history, engraved in white and black marble.
Mahdee Niazi, an artist whose images are featured on the mural, believes the work is a cultural symbol of Afghanistan. “It is an attempt to help current generations and generations to come to become familiar with their ancestors,” says Niazi.
Then there are those looking forward, like Talalo. But for the all the nascent enthusiasm of the Balkh graffiti artists, Mazar still follows where Kabul leads. Street art has become a more regular feature of the capital's walls.
Shamsia Hassani, a female graffiti artist who started painting in the street after a workshop organised by the arts NGO Combat Communications in 2010, believes that art should be public.
"Graffiti is a great way to bring art to uneducated people," says Hassani, who has become famous for her large freehand murals depicting women wearing modified burqas.
A Shamsia Hassani wall in Kabul. (Photo: Shamsia Hassani)
"I change the shape of the burqa to a strong and happy one," says Hassani, who is also an acrylic and oil painter, as well as a professor at the Kabul University of Fine Arts.
"In most of my works the words the women say are incomplete. Often they are poems or things I couldn't say in public," she says, citing one example, which reads "The water will return to the river but what of the dead fish?"
Hassani hopes her art can have a "positive effect to change Afghanistan." Yet while she says she tries to paint in well-known streets, security, both as a public artist and a woman, remains a major concern.
"Sometimes I am afraid of how people will react and this stops me painting in many public streets," says the artist, who is working on a new stencil campaign she hopes will broaden the reach of her work while reducing the risk.