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Writing on Walls in Times of War

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: eL Seed

On Feb. 16, 2011, a 14-year-old boy and his friends pulled a prank in their hometown of Daraa in southern Syria. They scrawled the walls of their schoolyard with spray paint: “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Your turn is coming, doctor,” in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The words started a war.

Syrian security forces made an example of the children, detaining and torturing them for more than a month. In the wake of their release, what began as a local protest movement morphed into an international conflict that still rages today, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. Their words were the first, but certainly not the last, protest painted on the walls of Syria’s civil war.

Over decades and even centuries of conflict, political art has become part of the landscape of war. Graffiti is, by definition, an act of defiance, and as political art, it’s especially suited to battle. Graffiti goes up quickly and leaves a bold mark, even after authorities destroy the evidence.

Where they don’t, the art remains — a proud and painful reminder of a shared history of violence and strength.

Our history of writing on walls in times of war is long and storied. WWI graffiti in France shows soldiers “wanted to be remembered.” US Civil War graffiti shows the same. Today’s protests range from simple but powerful phrases of resistance to intricate exhibitions spread across multiple buildings.

What follows is just a sampling of the powerful art of resistance in times of war:

kilroy inkstick media
In the 1940s, Kilroy popped up everywhere – on the streets, at barracks, and on military equipment. The inscription came to be so closely associated with the war that it was engraved on the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Thierry Noir spent five years painting the Berlin Wall illegally every day. “I wanted to cover the wall with colours to wrap it up with paintings, to make it luminous, to show it like a mutation in the city, a mutation in art and nature,” he says. “I could not make the wall beautiful because in fact it would have been absolutely impossible to do so”. (Guardian)
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Dmitri Vrubel’s famous painting, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” is one of the best known of the Berlin wall’s murals. The painting is based on a real photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a fraternal embrace. (Calvert Journal)
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Yemeni artist Murad Subay paints about hunger, death and destruction, and restrictions on freedom of speech in Yemen. He’s been called the Yemeni Banksy. (Getty Images)
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Belfast’s streets are filled with reminders of the country’s long-simmering tensions. (Holson House)
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But a new generation of street artists has come forward to take the city in a new direction. (SMUG)
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Yemeni artist Murad Subay paints about hunger, death and destruction, and restrictions on freedom of speech in Yemen. He’s been called the Yemeni Banksy. (Getty Images)
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In the Syrian town of Kafranbel, calligraphy is used in the struggle against the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Artists use Twitter to post pictures of messages they have written, to amplify their voice. (Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution)
el seed inkstick media
Calligraffiti blossomed in the Middle East during the Arab spring. Public art had previously been dominated by dictators’ statues and murals of themselves. eL Seed’s “Perception” spans more than 50 buildings in Cairo’s Manshiyat Nasr ward, home to a community of Coptic Christians who serve as the city’s garbage recyclers. The mural spells out words from the third-century Coptic bishop Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first” and is only visible from a specific point on nearby Muqattam Mountain. (eL Seed)
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Shamsia Hassani, one of Afghanistan’s first female street artists, creates vibrant murals on Kabul’s walls, hoping to beautify the city and give Afghan women a voice. “Because I’m a girl, even if I don’t do art, if I just walk in the street, I will hear a lot of words,” she says. “And if I do art, then they will come to harass me.” (UCLA)
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In Lebanon, Yazan Halwani creates portraits of Lebanese cultural icons, hoping to unite a country divided by civil war. (Economist)

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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