Art in a war zone

talks to veteran James Toler about the celebration of military grafitti and the expression of freedom

Veteran James Toler is proving to the world that art really is everywhere. It was when serving in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot in 2002 that the 29-year-old first noticed the intense street art that decorated the army encampment. The former soldier is now trying to document the paintings of soldiers for future generations.

So, what was it that made James want to preserve this street art? “To me, art is the ultimate expression of freedom; art without military reference (the pictures of cartoons or almost nude ladies) made on government walls during a conflict or war, and made by the participants of the event is rare. Personal expression on government walls is illegal, like graffiti on the cement walls around the White House.”

photo credit: James Toler

photo credit: James Toler

The way wars are fought has changed dramatically over the years, but James believes that this is what has provided soldiers with the opportunity to express themselves through graffiti. “In the modern battlefield, the introduction of cement protection walls has given the tag artist a canvas to express themselves. A war that has lasted so long gave them time to make it. Thousands of people walked past the walls. Some tolerated it, while others appreciated the respite from their reality of being there. As with all great war art, the nose art on planes as an example, we will come to appreciate it more as time passes.

“We have the ability to save some of the walls now for generations to come, for all those that watched it play out on the internet and TV, for those that sacrificed, lost loved ones, or even for those that protested the occupation. All will see tangible evidence of the emotions, desires and dreams painted onto Protection Walls. The walls will be a monument for all we have lost, and reminders of what not to do.”

photo credit: James Toler

photo credit: James Toler

The use of art within the military is not a recent development, there have always been people making it, but before it predominantly military centric such as logos for military units. “In 2010 I began to notice that street style art without a military association started to appear near public places in troop occupied camps in Afghanistan, mostly because of the cement protection walls.”

The majority of paintings are in Kandahar, but aren’t limited to this area of the war zone, as James tells me; “My exposure was limited, I had seen some in Bagram Airbase also and I am told there are some in most camps now.”

photo credit: James Toler

photo credit: James Toler

What’s more, they aren’t limited to just the American bases. “Today’s military occupation is a coalition event, with group encampments segregated by protection walls. All camps had some form of art, the Germans and Australians had artwork. The Canadians always posted their Maple Leaf on things…And Zerosix was painted in the coolest camp, the British Camp! It was the obscure risqué tags made in the American occupied areas that seemed to be purest forms to me.”

Given the military’s notorious discipline, it is a surprise that the soldier’s artwork has lasted even this long. “I am no expert on military law, but I have found that according to article 108 of the Uniform Code Of Military Justice, destruction of government property is vague though can have serious repercussions; forfeiture of pay and jail time. The Tags were tolerated for a long time, as most had military reference, I hear that some are being painted over now.”

photo credit: James Toler

photo credit: James Toler

A war zone isn’t really where one would expect to find a paint shop, so, how did the soldiers get the materials? “In the early days it was paint used on Government products, so the colours were limited. After the forces were embedded, you could go to a self-help area and request paint for area projects. I guess that is how they got it.”

James has received a mixed reaction to his project, “some hard liners think I will instigate more graffiti, while others applaud my action and encourage me to continue informing the public.”

Some of the art itself has also proved controversial: “Having nude pictures in a country where women are required to wear Burkas is taboo, as are slogans that may be anti-war.”

The big question, though, is which is “They are all good, though the young girl with a gun is my fave.”

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