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The writing on Kabul's walls

Dy, a.k.a. "Dysprosium," a name taken from a rare chemical element and meant to suggest his elusive nature, glides across the underbelly of the edgy city. It's after midnight in Kabul, approaching a favored hour for would-be suicide bombers to enter the city while security forces sleep, so they can strike during the morning rush.

Dy, however, is armed only with cans of spray paint, and his intentions are peaceful: to alter the drab contours of this embattled city.

Identifying a wall, Dy pulls the paint cans out of his bag and works quickly, writing slogans and crafting images that rail against corruption, repression and the malign influence of drug money.

"You need to speak the truth and accept risks," said the gangly twentysomething, dressed in a red T-shirt, stovepipe jeans and a scarf that doubles as a face covering. He asked to be identified only by his tagging name, citing concern for his safety. "I'm trying to make people question themselves, to wonder why we have such a situation in Afghanistan."

Kabul may be short of many things, but it has lots of concrete blast walls. And that is inspiring a group of nascent graffiti artists to give voice, however fearfully, to a biting critique of graft, economic inequality and the second-class status of women in their country.

Protest graffiti is a new and still-tentative mode of expression in a society with little tradition of social dissent. Like their Western counterparts, Afghan wall writers work furtively and sometimes at night to avoid arrest. But their scribblings don't lionize street gangs, entertainers or sports teams.

"Parliament shouldn't be filled with criminals," says one scrawl, in Dari, on the block-long wall of the Teachers Training University in Kabul, a prime canvas for protest graffiti.

"Capitalism is a dragon that's slowly swallowing Afghanistan," proclaims another.

The pervasiveness of police checkpoints and private security guards has put a premium on terse, quickly applied graffiti — images of soldiers, dollar signs, poppies, helicopters and tanks, a commentary on the Afghan war's enormous cost in lives and money.

Dy's favorite scrawls include "parliament = this barn," on the wall of a stable, suggesting that both buildings produce manure, and "warlord = jackass."

Historically, graffiti in Afghanistan was mostly advertising — for translation services, real estate agents and handymen. In the 1980s, Afghan mujahedin used graffiti to taunt their Soviet occupiers, scrawling messages on destroyed tanks and artillery. More recently, NATO forces and the Taliban have waged "tagging duels" on village walls, particularly in disputed southern provinces.

In some ways, Kabul is a graffiti artist's dream, with its post-apocalyptic landscape reminiscent of "Escape from New York," the 1981 film about a lawless, walled-off city. Ugly blast walls shield most public buildings and upscale houses downtown.

"You can't find good-quality canvas in Kabul," says Farid Khurrami, a sculptor and graffiti artist. "But we certainly have enough walls."

Khurrami's spray-paints white flowers. "It's about peace," he says. "Obviously, Afghanistan really needs peace."

Safety is a concern for many taggers, particularly women. It's difficult enough to move around during daylight hours, let alone at night when it's easiest to tag, said Ommolbanin Shamsia Hassani, 22.

"Women are still not very free," she said.

She and other young artists, many of whom grew up abroad and returned to Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, are growing bolder, helped by experienced foreign taggers.

Combat Communications, a group of anonymous, Kabul-based foreign artists, and British graffiti artist Wayne "Chu" Edwards held a weeklong workshop for several aspiring Afghan artists in December.

After sessions on symbolism, making stencils and wielding a spray can, their final project involved realizing their ideas on an abandoned factory wall on the outskirts of Kabul.

"Usually I just sit and move my canvas," says Hassani, who did a multicolored mural of women in burkas that was meant to reflect both female purity and their limited freedom. "But this canvas is so big and doesn't move. I had to move myself instead."

Workshop organizers say they were careful not to tell the young artists what, when or even whether to create. "I wasn't teaching them my methods," Edwards said. "Where they want to take it is up to them. I'm teaching them to swim."

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Dy spent a recent weekday afternoon with several friends in a room filled with his graffiti, including skulls and various black shapes outlined with dripping red paint. The young men talked about music, art and tagging amid a stream of cigarettes. Most in the group grew up in Iran or Pakistan before returning to Afghanistan in the last decade, and they have a passionate idealism about their country.

Sitting on rickety chairs, they talked about the Afghanistan's destructive spiral. "I certainly know how to use white and yellow spray cans," Dy said, "but inevitably I'm drawn to red and black. Violence is all around."

They spoke wistfully of a time when Afghanistan was "normal," at least judging from 1960s films showing girls without head scarves talking openly to boys.

"I couldn't believe it," Dy said. "It's like a dream. Now look what you see: the Taliban, suicide bombers everywhere."

"Every one of us has seen bad things," said one of his friends, who doesn't tag. They all believe Afghans must shed the psychological baggage of decades of war. Young people need to vent their frustration, the friends agreed, whether through graffiti, other forms of art or music.

"People need to realize they can get out of their cage, be themselves," Dy said.

Some of Dy's recent tags have existential themes: "What the hell?" on the wall of a girls' school and "Day will rise," on a cemetery wall.

Others include:

"Why are we here?"

"Why are we sad?"

"What's wrong with us?"

He's planning a series of "Kill yourself driving" messages, to be stenciled along roads and intersections. "Maybe they'll think about doing the opposite," he said.

On a recent evening, he tagged some houses in an upscale neighborhood inhabited by warlords and drug traffickers, writing: "This is drug money, corruption."

Dy likes the in-your-face quality of graffiti: Everyone sees it. He believes it can play a significant role in his country's artistic and political future, if it finds a distinct Afghan identity.

"Graphic artists did something against Kadafi," he says, referring to the Libyan dictator who is battling a popular rebellion. "If it works there, it works here. But we don't need to copy funky Western graphics. We need to find our own style."

Others question whether graffiti will ever move beyond a small circle.

"This kind of open challenge to authority has never been fostered in Afghanistan," says Amanullah Mojadidi, 40. The Kabul-based installation artist was born in Florida and is trained in anthropology. "Here, kids have a hard time doing something their parents don't like," he said. "It's a long process to get street art, which encapsulates a lot of ideas, embedded in society."

Some Afghans fail to see the charm of wall writing. "I don't think it's a good idea to deface someone else's property," says Ramin Raha, 25, a music student. "If they want, they could print up fliers. I don't think graffiti will ever become an art form in Afghanistan."

Dy, who has been holding graffiti workshops for aspiring artists as young as 7, disagrees.

"I feel there are many Afghan youngsters who want to do it but are afraid," he says. "My message: Your anger can be positive, or you can channel it in a bad way."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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