Blue, white, and orange stripes began appearing on roadside boulders in South Africa a few years ago: the jarring tricolor of the old apartheid flag.
A tumultuous year, told through the scrawls and murals of the people living through it.
White extremists, mostly disgruntled Afrikaners, were emboldened enough to paint them at night in the remote north of the country. Government road crews toiled furiously to blot them out. But the masking paint never quite matched the color of the rocks. And so the clumsy erasures only served to draw more attention to each new hateful act of vandalism. In this way -- through an obscure little graffiti war -- the racial neuroses that still plague South Africa were exposed more vividly than in any news article or TV talk show.
In the murky convulsions of the world -- regime changes, revolutions, wars, uprisings, crackdowns, contested elections -- hasty scrawls on public walls seethe with deeper meanings, counternarratives, revelatory lies, ground truths. Sifting such tangled messaging can be surprisingly tough. The key nuances are often obscured: a partly cracked wartime code. Expert graffitiologists, also known as foreign correspondents on deadline, must accept that there is both more and less to a sloppy stencil of "el ché" than meets the eye. Like whether it appears in backwater Chiapas or a swish quarter of Beirut.
Often, graffiti breaks a big story pithily. A gigantic boot swings down, as if from heaven, to connect with the upturned rump of a dictator cringing over a hoard of cash. The boot is polished in the hues of an insurgent flag. The toe flashes a tiny smile -- the sardonic grin of victory. You know right then the tyrant is doomed.
That exuberant street cartoon of a toppled Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi aside, however, I suspect the finest political and wartime graffiti, like most humor, isn't nearly so universal -- it's never the obvious, apprehensible stuff.
"NATO NATO NATO," stamped across liberated Kosovo, seemed a banal plug for a popular detergent brand. But a jaunty message left near the bodies of an entire family incinerated in their house could stop your breathing: "Behave or We Will Send in the Waiters." Who were the waiters? A Serbian death squad? Kosovar rebels avenging themselves on collaborators? A macabre joke? That single haiku distilled all the darkness of the Balkan wars. Its sinister absurdity, its very inscrutability, made your skin crawl.