In Other Words

Conflict Graffiti

The art of war.

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.

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.

Similarly, in authoritarian 1970s Mexico, where I grew up, the adobe walls were often splashed with what seemed like the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. One tag, for example, was a serial exclamation: "¡Eche-birria!" It meant nothing. Then it slowly materialized into the surname of a handpicked president of that time, Luis Echeverría. Finally, a sly gibe emerged from within the letters: It translated, literally, as "Vomit [your] goat stew!" Try squeezing that baroque bank shot into a soundbite.

Mexico, in fact, has a venerable history of conflict graffiti.

Unlike the young Arab Spring demonstrators, who only recently discovered the overlapping pleasures of adolescent and political rebellion, Mexicans draw on a long and rich tradition of visual protest. (Think of José Posada's famed posters of skeletons dancing through the gore of the 1910 revolution.) Indeed, Mexico's latest addition to the lexicon of public defacement and defiance is even recyclable: narcomantas, or "narco-banners." Drug cartels have taken to hanging cotton, plastic, or paper sheets above busy intersections to get their messages across.

This creepy innovation may stretch the boundaries of traditional graffiti -- the yawp of the scofflaw or the rebel. But it remains, like all genuine graffiti, transgressive. Ruthlessly so. In July, for instance, in Ciudad Juárez, that narcotized Mogadishu on the northern border, two large streamers appeared one morning that threatened any U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spooks operating in the city with death and dismemberment. Police quickly tore the warnings down.

Mexico's narco-banners can be snappy, if a bit retro. Laser-printed, punched with neat wind holes, the fanciest ones look like car dealership advertisements or the sort of signs that civic clubs carry in parades. Here, it isn't the words that are dadaesque. It's the format that's in-joke surreal. The drug lords intentionally mimic the campaign clutter of Mexican political parties. Their tone is weirdly formal.

"MISTER PRESIDENT CALDERÓN," read one of a series of banners fluttering recently above the state of Sinaloa, a cartel stronghold, "DO YOU WANT TO FINISH WITH THE VIOLENCE? THEN REMOVE YOUR SUPPORT FROM CHAPO GUZMÁN IN SINALOA. THAT'S THE SOLUTION."

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera is Mexico's most powerful drug kingpin. Apparently, the polite advice emanated from rival mafias. We'll never know. Narco-banners may now be an inescapable feature of the front lines of the country's bloody cartel wars (death toll: more than 35,000 and counting since 2006). But like all serious war graffiti, they are anonymous, barring some brazen exceptions. Footage available on YouTube shows a group of sicarios -- cartel assassins -- coolly filming themselves as they erect a banner in Chihuahua City. It's a sunny morning. Rush hour. The gunmen, waving AK-47s and wearing balaclavas, direct traffic like jaded policemen. They possibly were policemen.

Mexican journalists assigned to the drug war have a tendency to get murdered. So more than other colleagues, they must rely on simply reporting the graffiti. Toting up the proliferation of narco-banners is a metric of cartel control.

Which brings up a truism of wartime graffiti: You can generally guess who's winning not just by the volume of their spray paint, but by the quality of their exhortations.

Last year, I drove far into Mexico to say a final goodbye to an old friend. His cancer had metastasized after a family member, a niece who was a schoolteacher, had been kidnapped, raped, and axed to death, seemingly for sport, by a gang of cartel goons. As I negotiated Mexican Army checkpoints and sped south along highways thinned of traffic by the relentless drug violence, I spotted faded government billboards -- official graffiti -- looming beside the roads. They urged whoever still bothered to read them: "Di NO a las Drogas," or "Just say NO to Drugs." With apologies to Nancy Reagan, who I'm certain meant well: The government was screwed.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

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