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Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan

Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).

The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?

City. Text. Laboratory

A small sample from my research on graffiti for social analysis in conflict zones. Sutika Sipus 2013.

Any casual reader of this blog is familiar with my obsession over social research methods.  Not only am I fascinated by the idea of measuring and quantifying the intangible, but I also question the general viability of most social research instruments.  In the areas that I work, it is not practical to conduct standard surveys or the usual data collection procedures do to security threats, so consequently I'm somewhat critical of the information that does surface.  

For the last two years I've used Kabul as an urban laboratory to experiment with alternative methods of social analysis, and one project has been the cataloguing of graffiti and social imagery throughout the city.  Almost one year ago I wrote about initial explorations in this area of critical cartography.  

More recently I've been able to break newer ground by merging this technique with other methods.  I will be presenting my work this weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  I can't divulge much on the details till the finished publication comes out next fall but anyone in the Boston area is welcome to attend the conference MIT8: Public Media, Private Media.   

For anyone that can't make it, I do have a semi-related book chapter coming out in August (just submitted final draft yesterday!) and hope to publish on this particular project in the late fall.   Its been a busy last couple weeks, and the year is just getting started!

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The other day I wrote a post about the use of images to reinforce governance, in particular within areas of instability.  But naturally the question came to mine, if formal imagery can improve governance and order within a place such as Afghanistan, what is the role of informal imagery?  By informal, I refer to graffiti, street art, and ad hoc signage.  I've had a particular interest in the role of graffiti within Kabul since I moved here, as it is a common sight throughout the city and takes on many different forms.

Advertising in Kabul
Within Kabul there are two dominate uses of Graffiti.  The most common form of graffiti in Kabul is to advertise businesses and entreprenurial startups.  Advertisements will range from translation services to printers, logistics, security, schools, and technical trainings. Its fast, efficient and can be identified throughout the city even by non-Dari by the string of numbers at the bottom of the text.

Graffiti as Political Expression
The lesser use is as as a form of political expression.  Within 24 hours of atrocities such as the Neruz bombing, anti-Pakistan and/or anti-Taliban messages suddenly adorned the walls of city.  As these messages typically appear overnight and within high-traffic areas, it is rumored that these messages are not the work of an angry population, but are created by government workers.

Kabul Street Art
The least common use is as a form of artistic expression.  Much has been written about the creation of street art by a few young women in the city, admittedly this is an extreme minority. The majority of  these images, such as the stencil of opium poppies at the right are are located in the younger, more hip, area of Taimani which features most of the bars and restaurants where westerns and young Afghans can mingle.

Over several months I've attempted to determine the production of graffiti within Kabul may serve as a cultural vernacular, representing the interests of ethnic groups or political agendas, yet find a large absence of this process.  There is far more interest it seems, to utilize ready-made images, such as posters of fallen mujahadeen, to express tribal allegiances.  It will of course take some time to determine how such images are distributed without the city, or to understand how they function within public space.