Seek First to Respect and then to Understand

This story about a painting in a Kabul prison illustrates how reverse graffiti can be an act of the deepest respect.
Graffiti has been a problem for a long time.  Many regard it as an act of self-expression and view it as a way for the poor and excluded to “act out” their frustration within an unbalanced society.  Some concerned groups take it upon themselves to tour cities and turn graffiti into beautification projects.  This, it is thought, acts to symbolise the potential of all things.  The book Global Citizen puts forward the idea that all things can be ugly or beautiful, good or bad, negative or positive or even both at the same time as in the case of reverse graffiti. (See What is Reverse Grafitti and How Is It Done?)

Escape from Kabul a Book of Little Artistic Enlightenments

In the book Escape from Kabul one of the characters, Silke, was very crafty both as an artist and in the way she created paint from attainable products so that she could paint a mural on the wall.   She created paint from dirt, Nivea Cream, Vaseline and washing-up liquid. She drew up a huge mural with a nail file.  It was quite large, about 2 metres long, and she painted it on the rear wall of her cell.   She says on page 87 in the chapter on theInterrogation, that painting the mural helped her vent her rage. ”  I began to pour out my frustration into my work, while the others fired me on.”

Pig - RicoRocks (

This outlet for feelings was beneficial from a mental health point of view.  It provided a means of “self-soothing” and was a boost to morale.  It was also a way to use time productively and to beautify what were oppressive surroundings.  Unfortunately, the Taliban do not allow the painting of people or animals.  Having had enough of an unjust and prolonged incarceration, and in her frustration, Silke stepped over the line of acceptability when she decided to rebel by painting these forbidden animals on the wall into what was a beautiful landscape.

As you can imagine conditions were harsh and punishment for committing what was considered a crime made this set of actions very risky and even foolhardy. People around Silke began to panic and asked her to take this work down and to consider the consequences.  Even though still rebellious, she did comply.   She had begun to paint a pig on the wall when the others stopped her because pigs are considered unclean in Islam.   Taking out the offending material she continued to paint the wall, which was after all being tolerated in this oppressive atmosphere.   All were relieved.

The Purpose of Art in a Modern Society

This story highlights for readers in an exaggerated way the impact art can have on a surrounding.  In the book Ethical Intelligence (2012) Weinstein suggests that the ethical rule of thumb sets out a way to play the game

  • Do No Harm
  • Make Things Better
  • Respect Others
  • Be Fair
  • Be Loving

In a modern world, many have the idea that Art is a sacrosanct area of personal expression and that because it is a way of expressing alienation, artists have the right to make their statements in whatever way they can, and wherever it will have the most impact.

Ethical Intelligence: a Guide In Troubled Times

Teaching reverse grafitti and the art of restoration in schools seems to be a fantastic idea.  It provides focus for artistic expression that could otherwise land kids in more trouble than it is worth.

It can be didactic, wholesome, respectful and beautifying.  If students were organised to go out in gangs to undo the damage in the streets done by TAG artists, they could be taught team work, negotiation, collaboration and the like.   Like Silke, students could be guided to experience what is called reflexion and through using informed judgement evaluate actions, both their own and others, as they think through situations in an effort to find compromise.

Resources :

Copyright Jo Murphy

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