The Graffiti of War


By Susannah Breslin


From war, art. This is the basic premise of The Graffiti of War , a project from two combat veterans that features the unconventional military art that soldiers, seamen, marines, and airmen (and women) create during deployments. From tanks spray painted with "I love u baby" to memorials for the dead to enemy jets covered in graffiti, every art work tells a story. It's the alternative, unauthorized history of war from those who fought it. The idea was hatched by Army combat medic Jaeson "Doc" Parsons, when he was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, where he met Jason Deckman, an Army combat engineer. The men plan to turn the images they are collecting into a book and donate the proceeds to organizations that help returning veterans. I spoke with Staff Sergeant Deckman, 37, a 16-year Army veteran whose deployments include Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Iraq. In 2007, Deckman transitioned to the Army Reserves. He lives in Killeen, Texas.

When did you enlist?

I joined the Army in 1994. I had just flunked out of college, and had five figures worth of student loan debt staring me in my face, and my parents looking there going, "OK, smart guy, now what you gonna do?" Within three years I was debt-free, realized the Army was a good choice for me, and stayed with it. I first joined, it was, I needed discipline, I needed to get out of the environment I was in, and I needed to pay the bills. The longer I was in, the more I realized that, you know, this is important, that it's bigger than me. It really sunk in on my first deployment, when I went to Bosnia, and we were doing demining. When we weren't actively pulling mines out of the ground with their army, it was going out on the ground patrols. We'd go out, and we would mark the known minefields in order to prevent people from stumbling in. Every mine that we took out of the ground, I was just thinking to myself, OK, that's one family that Dad's gonna come out tonight, or that's one little kid who won't be killed or maimed. To me, we're making a difference, this is important. It means something. I'd come home and see my friends, "Oh, I work at Walmart." "Oh, I'm going to school for whatever." There just didn't seem to be any sense of that it mattered.

Alex Pagel, Iraq, 2008

What's your job?

I am a combat engineer . Which is kind of a complex thing. Our mission breaks down in three ways: mobility, countermobility, and survivability. Mobility means we keep the battlefield open for our troops to move around in. Countermobility means we try and take away the enemy's ability to move around. And then survivability means that we build up fortifications and other structures in order to make our guys more comfortable. Currently, the big engineer fight is the IEDs. We're the ones that go out and go down the road all day and all night looking for these roadside bombs. Pulling them up, either detonating them in place or working with EOD disarming them, bringing them back so they can do some forensic analysis on them, figure out who the bomb-maker is.

Richard Kelly, Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq

Who came up with the project?

It was originally Doc Parsons' idea. Him and a couple other guys talked about it while they were [in Iraq]. It never really came to anything. A couple years later, he'd stayed in touch with different guys, and it just started to become, let's try this. We'd gotten together on Facebook last year, some time around '09, and got back in touch, and then March/April this year, he says, "Hey, you know, would you be willing to help me with this?" Told me what it was, what the goals were. I said, "Do you have a website?" He says, "No. Do you know anything about that?" I says, "I do." So I set that up for him, and he says, "OK, you are now my director of web technology."

Kenneth Sheely, Camp Echo, Iraq

What is The Graffiti of War?

The project is collecting images of what we're calling unconventional military art or the graffiti of war. Unconventional being that it's not on a traditional canvas that you would think of as art. It's not a drawing that someone made in their sketchbook. It's not a painting on canvas. It's spray paint and Sharpie markers on blast walls, inside of the Porta Potties, on the backs of vehicles, graffiti that are tagged everywhere, on enemy vehicles, memorials that people have put together to remember the guys that didn't come back. It's all that, kind of created in the heat of the moment – of pride, or anger, or sadness. All the emotions that you experienced while you're there. Some are elaborate, and some are pretty simple. But it was created by someone who had some strong emotion at that time. It's a way of, when they were there, saying, "Here I am. We were here. After we're gone, this will still be here." It's a side of combat that a lot of people back home never see, never hear about, so they don't understand it. That is part of the experience, too.

And war graffiti has a history.

Sure, the most famous one being Kilroy, the little face with the big nose hanging over the wall that everybody saw in World War II, and no one seemed to know whoever came up with it, but somehow suddenly everybody was writing "Kilroy was here" everywhere they went. It's just another way of saying, "The Americans are here. Here we are. If I die tomorrow, here's a record that I was able to write that."

Kiril Dimitrov, Kirkuk, Iraq

Is making this art within military regulations?

Probably not. Some of it is actively sponsored. The painting the unit logos on the blast walls. A lot of times the headquarters, they'll have these concrete barriers around them, and people will paint their logo in front of their office. It'll be a way of kind of memorializing and taking pride, with their badge, or their picture, or their motto on there. But some of it inside the Porta Potties? No. Probably not within regulation at all. I've been in 16 years, and I don't know how many times I've heard some major yelling or hollering about people writing on the inside or the back [of structures] – especially when it was a hard building, like a barracks. People will carve stuff into the walls. But for some reason it just keeps going.

Tattoos are part of the art of war, too.

One of the other unconventional canvases we're exploring is tattoos. I've got several tattoos. To me it was always, if everything else is taken away from me, I've still got that tattoo. It's something that is permanent. I can be taken prisoner and lose my dog tags, and lose my boots, and lose my cool little pocketknife, and the St. Christopher medal that my grandma gave me, but the tattoo stays with me. In the experience where you may be gone tomorrow, or everything that you hold precious may be gone tomorrow, you're trying to put some permanent record down of your existence or your experience.

What's the military's response to what you're doing?

So far, as far as the official military response, we haven't heard anything from the Pentagon. At lot of them, at first, really didn't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole. It was a lot of, "Well, hey, that sounds like a cool project. Good luck, but we can't endorse you, and we can't do anything for you." But the people that have been there, they just love it. We've got a few folks that have been just digging through their hard drives, digging through their photo albums, and just sending the most amazing pictures. Pretty much everyone says, "Hey, that's a cool idea. I can't believe no one has done this before." And a couple people have said that it'll be a document of history, because as we turn these bases over, and a lot of them are torn down or reconstructed, those paintings on the blast walls, it's gonna turn to dust. It's gonna go away. Anything that's left in the desert anyways is faded and wiped off in the sandstorms after a couple years, just from the sun, and the heat, and the dust. So even though the intent is to try and leave something behind, it's temporary. A lot of this stuff, if we don't get it now, it's gone forever.

Richard Kelly, Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq

What are you plans for the project?

Plan is to put it all into a book, and then sell that book, and then the proceeds from the sale of the book are gonna go to benefit veterans' organizations. We've looked at some of the organizations helping people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Doc's wife really wants to work with some organizations that are helping these guys with PTSD therapy, where they're using art as the method of therapy. We're not just doing this because we think it's a cool idea. We want to raise some money to help people that are helping veterans, that are helping guys that come back hurt, broken, disturbed, angry, whatever.

Which image sticks out in your mind the most?

There was a graffiti that someone stenciled probably with a Sharpie marker on the bridge in Fallujah where Blackwater contractors were killed and strung up. It said, "In memory, 31 March 2004, of four Blackwater contractors killed here. PS Fuck you." Expressing that anger for the insurgents who not only killed our brothers-in-arms but treated their bodies in the most disrespectful way possible. That one, it just floored me. There's kind of a stereotype of people in the Army, in the military, "Hey, they're a bunch of dumb grunts. They're a bunch of college dropouts." I'll tell you, some of the people that I've served with could've been college professors. These folks understand history. They understand why they're fighting. They understand who they're fighting, and the location. So whoever was there, they realized the importance of that bridge. It just wasn't another bridge to pull guard on while the patrol went by. This was the bridge where those contractors were hung from. They took the time to say, "I remember. I realize what happened here. And I'm not going to forget." Who knows how long that'll last before the sun and everything fades it away, but now we've got a record of it. The graffiti and the art itself will be gone in 50 years. But when I'm old and gray, and I can sit there with that book, and my grandkid on my lap, and say, "This is part of what it was like." If we can capture all these pictures and these images and put them in a book for posterity, that's a powerful thing. It's humbling.

This summer, Parsons, Ken Martin of USA Cheerleaders, and Andrea Sandoval will be traveling to Iraq and Kuwait to embed with U.S. troops and continue their project. As Parsons notes, "We are running out of time to capture these images created by the warfighters who deployed in support of OIF/OEF. With the impending withdraw of US forces in 2012, we have less than a year before all of this art is lost forever." To help fund their trip, make a donation here or on the Graffiti of War homepage . You can also friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist and blogger.

Background photo: Storm in Bagram, by DVIDSHUB, licensed under the Creative Commons..