Photos courtesy James Toler

Army veteran James E. Toler spent twenty-nine years as a paratrooper, medic, helicopter rescue pilot and jet pilot, serving in Kuwait, Somalia, the Balkans, and most recently, Afghanistan. Recently retired from the military, Toler’s latest mission involves a project to document soldiers’ street art—intricate and often intense graffiti that he fell in love with while based at an Army encampment in Afghanistan. Narratively spoke with Toler about why he thinks this art is worth saving.

When did you first notice these soldiers’ artwork?

My first exposure to [Kandahar, Afghanistan] was around 2002. There was nothing there. It was basically a Wild West. But as the military gains space they try to find ways to build walls—first temporary ones and then cement blockades. At this particular camp you have a perimeter fence all the way around, then inside the camp are just a bunch of tents and semi-hardened buildings. In order to keep the damage mitigated they put these cement barriers between series of buildings. It went through the whole camp like that—it was a maze, so if a rocket went in it would only take out three buildings instead of ten.

James Toler in Kandahar.
James Toler in Kandahar.

In 2011, I was serving as a jet pilot flying dignitaries in and out of war zones. I was an officer, so we were a bit more privileged than the ones who lived in the regular camp area. But I came from that—I never lost that feeling of being one of the boys. So I’d always be there, talking to them, and started to notice these tags. They just started to pop up at night, gradually more and more—soon it got to the point where some walls may have had twenty on one space.

What attracted you to them?

I’m not your typical Army person. I can see beauty in a lot of intrinsic things that other people might not find beautiful. Something that others call defacement of government property, to me it looked more enhanced than defaced. I could see a different beauty. I was just pleased to go out and have an art show.

So I take it the command culture in Afghanistan did not see this graffiti as art?

The government does not like you spray painting anything on any of their structures. Go to D.C. and spray paint a barrier, see what happens. Go to any military base anywhere and see what happens. It’s not taken lightly. They might not throw you in jail for doing it once, but there would certainly be discipline if any of these soldiers were caught.

When they first started doing it, they would put up the logos of their organization—the motor pool with a wheel or something like that— that was kind of an acceptable thing. Later people added more to it. From that acceptable practice of labeling something for the job you were doing, it morphed into some true street taggers coming out and showing off.

How did they make them? Where would they get the materials?

You couldn’t go and buy paint in a war zone. Whoever it was had to acquire their paint. Say you worked for a vehicle maintenance crew that had green-colored paint to work on tanks, or sand-colored paint, somehow through an underground network of bartering they were able to acquire the paint. Then by using cardboard and a knife or other makeshift tools they cut out their stencils.

I never actually saw anyone doing it. I’d walk around all hours of the night—I didn’t have a curfew—but I never could catch anybody in the act. I would have loved to talk to one of them. I would love to meet them so I could write down their stories and put them in the book I'm working on.

Did others admire the tags?

A few others loved it, but a lot of them—I’m not trying to lump in a majority of military-minded people—but a lot of them don’t think of it so liberally. They look at it and say "it’s defacing government property. If you allow this, next thing you know people will want to grow their hair long or not shave." As a form of control sometimes you have to keep things very sterile and everyone has to fit in that same mold. That’s why it happens. These solders are just getting tired, and they’re expressing that. It’s a form of therapy as far as I’m concerned.

From my own experience I can say that artistic expression is a form of release from traumatic events. When you’re in a stressful environment some people hum, some people draw. When I was enlisted, to soothe myself I would go out and take my guitar and just make music. I think they were coming up with ingenious ways to cope with the stresses.

Toler at home in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Rey Lopez)
Toler at home in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Rey Lopez)
The "Kilroy Was Here" image, thought to have originated among U.S. servicemen marking their turf in WWII, pictured here on the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Luis Rubio / Flickr)
The "Kilroy Was Here" image, thought to have originated among U.S. servicemen marking their turf in WWII, pictured here on the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Luis Rubio / Flickr)

It all goes back to World War II, when some guys started drawing Kilroy was Here and soon that became acceptable and all the WWII soldiers were putting it up everywhere.

So it’s sort of evolved from that. I look at that, and photos from Vietnam—nose art of beautiful women on airplanes—this is just the same stuff. It was taboo, but I saw it as art.

Was the art ever political?

Some of them definitely had messages. There’s that one where the hand is gripping the barbed wire and it says “Give War a Chance”—that one to me was pretty powerful. Paintings of things like zombie hunters show how you often think you have to degrade your opponent; it becomes almost like a game. There were people there that…you had to find a way to believe in what you were doing to be able to do some of things that they did.

Were these only seen in Kandahar?

Toler working on his book project. (Photo by Rey Lopez)
Toler working on his book project. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Those are the ones I saw, but a friend of mine was in Jalalabad; he has some that he’s going to send me. As people are starting to get to know me they’re wanting to send me some from other places.

I’m going to publish a book as an effort to preserve them. I’m not here to make any money on this–I’m here to just put some history out, show these soldiers as artists, not as vandals. If these guys want, they could start a petition to have the art brought back and preserved as history. The cool thing is they didn’t spray paint over them, while I was there anyway. It was kind of an unwritten rule: don’t do it, but it kind of looks good.

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James E. Tolers Kickstarter campaign: Kandahar Tags Modern Art from the Battlefield, is now live.

Brendan Spiegel is Narratively’s Co-founder and Editorial Director. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and New York magazine, among other publications.

Rey Lopez is a Washington, DC-based photographer with a passion for capturing food, places, and stories.

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