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DOWNRANGE ART: Project showcases paintings, graffiti, other artwork by troops in Iraq, Afghanistan

By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2011

Based on his two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Stephen Quarles can tell you the best place to gauge unit morale: the latrine.

It is often only there, in a plastic shell perched atop a stinking pile of waste, that a soldier at war can truly be alone, a place where thoughts can be expressed via written words or drawn renderings.

No bellowing first sergeant, no officers to salute.

When things are going well, writings include “82nd kicks ass,” Quarles said. “When things were going bad, it was ‘time to go home,’ or ‘we hate it here.’ ”

Between rocket attacks in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006, Quarles, Jaeson “Doc” Parsons and other members of the 54th Engineers Battalion tossed around the idea of collecting the latrine prose in a book.

Some scrawls reflected morale. Other postings were thoughtful, dark or downright hilarious.

“People would actually walk into a latrine just to read something on the wall, just to get a laugh,” he said.

From that environment in Iraq and the struggles those veterans had returning to a normal life, the “Graffiti of War” project was born.

More than latrine prose, the project is a collection of photos and images of war-zone graffiti and original artwork by troops.

The project also includes photos documenting the toll that wars take on civilian populations and paintings by an Iraqi artist from Mosul.

Part therapeutic self-expression, part documentation of the mundane markers of war, “Graffiti of War” continues to document images and seek submissions for the project from troops downrange.

Many of the images collected can be viewed on the project’s website: graffitiofwar.com.

The project aims to show veterans the catharsis that creative expression can bring, in the process bridging the military-civilian divide in America and preserving the impromptu troop art created in Iraq, according to Parsons, who founded the project after returning from Ramadi.

Parsons, 33, started the project to deal with his post-war issues.

Like countless other veterans, he came back from Iraq unsure of his place in the world, abusing prescription drugs and grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He checked himself into a mental hospital in late 2009.

Officials at his VA hospital told him they wouldn’t be able to see him all the time, Parsons recalled, and that he needed to do something to keep his mind busy.

Putting together “Graffiti of War” has served that purpose.

Dubbing the effort “Graffiti of War” goes back to the downrange bathrooms, according to Jenny Bell, an Army wife and editor-at-large for the project.

“The graffiti found in the latrine stalls on the bases in Iraq and Afghanistan in themselves are art,” she said.

“They’re leaving behind messages and glimpses into their mind, of what they’re experiencing.”

Project organizers set out last summer to hit bases in Kuwait and Iraq, photographing latrine and wall graffiti, but also the memorial murals, unit crests and paintings that adorn blast walls downrange.

“These soldiers are doing art therapy and they don’t even know it,” Parsons said.

Along the way, Parsons and other project organizers met Army Pvt. 1st Class Natalie Freeman, an amateur painter deployed to Iraq.

Freeman’s work will be showcased in a traveling exhibition the organizers are putting together. The 29-year-old said painting in Iraq made deployed life easier.

“No matter how tough a time I might have been going through in my life, painting has always been a way to ease my mind and calm my spirit,” Freeman said in an email.

“I hope to encourage other soldiers to tap into their artistic creativity. Painting can relieve tension and actually make you feel better.”

Even the most innocuous downrange graffiti has a person and a story behind it, Quarles said, and the history found there needs to be recorded as part of the war’s history.

“He’s documenting at that time, whether it’s a T-wall or a personal message inside a latrine, or a message to his family,” he said.

“It’s our way of saying, ‘We’re here, we were there.’ It will all be forgotten someday. Soldiers will do that to say, ‘Don’t forget us.’ ”

Parsons said he hopes to show vets coping with PTSD that artistic expression can help them.

The group also wants to help troubled veterans get in touch with nonprofit groups ready to assist.

“We want to reach out to the veterans that are out there, who maybe don’t know they can do [artistic expression], who haven’t gone to mental health because of the stigma,” he said.

The “Graffiti of War” traveling exhibition is previewing at several venues during the “Block of Art” event in downtown Pottsvile, Pa., where it runs through Nov. 20. Organizers of the project said future exhibition dates are in the works.

In addition, the group behind “Graffiti of War” also is putting together another book called “Warfighter’s, INK,” and is looking for war-related tattoos from servicemembers, families and veterans.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

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