Walking to the Indian Embassy in Kabul is a rather disturbing experience. The building is in the middle of the diplomatic enclave which, because of unending cycles of violence, has been completely barricaded. In every direction, there are bleak blast walls, making the streets look like open coffins of concrete. The fortifications are so big that it is impossible to tell what lies behind them. Between the walls, on the streets, exists a sinking feeling of vulnerability that extends – along with the blast barriers – beyond the inaccurately named Green Zone.

Even outside the diplomatic area, the tall threatening walls are a part of the cityscape. They started mushrooming in the Afghan capital in the 2000s, after an international coalition ousted the Taliban regime. At first they came up around official buildings and then near the homes of the powerful to protect them from explosions nearby. But, eventually, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, they took over the urban landscape.

The barriers are the scars of a painful past, the reminders of a dangerous present – and for some years, message boards of hope and anger. A group of 45-odd Afghan artists, who call themselves the ArtLords, have since 2014 been dressing up the grey, austere walls with elaborate murals. The images always bear a message, invariably provocative and political. “When we were children, we used to walk, cycle and play anywhere we wished in the city,” said Omaid Sharifi, who co-founded the movement along with Kabir Mokamel. “Now Kabul looks like a prison. The walls took our space away. We thought we should reclaim it.”

Omaid Sharifi, one of the creators of ArtLords, telling Kabulis 'Man tera mibinom! rishwat khor beiman ast!” (I can see you, corrupt people).

Their idea was not only to transform the city visually, but also to emphasise the social problems faced by Afghans. “We are using art as a tool for social change,” said Sharifi.

In October 2018 – at the time of the Afghan parliamentary elections – they painted a mural of a donkey wrapped in tiger skin. It was a message to the candidates with criminal backgrounds: getting elected will not be enough to hide their true nature.

Earlier that year, the team had painted a portrait of Hamid Barkami, a young girl who was a friend of Sharifi. “In 2011, she was killed with her whole family in an attack, while they were buying groceries,” he said. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, a violent political outfit, claimed the responsibility for the attack. The ArtLords painted the mural right in front of Hekmatyar’s house to send a message. Not surprisingly, the work was defaced a few days later, and then removed.

“The painting could have killed us,” conceded Sharifi. “Yes, I was scared and I still am. I am not too afraid for myself, but mostly for the artists. They are very brave – they paint in the streets, without any protection.”

There was a time when Kabul’s neighbourhoods weren’t just about blast walls. All Kabulis of a certain age share emotional tales about how beautiful their city was, over 30 years ago. They remember verdant gardens, unbloodied streets and an overall comforting quietness. The city sustained heavy damage in the early 1990s. At the time, the Soviet army had just left the country, and the Taliban had not yet taken over. Various militias of different ethnicities were fighting to gain control of the capital. Warlords did not hesitate to bomb the neighbourhoods of their enemies, deeply damaging the urban fabric.

Despite this destruction, the magic of Kabul has not vanished. It still retains a certain small-town charm, although the elegant houses mixing European and Central Asian influences have been largely replaced by Tony-Montana-style mansions, the popular trolleybus service has been discontinued, and pollution is on the rise. And while the walls have invited criticism, they do play an undeniable role in providing safety against potential assaults. In Kabul, 519 lives were lost to violence in 2018.

So far, the ArtLords have painted around 200 murals on Kabul’s blast walls. In the early days, it used to take them three weeks to complete a mural, but now the group needs only five hours to cover a wall. Brushes are used to create the paintings, though the collective does plan to collaborate with Colombian artists to use sprays as well.

Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan's the reformist king (1919-1929), with Soraya, the modernist queen.

The ArtLords want their art to be a collective effort. “We draw the sketch on the wall one night in advance,” said Sharifi. “In the morning, we bring the painting materials, and we invite all passers-by to join us and fill the sketch with colours. It’s very easy, anyone can participate.”

Creating street art in Kabul comes with its own set of challenges. The anti-blast walls are often located next to sensitive buildings protected by heavily armed forces, so no artwork can be produced without prior approval from the authorities.

While acknowledging that “the government usually supports the ArtLords”, Sharifi observed that “lately, the civic space has been shrinking in the country. Those in power are hesitant to let artists express themselves. It requires courage to accept art”. It is “courage” that is their most powerful tool. The ArtLords do not hesitate to paint anti-corruption messages in front of the headquarters of ministries. Since their work is often fraught with risks, as a precautionary measure, the ArtLords never publicly announce a painting in advance to avoid unwanted attention.

In June 2017, Sharifi went on Twitter to request the intervention of President Ashraf Ghani, after the group’s proposal to paint a portrait of music legend Ahmad Zahir was turned down. “This stirred a lot of controversy,” recalled Sharifi. “Several ministers called me.” The mural was finally allowed.

The ArtLords ensure their work is a timely reflection of the goings-on in the country. In July 2018, a few days after an attack by the Islamic State killed 13 Afghan Sikh activists, a poignant mural was unveiled in memory of one of the activists, Rawail Singh.

Singh was a member of the ArtLords. He used to handle their finances, and had even painted on a few occasions. In fact, one of the murals with the words “I see you”, directed at the corrupt, featured his daughter’s eyes – eyes that Sharifi described as “the soul of Shar-e-Now” (a central neighbourhood of Kabul). “He [Singh] was also a proud Afghan, and a friend,” said Sharifi.

The painting came with a warning from Singh’s daughter to his killers: “You are not going to heaven, you’ve killed my kind father.” Sharifi explains that, in addition to Pashto and Dari, the message was written in Urdu, “to tell Pakistan how much their influence is harming our country,” and in English, “to tell the rest of the world about our pain and that we need a break”.

The script, written in Pashto and Dari reads: "I can see you. Corruption cannot be hidden from God and from the eyes of the people".