Writ­ing on the Wall

Street art thrives in Iran as graf­fiti artists work against all odds to make their state­ments. It is a risky busi­ness but is driven by strong be­lief and mo­ti­va­tion.

Southasia - - NEIGHBOR - By Asna Ali

Graf­fiti and street art are of­ten re­garded as me­dia of ex­pres­sion more com­monly found in so­ci­eties that ac­cept or at least tol­er­ate bo­hemian life­styles. In­dul­gences such as freely ex­press­ing one’s opin­ion on side­walks through sten­cils and cans of spray paint seem in­con­gru­ent with the con­trolled and less-un­der­stand­ing at­mos­phere of cer­tain coun­tries.

Yet Iran, a coun­try run by the Ay­a­tol­lahs and their hand­picked politi­cians and a coun­try not known for its tol­er­ance for in­di­vid­u­al­ism or free ex­pres­sion, ap­pears to have a thriv­ing street art scene. It is a side of the Ira­nian so­ci­ety that has largely re­mained hid­den from the world’s eye. Our opin­ions of the coun­try are largely shaped by a me­dia which fo­cuses on govern­ment ac­tions and state­ments, mak­ing us for­get about the or­di­nary people who live there. The re­stricted and bi­ased view of the coun­try has ex­cluded the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of daily life in Iran and the mech­a­nisms in which Ira­ni­ans and their cul­ture con­tinue to sur­vive and, yes, even thrive de­spite the re­stric­tions im­posed on them.

An im­age of de­fi­ance is what Iran pre­sents to the world and it is out of de­fi­ance that its street art scene found its roots and continues to de­velop its in­sights. Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and change agents well un­der­stand the im­por­tance of in­spi­ra­tional im­agery. Long-winded speeches, books and pam­phlets may ac­com­plish lit­tle com­pared to one truly im­pres­sive im­age which con­veys a sim­ple mes­sage that can be un­der­stood and re­mem­bered by all.

It is for this rea­son that in the 1970s Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies took to the streets to spread their mes­sage. They painted the walls with antigov­ern­ment slo­gans and im­ages that greatly helped in spread­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary themes amongst the less-ed­u­cated masses. This trend did not die when Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini and his sup­port­ers came to power. In­stead, art in pub­lic places be­came a way of dis­sem­i­nat­ing opin­ions sanc­tioned by the state, boost­ing morale and up­lift­ing the pa­tri­otic spirit. Mo­tifs of the revo­lu­tion, por­traits of the Ay­a­tol­lah and mu­rals cel­e­brat­ing the sac­ri­fice of mar­tyrs dur­ing the Iran-

Iraq war were also a com­mon sight.

How­ever, even the most au­thor­i­ta­tive of regimes can­not con­trol pub­lic opin­ion com­pletely. War-time dis­plays and gov­ern­men­tap­proved art grad­u­ally fell out of fa­vor as aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing dec­o­ra­tions and pat­terns be­came more com­mon. The shift­ing nar­ra­tives dur­ing the last decade or so were fer­tile enough for the emer­gence of in­de­pen­dent artists who dis­played their well thought-out and opin­ion­ated art pieces on street walls.

Now, the streets of Tehran are, on oc­ca­sion, home to bursts of cre­ative com­men­tary that may be po­lit­i­cal or so­cial in na­ture but has not been ap­proved by any higher author­ity.

Com­monly ex­plored themes in­clude those of free­dom and in­de­pen­dence and child­hood and poverty. Street artists com­bine mod­ern tech­niques with the an­cient. One might find a mag­nif­i­cent dis­play of cal­lig­ra­phy or the sten­ciled draw­ing of in­no­cent chil­dren. But one has to be in the right place at the right time to find any in­de­pen­dent street art or graf­fiti.

Of­ten these dis­plays, beau­ti­ful as they may be, are painted over be­fore they have been up for long. Artists work through the night and in haste to cre­ate their work. It is risky busi­ness, es­pe­cially if the sub­ject mat­ter is po­lit­i­cal. The pic­tures are ac­com­pa­nied by ir­rev­er­ent pseudonyms such as A1one, Mad, Ill and gha­la­mDAR, amongst oth­ers.

They are in­spired by what has ap­peared on the walls of cities such as New York and Paris. Of­ten they are stylis­ti­cally com­pared to fa­mous names in street art such as Banksy and Nick Walker. The com­par­i­son is well war­ranted but the unique set of cir­cum­stances in which Ira­nian artists have grown up and work give them a world­view com­pletely dif­fer­ent from western artists. The lat­ter can­not imag­ine the kind of harsh penal­ties their Ira­nian coun­ter­parts stand to face if they are caught.

Ar­rests and in­tim­i­da­tion are not un­com­mon. One of the most well­known street artist duos from Iran, the broth­ers Icy and Sot, even­tu­ally left the coun­try and ap­plied for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in the United States. While their work is dis­played and ap­plauded in­ter­na­tion­ally, the broth­ers have spo­ken of the dif­fi­cul­ties they faced back home. They were ar­rested many times and their more po­lit­i­cal pieces had to be sent for show­ings abroad in se­cret for fear of cen­sor­ship. Mov­ing to the United States has given them free­dom but they are ef­fec­tively locked out of Iran as it would be dan­ger­ous to re­turn.

Oth­ers, how­ever, con­tinue to work as they be­lieve that the very cen­sor­ship fu­els their cre­ativ­ity. The cre­ative streak of these artists was per­haps at its peak dur­ing the 2009 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions which were con­tro­ver­sially won by Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad. The elec­tions were fol­lowed by protests, ar­rests and in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of cen­sor­ship. Dur­ing that time, a self-styled graf­fiti artist ‘ Mad’ drew sten­ciled im­ages of a don­key at the bal­lot, ob­vi­ously mock­ing the elec­tion process. Con­sid­er­ing the re­ports of tor­ture faced by pro­tes­tors, this was a par­tic­u­larly dar­ing act.

To­day, Iran is no longer just the Ay­a­tol­lahs’ coun­try. For years, there has been tu­mult be­neath its sur­face and there is no dearth of in­di­vid­u­als who do not buy into the main­stream nar­ra­tives. Striv­ing for free­dom of ex­pres­sion, as hu­man be­ings are wont to do, these Ira­nian youths have cho­sen to ex­press them­selves in a way that is at once both mod­ern and an­cient and is steeped in the coun­try’s artis­tic past as well as fa­cil­i­tated by con­tem­po­rary tech­niques.

When in­ter­viewed, Ira­nian graf­fiti artists of­ten speak of an al­most iden­ti­cal jour­ney. Hav­ing lit­tle or no free­dom to pur­sue their ac­tiv­i­ties, they turn to the in­ter­net as a source of en­ter­tain­ment, learn­ing and ex­pres­sion de­spite the fact that much of the con­tent is cen­sored by govern­ment-in­stalled fil­ters. Just as it has af­fected and changed mil­lions of lives the world over, the in­ter­net has done just that in Iran, too. It brought ideas and some mea­sure of free­dom in a sti­fling en­vi­ron­ment.

For graf­fiti artists of Iran, it also brought recog­ni­tion. Street art is still very much an un­der­ground move­ment in the coun­try de­spite its grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. But street artists are mo­ti­vat­ing people more ea­gerly to fol­low in their foot­steps all be­cause of the chance to put up their work on­line and to speak to their ad­mir­ers.

A com­mon com­plaint of these artists is that govern­ment au­thor­i­ties do not un­der­stand their work, hence the back­lash. Street art has his­tor­i­cally been re­lated to the revo­lu­tion in Iran and iron­i­cally, it is that kind of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion that the govern­ment now wishes to curb. Through the at­tach­ment of la­bels such as re­sis­tance, or even Satanism in the case of Icy and Sot, the au­thor­i­ties hope not only to crim­i­nal­ize in­de­pen­dent street art but per­haps also dis­credit it.

How­ever, the chang­ing face of both Ira­nian pol­i­tics and Ira­nian cul­ture shows that a trans­for­ma­tion is tak­ing place that runs deeper than art work. The art is sim­ply an out­ward ex­pres­sion of an in­ter­nal yearn­ing to be able to com­mu­ni­cate openly and with­out re­stric­tion.

It is a qui­eter up­ris­ing than the one Iran has seen be­fore. And it marches on al­though many have given up, left or been forced out. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit has not died down in the coun­try and one hopes that the winds of change will even­tu­ally have a pos­i­tive out­come, mak­ing Iran a coun­try that wel­comes in­de­pen­dent thought and opin­ion rather than op­press­ing them.

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