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.
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.