Graffiti in Iran
When I hear comparisons between my home country with other places, I am usually reminded of huge differences but in some rare cases, Iran is not too dissimilar.
It’s the case with graffiti.
As a genre, graffiti may be new art in this country but wall writing, as a tool to protest against the authorities, certainly isn’t. During the overthrow of 1979, anti-government revolutionaries used street walls to spray slogans against the Shah. Following the Islamic revolution, the regime began to use the public space to spray mottos, this time expressing their disdain for communists and western influences. Today, the authorities undertake state-sponsored murals, above highways and on buildings, in an attempt to beautiful the city. The murals however are heavy with themes of religious righteousness, revolutionary ideals and war propaganda. We, as pedestrians and drivers, are commonly visually reminded of the martyrs who died in the eight-year war with Iraq.
In 2009, the citizens turned to the spray can as a weapon for protest again, this time against the authorities for their perceived role in the electoral skullduggery of the presidential election. Mostly, they were removed by the authorities as quickly as they were sprayed
We could say, here in Iran, our revolution has been a spray revolution.
The Start of Iranian Graffiti Culture
Since this time, Iranians have become connected to each other, and the world, through the Internet. The result of which has influenced how our walls are being sprayed. Graffiti in Iran became street art and it developed into a local urban visual culture grounded in a protest movement.
-A1one- is one of Iran’s first well known graffiti artists. He started his career on the walls of Apadana and Ekbatan town – two of Tehran’s sprawling high-rise housing estates. He was the first to employ Farsi typography, developing a style that influenced other artists including -CK1-, -ELLE-, -Magoi-, -Big cheese- and -Pig-. With this, graffiti became a street art movement in Iran.
Khamoosh and the Exit Crew
I interviewed -Khamoosh-. He’s a graffiti writer who uses farsi typography and whose career also began on the walls of Ekbatan and Apadana. He rose to local prominence with an underground exhibition in Tehran in 2011 and has since received international acclaim holding exhibitions in Germany, Italy and America. He has been involved with -Kolah Studio- an underground art collective who have pioneered the urban visual culture in Iran.
-Tell me about the way that cops behave with you? I asked
“There’s no specific crime for graffiti in Iran and it mostly depends on the cops. But the cops come mostly in peace and don’t care about what we’re doing. But it is a crime and they can arrest us as political offenders or as vandals if they choose.”
-What was your last experience with cops.?
“We were working in the canal, then suddenly four cops approached us. They were surprised at first, then they laughed and encouraged us. They asked if we knew about the crime we were committing. I said yes, they laughed again and then left.”
-Khamoosh- is now working with the -Exit- crew; an underground hip hop collective of two Tehrani rappers and one other graffiti writer.
“Our goal is to keep our ideology in line with what we do. Characteristically, the rap is motivated by expressions of protest on the street. We try to keep with this and that is what makes us underground. We don’t let our work get influenced by commercial or government pressures. This only misuses the name of hip hop and makes it vulgar. Hip hop is a lifestyle but unfortunately in Iran, it has become commercial and people, who don’t know anything about the philosophy of graffiti, are getting involved. Here, the mural and street artists are working with government. They have their own mafia and they don’t give a toss about rap or hip hop.
Problems for Graffiti artists in Iran
In the article titled ‘Being a street artist in Iran’ from the Kolah Studio website (one of the major sites of underground art in iran) , it cites three basic problems local graffiti writers regularly encounter. The first, according to this article, is the government’s approach towards graffiti, namely, vandalism or political activist
The second is the prevalence of mural paintings. Artists are employed by the municipalities and must obtain legal permission for their work. Their work is supported by the government in essence, having to pass the standards of heavy censorship, they argue the art is emptied from the critical nature of graffiti. There however does exist mural painters, which I find more authentic, who choose not to become involved with the system. Since they see their art as a means to protest against the authorities, it is uncensored and therefore is saved from being neutered by the system.
Third is the problem of the sprays themselves. Because of trade sanctions, importing spray into Iran is difficult and prohibitively expensive leaving artists to use a locally produced range that of poor quality and limited by choices in color.
The destructive power of Facebook & Art Galleries on Graffiti
Besides all these problems, facebook and art galleries can destroy graffiti,, says Kolah Studio, stemming from Facebook. In the article, the Studio argues Facebook drags people from the streets into an online social network, where separated from its original nature graffiti becomes something defined by a very different aesthetic criterion.
In my own opinion, there also exists a threat to our street movement from art galleries. Gallery owners are tending to invest mostly in works with saleable themes, appropriate for foreign markets, in which they can attract the highest prices. The risk is that the scene will cater to the taste of foreign buyers, and in doing so commercial interests undermine the style and essence of the street art movement.
The whole meaning behind graffiti was to protest against brainwashing and the enslaving of the masses by governments, the media and commercial interests. It is at risk of being lost ….