Art as a catalyst: Taking back the streets of Tehran

Iranian graffiti artists transforming public space

Graffiti and street art hold a long and complicated history in Iran, and to some extent represent visual testimonials of the complex transformations undergone by the country. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which over-ruled the power of the Shah, the country established itself as an Islamic Republic. Gigantic murals of religious martyrs or heroes of the revolution began to cover Tehran’s walls. Dominated by ideological ideas, the city walls became another space for political indoctrination. This gradually gave rise to a battlefield between state-sanctioned images and independent street activists. Today, the state propaganda labeled as ‘urban beautification’ is faced with the challenge of political nuanced graffiti and stencils that speak up on Iran’s domestic challenges and their implications for the civil society.

Rise of the spray can

Graffiti and street art are generally described as any form of art that occurs in a public or privately owned space. Exhibited through various mediums, such as tags, stencils, sculptures and unconstrained by form, they offer creative freedom. This is one of the main reasons for the transformation of street art into a medium for activism. It was not long before government officials labeled street art as an ‘urban problem’ and saw its eradication as a means to reaffirm the systems control. Considered illegal vandalism, graffiti’s reclaiming of public space continues to exemplify a form of resistance and an act of rebellion in itself.

What made the government worry is street art’s ability to act as a highly accessible mass communication tool. It can link people together regardless of lingual, racial or cultural differences while at the same time becoming part of the city. Taking into account the universal nature of street art, it provides a voice for those that otherwise can not comment on social problems or political sentiments. Through visual representations it helps to shape perception and it acts as a catalyst for social mobilisation.

Like the press, the role of street art is to form social consciousness. In authoritarian systems where outlets for free expression are limited, it is one of the few gauges of political sentiment.’  Lyman Chaffee (Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, California State University)

Under oppressive regimes, street art becomes even more a method of communication, emerging as an alternative to the government’s attempt to reduce public participation. One such case can be witnessed in Iran, where during the late 1970s graffiti emerged as a revolutionary weapon and in current times, as a mean for political protest. The powerful visual quality of graffiti, together with accessibility of materials and ease of implication lead to a rapid spread of this method among the Iranian population of varying social status.

Graffiti and the Iranian revolution of 1979

On the eve of 1979, the Iranian public space was transformed into a space where information could be exchanged verbally and visually, supporting the Revolution. The Anti-Shah graffiti in Tehran can be considered one of the first experiences of Iranians in socio-political protests.

City walls became canvases of opinion and information for the masses. It is important to mention that during the 70s, a high percentage of the population was illiterate. Thus printed literature that would be of little use to the low educated population was replaced by visual revolutionary sources. Artists together with ordinary people started to spread wall writings across various public spaces using different techniques: markers, paint, aerosols. During the Revolution, open handprints appeared alongside clenched fists on the walls of Tehran as a reminder of the suppression imposed by the Pahlavi government. Ubiquitous murals of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other leading Islamist figures helped to bring down Iran’s last Shah. In both presence and content, the revolutionary graffiti and anti-oppression images offered a powerful challenge to the government’s symbolic hegemony. The urban city-space became a battleground to assert political ascendance and graffiti was right at the centre of it.

©The University of Chicago Library

After the Revolution triumphed, the same city walls became spaces for the propaganda of new regime values. Today’s Tehran is a site of competition between government commissioned murals, Green movement political activists and graffiti artists that address issues varying from sexism and trading of human organs, to peace and women’s empowerment.

Beautification vs. Resistance

Over the past decades, following the 1979 Revolution, the walls of Tehran have been the subject of power games between the municipality and activist street artists. Graffiti has somehow emerged as a main tool of mass communication and propaganda, being the focus of urban beautification projects that establish the monolithic nature of the Iranian government, while at the same time a medium that offers activists the possibility to express emotions and social problems through art.

The beautification project 

Soon after 1979, public art installations commissioned by the municipality refashioned Tehran’s urban landscape. Coming from a capital-centric focus, it is assumed that Tehran’s post-revolutionary urban space is representative of all Iran and of the power held by the state. Thus the newly established government erased all public displays of the past regime and replaced them with new rhetorics that emphasise the narratives of the Islamic Republic.

Building facades, city streets and boulevards became spaces that advocated anti-imperialism, anti-American sentiments and idealised traditional landscapes and other images with roots in the traditional Iranian arts. The officially commissioned murals are a visible representation of a government’s need to control and manipulate the population with mobilising patriotic conviction.

©Mehdi Ghadyanloo

Resistance – the writing on the wall 

Graffiti artists spray Tehran’s walls with vibrant colours, defy the law with their statements and fight social injustice. Street art is on the rise in the city thanks to artists whose works question the political and social status quo of the country. Tehran’s street artists refuse to be silenced by the powers at place. Their work illustrates the dichotomies of every-day life in Iran: war and peace, inequality and poverty, emancipation and social injustice.

‘street art is a kind of political art, because it’s speaking directly to the people’  Icy and Sot

Arguably the most appreciated street artists in Iran, brothers Icy and Sot are on a truth-seeking crusade both for and about the Iranian people. The narratives in their stencils extend beyond language. Women and children are the main focus in their works, considering them vulnerable figures most prone to violence and tragedy. They started covering Tehran’s walls with illustrations of children praying, women walking alone – powerful imagery that speaks to the destruction of innocence and injustice.

This stencil depicts the loss of innocence for many children of Iran’s urban lower-strata, often forced to work to supplement their families’ low income ©Icy and Sot

‘maybe I am a vandal or anarchist, but I am glad to introduce myself as one’ A1one

As one of the first street artists in Tehran, A1one has been painting the city walls for more than ten years already. Freehand calligraphy has become his signature style, painting layers upon layers of Persian script that refer to the technique of ‘siyah mashq’, an artistic process of classical calligraphy where single symbols are constantly re-written until perfection. His graffiti holds a rich sense of history, while at the same time most of his works spell out the word ‘truth’. Through his complex crafting, A1one insists on reminding people of exactly that – to seek for the truth.

Observing the aesthetic and spiritual characteristics of a particular style ©Ajam

‘Our intellectual and artistic society are underestimating and ignoring ordinary people’s power’ Black Hand 

A street artist who has recently been taking the walls of Tehran by storm is Black Hand. Keeping his/her identity concealed, Black Hand has used stencils to satirise the grim social problems faced by the Iranian society. Issues such as Iran being the only country where organ trade is legal, the cause of Iranian women having unequal rights and Tehran’s nuclear programme have been the focus of Black Hand’s art. Since 2014, Black Hand has been decorating Tehran’s walls with direct comments on the most difficult aspects of Iranian culture and politics and often provide a voice for the oppressed members of the society.

Black Hand reacts to the new law banning women from attending football matches

The public square and open streets have served as living canvases for artists – whether state-sanctioned or independent – to express emotions and ideas through the art of persuasion. The walls of Tehran continue to act as platforms for visual communication, offering both the state and activists the possibility to directly converse with the population. What the phenomena of street art in Tehran demonstrates is that in spite of overarching political structures, the individual and its creativity can not be stifled.

For more information, watch the inspirational video below.

This article focuses on themes such as Iran’s domestic challenges and women’s role in the society which will be further discussed at the upcoming event Iran: The Road Ahead hosted by Pakhuis De Zwijger on the 21st of October. 

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