They spray Tehran’scity walls with vibrant colours, opposesocial injustice with visual provocation and defy the law with their artisticstatements. In Iran, urban art is on the rise thanks to artists whose publicwork questions the country’s social and political status quo. We look at thestreet art of A1one, Icy and Sot, MAD and Nafir in an attempt to define theirmethod.
Wall painting boasts a long and complex history in Iran.Afterthe Iranian Revolution in 1979, which abolished the rule of the Shah, thecountry was established anew as an Islamic Republic. Gigantic images ofreligious martyrs and heroes of the revolution began to adorn Tehran’spreviously bare walls. Dominated by ideological narratives, public spacesbecame another place for political indoctrination and, gradually, a battlefieldbetween state-sanctioned mural painters and independent street artists. Today,this gargantuan propaganda often labelled as urban beautification is faced withthe challenge of much smaller, politically nuanced stencils, stickers andgraffiti.
Tehran’surban artists work constantly, stubbornly refusingto be silenced by thepowers-that-be. Their visions illustrate the dichotomiesof daily life in Iran: themes of war and peace, poverty and inequality,cultural identity and social injustice. While there is no organised movement ofany sort, and all work is wiped off the walls within hours of its creation,these young artists demonstrate a stunning dedication to their own mission –whatever it may be.
On his blog, A1onewrites: ‘maybe I am a vandal or anarchist,but I am glad to introduce myself as one. I am not about politics (…)’. One ofthe longest-standing street artists in Tehran, A1one started painting thestreets over ten years ago.
Thoughhe produces astonishing stencil and sticker-basedstreet portraits, freehand calligraphy has become his signature style. Thewalls he paints come alive with layers upon layers of Persian script, whichoverlap, silhouette and accentuate each other in a vivid allusion to thePersian technique of siyah mashq – an artistic process in classicalcalligraphy, whereby single symbols are constantly re-written until perfection.As a result, A1one’sfinished images appear embossed, rich with a sense ofhistory and heritage. A1one has recently broadened his portfolio to 3D graffitimodels, where the sweeping curves of his calligraphy take on a palpable formand so formally embody both the wall and the symbol.
Manyof his ‘calligraffiti’ works spell out the word ‘truth’in Persian writing. By repeating ‘truth’ on the world’s walls, crafting itsseemingly symmetrical yet complex curves and edges, spraying it on inmyriadcolours, A1one insists on exactly that – the truth.
Icy and Sot
Arguably the most widely appreciated street artists to comeout of Iran, brothers Icy and Sotare on a self-confessed ‘creative crusade todismantle pre-conceived perceptions’ of Iran and its traditions. In so doing,they are also truth-seekers like A1one. They attest that ‘street art is a kindof political art, because it’s speaking directly to the people.’ And it is bothto and about the people that the brothers talk through their art.
The figuration in Icy and Sot’sstencils extends beyondlanguage. Women and children feature prominentlyin their work as vulnerablefigures most prone to abuse and tragedy. Children are illustrated praying,hiding, walking alone, labouring – the imagery refers powerfully to thedestruction of innocence, to injustice and disillusionment. Then there are thetouching portraits of the elderlythat lend a shape to the confrontation oftradition and modernity, the old and the new in Iran’s culture. And likewise,street art is a new formconfronted with traditional preconceptions andprejudice. When they still lived in Tehran,Icy and Sot fought this, renderingthe figures as part of Iranian society, natural elements of the lively trafficof people, cars and goods.
Icy and Sot have been displayed in galleries in New York,Berlin, Amsterdam and Milan,but the first time they ever attended one of theirexhibitions was in 2012, when they were granted artistic visas to live in theUSA. They have both been granted asylum since then.
Combining social commentary with a dose of humour anddistance, MADbelongs to the ‘later’ generation of street artists. He createsalmost uniquely stencil-based works, and sends his stencils to friends abroad(including Icy and Sot), who then spray them onto New York or Paris walls. MADadmits that although street artists have a tough life in Iran– they areregularly accused of Satanism and receive no support from artistic institutions– he still enjoys the purity of the whole situation, the fact that it has justbeen born. He also points out that there are many Iranians who do enjoy urbanart, and who are eager to talkto the artist as he paints on yet another wall.
Thepeace symbol features prominently in variousarrangements: taken away bytwo soldiers with their backs turned towards us, orserving as a supportfor three children who hold on to it with shy, hopefulsmiles on their faces. The images speak for themselves in their integrity andspirit.
Nafir a.k.a. Scream
Nafircomes across as humble and modest. When asked todescribe himself, he responds that there is nothing to be said; ‘I am just ascream on [a] wall’, he states. And there are more dichotomies to his identity:his butterfly logo is at once fleeting and charged with cultural power, itswings filled in with a heavy, ornate Persian pattern.
Nafir’sstencils, too, are distinguished by their seemingdisharmony: solemn scenes of loneliness and suffering are contrasted by alightness of form and execution. Scarcely coloured, the drawings use the wall’scolour as areal element of their existence, giving the impression ofdissolving into their own background. As many of his subjects are children, aclear message emerges: this is the lost, forgotten generation with adiminishing identity. But Nafir seems to counteract that by documentingtheirfaces, in groups and alone, on all urban surfaces. His involvementin charitywork and deep sense of empathy shine through these touching portraits; despair,melancholy, but also pure happiness flourish in Tehran with every new stencil.
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