The fleeting freedom of street art in Tehran

The fleeting freedom of street art in Tehran
Photo Reports
Explore similar themes
CultureYouthDemocracyArts
View as Gallery

A 23-year-old Iranian graffiti artist describes his practice as “giving birth to a baby who is going to die in just a few hours, or in a few days, if the baby is lucky.” Like most other Iranian graffiti artists, he asked to remain anonymous for fear for his safety.

In Iran, where unsanctioned street art is illegal, municipal workers and city wardens are quick to paint over graffiti pieces. This is why Iranian graffiti artists consider themselves highly fortunate if their artworks stay on a wall for a week or two.

Despite this fundamental obstacle, these artists continue to give birth to their short-lived babies. In the Iranian capital of Tehran, works of street art are vibrant visualisations of the voices of ordinary people. Today, young Iranians use street walls to express their opinions on both political and social issues.

Although the Iranian government considers unsanctioned graffiti as political disobedience, certain graffiti artists such as ill, Nafir and Black Hand are known throughout the country, while others like CK1 and Cave2 had to leave Iran to find a place where they could freely express themselves.

Graffiti as a form of protest is an old phenomenon in this Middle Eastern country. Before the 1979 revolution – the 38th anniversary marked on 10 February – street walls in Iran were used as canvasses for slogans against Shah, the last monarch of Iran.

With the collapse of the monarchy, the Islamists who seized power used the same walls to propagate their ideology, to showcase quotes from Shi’a religious figures, and to display gigantic murals of the country’s political leaders and its fallen volunteer fighters during Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq.

These days, a new generation of artists is adding something else to Tehran’s public spaces: an innovative style of graffiti that mixes Persian calligraphy with delicately rendered Western graffiti styles. For these new Iranian street artists, graffiti allows them to express their feelings about their homeland’s political turmoil and social dilemmas through colourful wildstyle pieces or old school black and white stencils.

Their visually striking pieces demonstrate an alternative social and political discourse focusing on peace, women’s rights, children’s rights and freedom of speech. Furthermore, these artists celebrate the glory days of Persia by making use of elements related to their historical culture such as pomegranates and whirling dervishes.

 

An artwork by “ill”, a well-known name in Iran’s graffiti scene. He says “the street is the best place to communicate with people through art.” Most street artworks in Tehran are signed with pseudonyms or they are not signed at all. If the police arrest graffiti artists, could face a prison sentence.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

An artwork by “ill”, a well-known name in Iran’s graffiti scene. He says “the street is the best place to communicate with people through art.” Most street artworks in Tehran are signed with pseudonyms or they are not signed at all. If the police arrest graffiti artists, they can be tried in an Islamic Revolutionary Court on charges of Satanism and disturbing public order. These charges are considered political and can result in a prison sentence.

 

A stencil portrait of the Olympic gold medallist and world wrestling champion Gholamreza Takhti. His death in 1968 was officially ruled as suicide, although he is widely believed to have been murdered by secret service agents because of his vocal opposition to the Shah’s regime.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

A stencil portrait of the Olympic gold medallist and world wrestling champion Gholamreza Takhti. His death in 1968 was officially ruled as suicide, although he is widely believed to have been murdered by secret service agents because of his vocal opposition to the Shah’s regime. Today he remains a national hero because of his social and political activism, as well as his modesty, kindness and sporting prowess. Stencils of prominent Iranian figures are popular in Iran’s graffiti scene.

 

Written graffiti in central Tehran, close to Tehran University. English graffiti is emerging in some parts of the city, although the number of Iranians who speak English is small. Contrary to artists in other countries, Iranian street artists usually create small pieces in hidden corners to makes sure their work stays on display for longer.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Written graffiti in central Tehran, close to Tehran University. English graffiti is emerging in some parts of the city, although the number of Iranians who speak English is small. Contrary to artists in other countries, Iranian street artists usually create small pieces in hidden corners to makes sure their work stays on display for longer.

 

An anonymous artist has combined Edward Munch’s figure from The Scream with the familiar arch of a mihrab, decorated with Islamic patterns. A mihrab is the part of a mosque that indicates the direction of Kaaba in Mecca, which Muslims face for daily prayers.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Elahieh, a suburb of north Tehran. An anonymous artist has combined Edward Munch’s figure from The Scream with the familiar arch of a mihrab, decorated with Islamic patterns. A mihrab is the part of a mosque that indicates the direction of Kaaba in Mecca, which Muslims face for daily prayers. When Iranian artists – be they visual artists, filmmakers, writers or journalists – cannot freely express their objection to religious or political suppression, they wrap their ideas in metaphors such as this one.

 

This artwork refers to the 175 Iranian military divers whose bodies were discovered – still in their diving gear and with their hands tied behind their backs – in June 2015 in a mass grave under the river border with Iraq. The divers were killed during the notorious Operation Karbala 4, which took place during the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Graffiti of a military diver on a wall in northern Tehran. This artwork refers to the 175 Iranian military divers whose bodies were discovered – still in their diving gear and with their hands tied behind their backs – in June 2015 in a mass grave under the river border with Iraq. The divers were killed during the notorious Operation Karbala 4, which took place during the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. The retrieval of the bodies, amidst claims that the men were buried alive, stirred up painful memories in Iran.

 

A whirling dervish graffiti in praise of Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. Sufism, despite its historic presence in Iran, is not accepted by the Islamic regime and the government convicts Sufis and dervishes for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state”.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

A whirling dervish graffiti in praise of Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. Sufism, despite its historic presence in Iran, is not accepted by the Islamic regime and the government convicts Sufis and dervishes for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state”.

 

Some artists use graffiti to display their thoughts in public locations. EXIT is a prolific tagger who has sprayed his artistic pseudonym on many walls across Tehran.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Some artists use graffiti to display their thoughts in public locations. EXIT is a prolific tagger who has sprayed his artistic pseudonym on many walls across Tehran.

 

Graffiti by the street artist Nafir appears on an electricity box near the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece, entitled I Stand Alone, is a motif that has been sprayed on walls, telephone booths and electricity boxes throughout the city.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Graffiti by the street artist Nafir appears on an electricity box near the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece, entitled I Stand Alone, is a motif that has been sprayed on walls, telephone booths and electricity boxes throughout the city.

 

Graffiti on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran. The black Farsi writing loosely translates as: “Here you are, the rainbow.” The green writing, also in Farsi, says “Freedom of speech”.

Photo: Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi

Graffiti on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran. The black Farsi writing loosely translates as: “Here you are, the rainbow.” The green writing, also in Farsi, says “Freedom of speech”.