Art Radar brings you 4 artists to know from the streets of Iran.
Although Iran has in recent years initiated a variety of urban beautification projects featuring monumental murals in the urban landscape, most street artists still have to work underground due to state censorship and the illegal status of graffiti.
The Iranian street art scene, though, continues to burgeon relentlessly, especially in its two main centres, Tehran and Tabriz. Art Radar profiles Iranian street artists who are making their mark.
Icy & Sot
Hailing from Tabriz, brothers and stencil artists Icy & Sot started their professional career in 2008, but have been creating work on the streets since 2005. Their graffiti addresses issues of peace, war, love, hate, hope, despair, children, society and Iranian culture. They have held numerous exhibitions worldwide and their unofficial street artworks have appeared in Iran and throughout Europe, South America and the United States.
In August 2012, the artists attended one of their exhibitions outside of Iran for the first time. “Made in Iran”, held at the Openhouse Gallery in New York City, featured their new works and site-specific installations.
Since then, Icy & Sot have been based in New York City – which provides a better platform for their creative endeavours and greater freedom of movement – leaving behind a rich underground street art scene in Iran, including their ‘protégés’ – emerging artists III and MAD.
The Huffington Post quoted Icy & Sot on working in Iran:
The worst thing in Iran is that when you get caught they will stick so many labels to you that are not even related to it, such as Satanism, for example, and you can be accused of political activities.
In Summer 2014, Icy & Sot curated a two-city exhibition entitled “New York to Tehran/Tehran to New York”, which featured Iranian artists at the TBA temporary space in New York City and American artists at the Seyhoun Art Gallery in Tehran. After the show, the artists were able to travel around Europe for the first time, leaving traces of their passing in France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland, including ad takeovers, monumental street art installations and wall graffiti.
In an interview with Brooklyn Street Art, the artists said about their work:
In our opinion Street Art itself is a kind of political art, because it says something directly to the people. […] we are communicating our visions to the people with walls. […] Because the streets are for everyone but the galleries are limited and all we want is to communicate our visions to the people.
Tehran-based artist and designer Mehdi Ghadyanloo began decorating his native city’s high-rises and office buildings about eight years ago, with monumental surrealist and hyper-realist murals produced by himself and his company, Blue Sky Painters. Ghadyanloo’s graffiti blurs the lines between architecture, art and the urban environment, as well as between reality and fiction.
Ghadyanloo currently teaches a course on mural art at Soodeh University in Tehran. His art is sanctioned and supported by Tehran’s municipal government, as he told Young Persian Artists:
[…] most of my large-scale work is financed by the municipality. Some 8 years ago, the municipality set up a committee to help promote mural art in Tehran. The city is an architectural mishmash with buildings often having only one facade and the other three just left blank and grey. This doesn’t make for a beautiful city but it is a great environment for mural work. I think the municipality really felt the need to bring some cohesion or at least colour to the often confused and smog-smeared architectural face of the city.
But Ghadyanloo is an exception in Tehran – most street artists are relegated to the underground scene, as he explains to The Huffington Post:
Graffiti is illegal here in Iran, like in many other countries, so graffiti artists in Tehran work at night. We have [a] very good underground street artist [network].
Ghadyanloo’s murals incorporate vibrant colours and realistically rendered daily life scenes with surrealist themes in 3D effects and optical illusions. In the urban environment of Tehran, it is possible to see a man riding a bicycle vertically towards the sky, a child flying upwards with a bunch of colourful balloons, and people walking upside down on a building.
The artist has created more than one hundred artworks on Tehran’s walls so far and has more in the making.
I hide my identity for security reasons. Under the Iranian municipality laws, writing on walls or advertising without official permission is a crime.
In April 2014, the artist organised an exhibition of his own work that took place in an abandoned house in central Tehran which was under the protection of the Historical Preservation Society for its unique architecture, but which the authorities had decided to demolish anyway.
Black Hand is considered Iran’s Banksy by many, and has revealed that he takes inspiration and is heavily influenced by the UK artist’s style and artistic philosophy. Like Banksy, Black Hand engages with social and political issues. His art is provocative but is not meant as protest – rather, as a way to find peace. In the same interview with The Guardian, Black Hand goes on to explain:
I work on the issues that are happening in my country. We wake up with them, we live with them and we sleep with them. Art aside, being able to express these issues by itself can help you find peace. I love life and I love living next to other people. People’s relations with each other fascinate me and I want to work on humans more than anything else. My aim is to communicate with other humans.
Black Hand works quickly and chooses his locations wisely, usually where people will see his murals before the municipal government covers them up only a few hours after completion. Banksy’s stencilling technique, says Black Hand, helps him complete his work in a very short period of time.
An example of his art, which went viral on social media, is a mural of a woman holding up a bottle of dishwashing liquid as if it were a sports cup. Black Hand painted it after the Iranian government barred women from sports stadiums in June 2014. Two weeks later, the municipal government had defaced it, painting over it in bright blood red.
Another artwork that went viral addresses the legal trade of kidneys in Iran, depicting an auction for a kidney on a wall. This work was erased the morning after it was created.
GhalamDAR started his career at fifteen, and from 2011 to 2014 he teamed up with the Elf Crew, one of the first graffiti groups to emerge in Iran. He has a distinctive style that sets him apart from the rest of his fellow street art practitioners. Rather than being influenced by the mainstream graffiti styles coming in from the West, he takes inspiration from traditional Iranian art forms such as calligraphy (khattati or khoshnevesi) and miniature painting (negargari).
GhalamDAR’s art exemplifies a new direction in Iranian street art, positioning street art within the context of Iranian art history.
As GhalamDAR told Ajam Media Collective (AMC), he hopes that more artists will start engaging with Iran’s cultural products:
In this modern period, we are able to take our own elements, visual culture, our own literature for inspiration. We have had a lot of artistic circles throughout the last century that have experimented with traditional forms. We could do it [with graffiti], but most prefer to emulate. In my opinion, we still don’t have an authentic Iranian street art movement; right now most of us are just replicating what is being produced in the U.S. and Europe.
He goes on to explain that his art does not emulate, but takes inspiration from, transforms or re-interprets past artistic forms. In doing so, the artist brings his work into the realm of pop-art by “cartoonifying” human figures and isolating them from their traditional literary and visual contexts.
The recent urban beautification projects initiated by the Iranian government that sanction some street artists and their works have helped artists like GhalamDAR to feel less threatened by the illegal nature of their practices. Finding locations around the city has become easier and people’s responses to street art are less negative than before. He told AMC:
Sometimes we talk to the residents in a particular area to ask them if we can paint there. I show them my ID and tell them that I’m a university art student. I remember once in a while they would come out to see what I was painting, but after a while they stopped being suspicious of our work and didn’t mind us.
GhalamDAR believes that the “gallerisation” of street art does not necessarily alter the message or form of graffiti:
[…] street art is a package that encompasses a variety of practices like design, decor, and fashion – it’s something that doesn’t have limitations any more. The nature of graffiti is changing, but the core of it all – writing on the walls – shouldn’t be lost either.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi revives history through staged images – interview – September 2014 – Iranian artist Azadeh Akhlaghi talks to Art Radar about her exploration of her country’s violent history through conceptual photography
- Artist Hojat Amani on angel’s wings, calligraphy and Iranian art today – interview – July 2014 – Iranian artist Hojat Amani talks about how he deftly blends contemporary Western pop culture with the Persian script and motifs in his artistic practice
- French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed on his Arabic roots, “Lost Walls” and reclaiming purple – interview – June 2014 – eL Seed talks about his journey to Tunisia’s most forgotten and remote areas, his re-appropriation of the colour purple and his run-in with Chewbacca
- Manila’s mean streets: 7 Filipino street artists – part 3 – May 2014 – the Filipino Street Art Project is a transmedia project documenting street art in the archipelago’s capital
- 6 of the best street art projects in Asia-Pacific right now – March 2014 – 6 exciting street art projects in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, hand-picked by Art Radar
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