On streets of Iran, art and graffiti are signs of social protest

Located next to a Tehran walkway, the stickers show images that are antithetical to Iran’s clerical regime. One shows a three-breasted woman in a bikini. Another shows a young man in a leather jacket holding a sign that says, “Peace.” The stickers are illegal to post, but that doesn’t stop artists from attaching them to Iran’s walls and passageways, taking photos of their handiwork, and uploading them on web sites that attract people from around the world. Act locally, think globally – that’s one apparent motto of Iran’s street artists, who risk arrest to showcase their work on public buildings and surfaces in Tehran, Tabriz and other cities.

“It’s simply art,” Raha Kootah, an Iranian photographer who documents the work at http://irangraffiti.blogspot.com/, tells me via email from Iran. Kootah says the blog site promotes the graffiti and other artwork as “a positive act in social and individual life.” In other words, the images aren’t a way to subvert Iran’s clerical paradigm, aren’t a substitute for the protests that continue to flare around the country. But the art is a kind of social protest – a chance for a segment of Iran’s young population to vent its message of creative non-violence.

Photo from http://irangraffiti.blogspot.com/

Photo from irangraffiti.blogspot.com/

“Make art, not war.” That’s the message on a sign held up by a female figure wearing an Islamic head scarf. The sticker drawing is one of several grouped together that seem aimed at Iran’s leaders – and those who are sympathetic to this type of political art. An artist by the name of “A1one” is among the most active in Iran, and is one of the few, Kootah says, who has continued to sticker Tehran in the past six months, when Iranian authorities have used violence to curtail protests. “A1one” was one of the first Iranian artists to take his message to the streets, starting in late 2002, according to Kootah.

Here’s a short video showing street graffiti in Tehran, followed by a video of a gallery event for Iranian “spray art.” Both are done by kolahstudio.com.

[youtubevid id=”XB6-G8f4R5o”] [youtubevid id=”g1zlhVV51Qg”]

Kootah says that many artists promote their artistic vision — with the permission of Islamic art schools or universities — on the institutions’ own walls. So, there is an official tolerance for some of the artwork. For those who do their work without permission, the penalty could be worse than a simple arrest. “Some of them really risk their life,” she tells me in our email interview this week.

Raha Kootah is likely Kootah’s pseudonym since it’s difficult for anyone associated with Iran’s street-art movement to give his or her real name. Still, the fact that this movement has surfaced from the underground – and that Kootah is emailing an American journalist – is a sign of how much progress the movement has made. I heard about it nine days ago from a friend of a friend in California. This friend of a friend grew up in Iran, and was excited to discover that graffiti art – a heretofore Western expression – had found a home in her native country. One of the photos posted three days ago at http://irangraffiti.blogspot.com/ shows an image of an Iranian woman whose face is imprinted with a peace sign. (The photo is the second one above.)  Shades of yellow, red, white and blue anchor different sides of her face, giving it the feel of Shepard Fairey’s famous Obama poster. That poster had the word “Hope” attached. The Iranian image doesn’t need words to convey the same message.

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