Iran… what do we really know about it? And which of all these facts are actually true? What kind of image do we have? And would we include something like ‘Iranian Graffiti’ or ‘Street Art from Tehran’ in this image?
If so, what would that look like? Do we expect any strong Anti-American messages? Or do we think of a strong form of expression against the government maybe? Or could it be sympathizing with a local party? Or what if it was not about any official statement at all, but what if Iranian street art was simply a form of personal expression? Or maybe it is even all of the above, still testing out what ‘street art’ could possibly be in this particular environment… PingMag interviewed A1one, the one who started graffiti in Tehran.
Written by Uleshka
Many thanks to Jan Chipchase
A1one, how did you first get into graffitti?
I actually asked that myself recently… During my childhood, Tehran was really calm and quiet and I was curious about the very few things that had a visual impact, the small bits of visual expression. I was wondering: Where do these posters come from? Who decides to put them on the walls? And who makes those movie boards? You have to consider, that unlike today, before the 1990s the economy in my country was so bad that there was no real money or interest for things like colorful advertisement.
In 1998 I was into painting and got involved in independent music in Iran. This is when I met an Iranian rapper from Germany called Nima. He was brought up in Germany and during the two nights we spent talking, Nima told me everything about real underground hip hop, noise artists, graffiti crews and street art.
I was aware of wall paintings and mural arts of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera or Alfero Siquerus. I saw many wall paintings here and big fonts in movies and magazines, but I didn’t know that this sort of scene existed: expressing your own ideas through images and letters on city walls. I also didn’t know that it is as illegal in Germany as it is here.
Although Nima and I were only talking, it triggered something and that was a matter of real motivation for me.
In 2003 I made a 30×40 cm Munch’s scream stencil which I sprayed on university walls to express the uncommon pressure inserted at the universities which was endured in silence.
30X40 cms Munch’s scream stencil on a university wall
close-up of another A1one stencil in the APC neighborhood
When I left university I found myself free from obligations and dedicated myself to start street art and graffiti as A1one.
What does graffiti mean to you? Is it a protest against something or is it more of a personal expression?
Not a protest – I am not a soldier and my works aren’t stones for throwing! They are personal experiences I want to share with people. A drawing on the street is similar to a letter: It proves that there is a writer. Whether people want to receive this letter or not is a different question…
You were the first to start graffiti in Tehran spraying in the APC neighbourhood. How did you start it all?
When I started there were no paintings. Nothing at all apart from some tiny scribbles and imitations of heavy metal band names.
My first work was a very simple work titled “searching for friends” painted on a wall right next to the Tehran-Karaj expressway late at night. It was a really frightening night for me… The next morning I got three calls from friends who recognized my style of painting. They were shocked to see my work on a public wall.
After one month Magoi, a good friend of mine joined in to do graffiti with me. At that time we created works titled “Good Morning Tehran”, “Social Prison”, “Social Sorrow” and the “One eye” series. All these paintings got scratched or removed by either officials, unofficials, or new comers of the 2nd generation graffiti scene.
How has the graffiti scene in Iran evolved since then? Who else joined in?
I invited some other artists I respected to do wall paintings. Some simply rejected, some were really shocked to be asked in the first place and some actually joined. Artist friends included Elle, K.T. and Isbah. Then another group formed in the Gisha neighborhood in Tehran and sent me some of their images in early 2005. I think today we have about 10 activists.
Do the different writers get along?
After two years some of my older works got buffed by the newer generation of street artists in Tehran. I guess that was simply to get more attention or to show their negative attitude towards me. Nowadays we are a pretty good community of crews and individuals.
Are there any women involved in the scene?
Yes, about two or three. The first one was the Persian rapper Salome. I found shots of her works on a website, so now we are connected by email.
How does the police or the government react to graffiti?
In fact we have no laws yet, but they consider everything to be political and if a young person sprays a wall they probably think that this person is with the Americans and wants to make a revolution or is obsessed with the West or something…
But then – apart from underground platforms such as Kolahstudio, there are even official magazines and journals publishing positive articles about ‘How the society should react to graffiti’, suggesting to use other countries’ experiences in treating graffiti as a respected young art form instead of treating writers like criminals. Some good stuff for reading around – even in Iran!
Looking at this cage you drew around the bird – what would disturb people most? Would it be a political issue in terms of the message of the drawing? Or because you shouldn’t express yourself in general? Or because it might motivate others to do drawings on public walls? What would be the main “concern” and what would happen if you got caught?
Huh. I really don’t want to mess with my people or the police! What I am trying to say with this image is, that in one form or the other, we are all limited in a cage. I see that as more of a personal, inner subject rather than a political one. But if my ideas are not acceptable here, I have to suffer for not paying enough attention to my geographic location.
If I got caught? It would all depend on that particular person who got me and the law would then basically be created out of this moment, depending on this person’s attitude towards it all. Arbitrary decisions count.
Are there any particular themes you would not express in your graffiti?
I for myself don’t have any limits really, but when you live in a sittuation where doing something like graffiti could cost your life, then you should think about whether it is actually worth dying for?
Graffiti is not really taken seriously here – yet. Most Iranian people probably don’t pay great attention to walls and images, because they don’t consider a wall painting to be a media for free personal expression or to deliver any particular unique message anyway.
However, when you step into the graffiti scene in Iran you are definitely “on the other side of the red line” – even for most of your friends. So… is it worth risking so much for it?
Abu Ghraib prison – Mohammad Bin Ismaeel Jarayen
Mohammad Bin Ismaeel Jarayen – an invented name for a fictive person, meaning ‘it could be anyone’.
To what extend do graffiti writers in Teheran get together and talk about their message or problems?
Before 2006 we sometimes met in the APC neighborhood, but I don’t know if anyone actually gets together now… We usually chat about it online or discuss things in emails. I get emails every week with some ideas, friendly questions, images of new works but I haven’t actually met those people in real life. Maybe we’ll do it someday…
When looking at the Iranian works, it is clear to see that graffiti and street art are still very new to Iran – there is no graffiti history or rooted experience. Inspired by the huge collection of online street art archives such as Woostercollective or Artcrimes – style influences can easily be traced, the source of inspiration is often obvious. However, learning from established writers’ techniques, a new form of Iranian expression is created and a different setting shifts the original meaning.
If you can’t talk of an ‘Iranian style” yet, what about graffiti in other Arabic countries? Is there something like an unique Arabic graffiti style?
I try to write in Farsi, so I prefer to use Iranian typography and I have some connections to other friends in the Middle East. Arofish is my favorite artist. He works in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, but has his base in London now.
If people write in Farsi, I can respect that a lot or if they have some socially related themes. Something like ‘New York style graffiti’ or ‘tagging’ are really not important here and I believe that English only leads to being misunderstood from the start. But that is just my personal opinion.
It is common to have rivalry between graffiti crews, tagging or writing over previous pieces etc. What is the situation like in Iran?
I think in the beginning when it literally just started, there was some rivalry and people have been influenced by the image of “gangs” and “crews” and were after this idea of “street power”, but this infant graffiti scene is actually more in need of unity and friendship rather than showing teeth and nails.
It is all about peace and creating an art experience, rather than the desire to get huge. It would be ridiculous to hold onto this illusion of “street power” in Tehran, which is really controlled by the government and not some teenagers on skateboards.
You should protect and strengthen your internal power to act. I have never crossed out other people’s works – and until now my heart wouldn’t let me do it.
To what extend does graffiti overlap with the local music scene? Arabic trip hop maybe?
I really think that I cannot answer that for all of us, because it seems that everyone has their own taste when it comes to music. I like Iranian underground music and independent stuff. In case you are interested generally – although not all of these would be my first choice – there is a large collection of independent Iranian music.
It doesn’t seem that there is a real connection between Persian trip hop and graffiti… I know Mute Agency, which is the only really known Iranian trip hop band and they didn’t even know what graffiti was. I really like their music though! They have some good approaches using world instruments in a Persian tune.
What about events in Teheran? What are the difficulties? What are the rules?
No rules. If you say something or do something that is not ‘accepted’, everyone will try to shut you up and you better hide for a week in silence if you don’t want to be hunted. If you want to get some formal respect and fame you can always go to bigger galleries. But there you have no right to ‘shock the community’ and you have to play it safe and quiet.
Where do you have events and what do you do there?
We drink orange juice or milk, because it is good for our health! (just kidding!)
I am not a party guy, being too depressed and alone. I have Magoi as a friend visiting each month and some other friends I meet in public spaces talking about the memories we shared. But nowadays I am only planning to get out of this hell…
What would you say is contemporary Iranian art about right now?
Theatre is very active in Iran from young artists to old masters. Painting, sculpture, new media, video art,… for some reason tattoo art and many others! We haven’t had a big national painting exhibition for five years, but they have just held the 4th International Painting Biennale of the Islamic world!
But museums and bigger galleries are all in official hands… Officially accepted artists publish, exhibit and expose freely and become very famous. But what is left are all the other artists with silent cries doing their art independently in secret and in fear.
Thank you so much for all your answers, A1one – although it was so difficult to communicate! Anything else you’d like to say?
Well, the Irangraffiti website just disappeared… Now our government is focussing on internet and blogging and so they made up some new laws (and punishments) about what is legal and what is illegal… They already limited the internet content in Iran and decided what we can or cannot access. Now they want to filter all web content from Iran. Irangraffiti decided to better move all their content to a different site with the help of some Canadian friends. And I show my stuff on blogspot… I think from now on I will stick to blogging from internet cafes!
If you want to check out some more of the things happening in Iran you can watch some movies on YouTube and also get a good overview about Iranian graffiti in this PDF, or at least some samples of what we do. Thank you.
Peace to Iran!