Although graffiti art in Iran is by no means short on abundance, depth, and diversity, it is scarcely reviewed in the global literature on the field. The underground nature of the activity and brief lifespan of the works makes encountering the pieces and coming into contact with the artists rare. This situation also makes it difficult to collect and classify information, as reliable details are difficult to ascertain. Patience is needed in pursuing and validating bits of data from scattered sources, getting hold of undercover, rebellious artists, and roaming the city in search of works that will be gone in no time. It is, however, a journey worth undertaking. Over more than three decades, graffiti art activity in Iran has evolved into a noticeable movement that claims an identity and independence based on the extent of its reach and its highly motivated practitioners, who stay in constant interaction with city walls despite severe restrictions.1
The term “graffiti art” applies to “words, drawings, and images that have been written, drawn and/or painted on, and/or etched onto or on surfaces where the owner of property has NOT given permission.”2 This article does not consider, therefore, commissioned murals and official public art. At the same time, it is not focused on issues of legitimacy versus illegality, nor graffiti’s recognizable self-expressive and self-promoting aspects, which might be considered a conspicuous trait of a great deal of graffiti art worldwide. Rather, I am interested in the challenging, socially engaged, and hopeful aspects of the phenomenon, which seeks to trigger a change in the status quo. This motivation is, then, the primary reason street art in Iran is immediately eliminated, and not so much for reasons of vandalism, nuisance, or other universally debated issues that offer ground for the suppression of graffiti. Indeed, it seems that those same people who extensively used the city’s walls for their revolutionary activism during the 1979 Iranian Revolution are now unwilling to endure the provocative and alternative statements of a new, dissident generation. The majority of urban surfaces in Iran are, instead, extensively exploited for state propaganda as well as commercial advertising.
As is true with any revolutionary and socially turbulent period that breathes new life into walls as a social platform, the 1979 revolution brought what were previously scattered wall writings to a new height, together forming a counter-discourse on the urban surface. Along with various anti-government slogans, portraits of the leader of the revolution and Ali Shariati3 were frequently stenciled on the walls of Tehran.
At the same time, a group of contemporary artists were attracted to urban walls as a medium for conveying messages and taking a stand. Motivated by socialist credos and inspired by Mexican muralism,4 these young artists — mostly students of the Marxist painter Hannibal Alkhas (1930–2010) in the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Tehran — started improvising paintings on Tehran’s walls and launched exhibitions of their works in the streets and in some neighborhoods. Notably, Niloofar Ghaderinejad took her expressive, socially engaged style to the streets and created revolutionary paintings in several public places, including at the entrance of the University of Tehran.5 These revolutionary paintings were executed in a figurative, expressive style and foregrounded the role of the lower and working classes. Later, Alkhas, together with some of his students, executed a large anti-imperialist mural on the walls of the US embassy in Tehran after its occupation by Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. Apart from heated revolutionary thoughts, Alkhas also adhered to the idea of extricating painting from the monopoly of galleries and bringing it into the public arena.6 Although these works are different in nature from the graffiti art we are about to explore, they nevertheless can be counted as examples of autonomous, alternative uses of the medium of the wall.
However, the wall — which was a pluralistic arena at the onset of the revolution — eventually turned into a venue for the presentation of a monological discourse, and soon huge murals started to act as representatives of the new political visual culture. Some of these revolutionary and anti-American murals became iconic for establishing a visual discourse for representing opposition with the West at large, which later developed into more a complex idiom.
Today, however, due to the acceleration of the neoliberal economy in Iran, the majority of public surfaces are devoted to commercial advertising, although strategic locations with spectacular views continue to represent the official, dominant visual discourse. Apart from propagandistic and advertising imagery, much of Tehran’s walls and urban surfaces, under the “beautification” program of Tehran Municipality, is dedicated to commissioned, official paintings and sculptures, which are likewise not the subject of this survey.
Non-official forms of wall writing in Iran, most commonly written slogans and casual signs and autographs, gradually gained an identity in the 1990s and grew into a more consistent current during the 2000s. Underground since its beginnings, the form has now developed into a recognized alternative practice encompassing many artists and various styles and concerns, marked by a spirit of protest, desire for self-expression, declaration of independence, and seeking of identity.
Iranian graffiti artists are mostly young. Some attended art school, whether graduating or dropping out, but many do not come from a trained art background, having started to make graffiti art as teenagers. They use pseudonyms that often represent an individual but sometimes a group. Some belong to groups that also include members who are active rappers or, less frequently, skateboarding or parkour practitioners.
A1one (alone), one of the first graffiti artists in Tehran, was expelled from art school and has always insisted on the alternative, dissident aspects of his work.7 A pioneering figure who began practicing in the early 2000s, he not only drew the public’s attention to walls as a medium and delineated the position of the street artist, but also played a significant role in the development of typography for Persian graffiti writing.8 To briefly name a few other figures, Black Hand (بلکهند), one of Tehran’s most prolific graffiti artists, brings a wide range of stimulating social, cultural, and environmental themes to the city’s walls using a rich variety of artistic techniques and visual devices. Nafir (نفیر , “to cry” or “one sharp horn blast”) believes that he is “shouting” his words on the wall, and Noor (نور , “light”) emphasizes liberation and sublimation through self-expression. RUN is a prolific artist who paints mainly feminine themes and portraits of women, and she also practices digital painting and skateboarding. SERROR has focused on environmental themes in her paste-ups for the past few years, while Dadkhah (دادخواه, “justice seeker”) demonstrates a politically dissident character. On the other hand, the works of Mirza Hamid (میرزاحمید) bring a lyrical visual poetry to the walls.
Although the necessity of working at night and its related social problematics causes difficulties for female graffiti artists, many are active in various neighborhoods, and they are gradually increasing in number.9 Since graffiti art, in general, belongs to subcultures empathetic to marginal situations, evidence suggests that female graffiti artists might be less subject to rivalry from their male counterparts, and instead might be partially supported by them.10 However, their presence is less visible within huge “pieces”11 on large walls as well as in group projects. Many of these women artists display some of their activities on digital platforms. However, since they are generally reluctant to give interviews, little is known about the challenges they face as they practice their work.
Works of graffiti in Tehran are diverse in stylistic and aesthetic features, though many of them display significant artistic quality. We could split the works into two main categories: “graffiti writing” and “street art,” with the latter applying to all street-based illustrations, paintings, and visual experimentations other than writing. Graffiti writing, which is a universal feature of the movement, enjoys sweeping popularity among Iranian graffiti artists, with some producing what might be classed as a specifically “Persian graffiti writing.” That is, during recent years, Iranian graffiti writers have creatively employed the aesthetic potentials of Persian calligraphy in the service of graffiti writing, reaching an overall compelling fusion. Therefore, universal graffiti writings styles, including wild style, bubble style, and 3D style, are skillfully practiced in not only the Latin but also the Farsi alphabet.
The adaptation of the Farsi alphabet into the universal graffiti writing styles has been called khoshneffiti: a play on words combining “khoshnevisi” (calligraphy) and “graffiti.” The resulting piece displays the familiar, universal style and composition, though written in Farsi and therefore legible to Persian audiences. This gesture of fusion and appropriation has gradually given way to distinctive, innovative syntheses.12 In addition to A1one, who was a pioneer in the field, Khamoosh (خاموش, “silent”), Ghar (غار, “cave”), and Ghalamdar (قلمدار, “pen owner”) are among the most remarkable Persian graffiti writers and typographers. Some of these artists are truly skillful typographers, and they sometimes publish their “typefaces” on social media.13
The second category, so-called street art, encompasses a wide variety of figurative and narrative visual pieces executed using various techniques, including but not limited to direct painting, paste-ups, stickers, and combined methods. Portraiture is a prevalent theme, with representations of historical and popular icons, rappers, and political figures as well as protagonists of present-day events. These portraits sometimes appropriate existing photographs.14 Appropriation and reconfiguring of multiple visual resources is likewise a common strategy in narrative paintings, especially those containing political and social messages. Some artists in this category are illustrators and character designers, such as Akvan (اکوان), Gorbeh (گربه , “cat”), and Zanbour (زنبور, “bee”), who are well-equipped with the tools and techniques of animation and character design. Finally, some artists, such as Nafir and Khamoosh, have turned to Iranian traditional iconography and cultural visual materials, including the Persian miniature and Islamic geometric design.
The subject matter explored in street art in Iran is very diverse. Perhaps a belief in diversity and resistance against uniformization is what, paradoxically, Iran’s graffiti artists all have in common. Although the act of declaring one’s presence as a graffiti artist has been widely interpreted as a sign of dynamism and independence and as a claim for the right to space, it should be acknowledged that some Iranian graffiti artists are social, political, or environmental activists in particular. That is, their work goes far beyond self-expression and a claiming of space, demonstrating considerable levels of social vigilance and sensibility. These artists have committed themselves to the fight against social amnesia and indifference, tirelessly targeting the public conscience. Their personal identification with their works bestows them with a strong motivation.
Headlines: Everyday important and resonant news appears in graffiti works quickly and widely, as expected, due to the artists’ commitment to everyday social issues. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic offers a recent example. The chain of events since March 2020 has been quickly reflected in the works of many Iranian graffiti artists, including. Some works encouraged wearing masks and staying home, while others — some of which have become iconic — tried to hearten the terrified citizens. Some artists noticed the role and situation of nurses and other health care workers, their rights, and issues regarding their collective dismissal. Similarly, other tragic events have been reflected in graffiti artworks, such as the January 2017 collapse of Tehran’s iconic Plasco commercial tower following a massive fire, which resulted in the death of sixteen firefighters and was widely attributed to mismanagement, as well as the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner by missile attacks in January 2020.
Pacifism: Peace and antiwar messages, especially in contrast to the occasional belligerent messages of the state, is a recurrent theme in Iranian graffiti art. Childhood, innocence, vulnerability, and the issues affecting children’s lives are also popular themes, with children often being represented as a symbol of hope, imagination, potential, and change.
Political protest: It is not surprising that the activist aspect of graffiti art demonstrates itself in a remarkable manner in Iran. Stickers and one-layer stencil, which are popular in social and political struggles due to its simplicity and speed of reproduction, is widely used to convey dissident messages. The periodic protests in Iran have always been directly reflected in the works of graffiti artists. This tendency also shows itself in the names of certain graffiti artists: a group (or maybe one individual artist) works under the title of Street: A Tribune for the Political Prisoner, and another artist under the name of Dadkhah (“justice seeker”). Social crises including poverty, class struggle, unemployment, loneliness, suicide, the organ trade, failures of the education system, and the potential harms of the virtual world are common themes in graffiti art. Opposition to global capitalism, criticism of consumerism, and challenging universal patterns of power and control are likewise prevalent messages.
Environmental awareness: Ecologically conscious messages are an emergent theme, including Black Hand’s “Let’s Not Enjoy Natural Leather” and “Persian Cheetah in Danger of Extinction” He has his own curious, poignant way of bringing to light the pains and perils of the lives of street animals and their harsh, lonely, and unnoticed deaths. Nafir has made a poetic series on the theme of sustaining the planet, and in recent years SERROR has been consistently working on environmental issues, with a focus on endangered animals.
Advocating for marginalized groups: Graffiti artists are themselves situated in a marginal position, that is, on the margins of the city, the profession, and the art world. Therefore, their works frequently draw attention to the problems of ignored, voiceless people. These issues include child labor, child marriage, domestic violence, and complications of the urban environment faced by people with disabilities, among many others. One should note that the scope of the term “marginal” in Iran is increasingly broadening. Women’s demands, including cycling (which is banned in some cities and discouraged in others) and the right to attend soccer matches, are addressed in the witty paste-ups of Black Hand. A departure from social conventions also manifests itself through the depiction of underground icons and macabre themes, including skulls, skeletons, devils, demons, and so on. Depictions of icons related to hip-hop and images of independent or unauthorized Persian and global rappers can also be found.
Encouraging diversity: The negation of uniformity and supporting the plurality of identities is also on the agenda of graffiti artists, including drawing attention to various sexual identities, protecting religious and intellectual minorities, and lending voice to ultimately any alternative culture. Themes of adolescence and rebellious teenage lifestyles, sometimes associated with icons of various subcultures, are also displayed as a protest against the predetermined behaviors expected by mainstream society.
Challenging the formal art world and official murals: The identities and artistic traits of graffiti artists are sometimes set into opposition with those of the artists practicing in the formal art world (see, for example, Black Hand axing Heech (ongoing since the 1970s) a highly marketed work series by the renowned sculptor Parviz Tanavoli). In this way, graffiti artists attempt to distinguish their artistic quest from that of the contemporary art world, which they believe is mostly contained to exclusive galleries and art events. Graffiti artists, by contrast, emphasize the independent, public, noncommercial, and alternative nature of their pursuit.
Self-expression and emphasizing street artists’ activities: Finally, self-identity and self-expression present a major, and usually initial, motivation for graffiti artists, through which they claim their share of the city and make their voices heard. In this context, individuals’ drive for fame and respect plays an important role. In addition to “tagging,”15 which is a universal way of announcing presence all over the city, graffiti artists sometimes represent themselves as working, for example, painting themselves with a bucket and a brush or spray can in hand, to highlight the work and identity of the graffiti artist.
The socially engaged aspect of graffiti art seeks to needle the public conscience and push back against the widespread engineering of official imagery, both in the media and on urban surfaces. As mentioned before, in Tehran, ideological and commercial images make up a major part of the urban visual material. Citizens have no possibility to avoid contact with this sort of imagery. Those who choose, on the other hand, to frequent art galleries, also find themselves, in many cases, in the presence of mostly stereotypical images, which follow specific aesthetic and social codes that exclude those who lack the corresponding educational background needed to grasp them. In comparison, graffiti art puts the viewer — usually without any prior preparation — into dialogue with entirely different themes and imagery. According to Black Hand:
The public has a right to see the art. I chose street art because I want to guard against the galleries’ monopoly. Our intellectual and artistic society are underestimating and ignoring ordinary people’s power.
I prefer my work to be seen in public by the very same people who are not taken seriously enough. I feel that the walls in my city are the canvas for my paintings. The city is the biggest gallery with the biggest audience.16
In Tehran’s hectic atmosphere, however, many passersby do not notice street art at all. Or, if they do, they might not fully recognize the nature of the phenomenon they are encountering, and so they do not give due attention to the work. Graffiti art in Iran has not yet managed to register within the inventory of people’s expectations, possibly because it still does not appear in great quantities, and, where it does, it has a very short lifespan. Therefore, we cannot yet speak of a graffiti art audience large enough in number and high enough in awareness to render the medium’s transformative messages effective.
Nevertheless, there can be found citizens with quite a good understanding of street art who appreciate graffiti in their own ways. Mirza Hamid remembers how an image he painted near an Afghan vegetable vendor’s stand was dearly appreciated and protected by the vendor for a long time. There are also professional graffiti audiences who systematically locate, photograph, and occasionally cut and collect graffiti artworks within the short span of time between their creation and elimination. Finally, graffiti art finds its largest audience in cyberspace, where it is easily accessible and permanently available.
It should be noted that, as mentioned before, the lifespan of graffiti art is too short in Iran, as it is generally very quickly removed by municipal workers. One twenty-three-year-old graffiti artist says: “My work is like giving birth to a baby who will die in a few hours, or a few days if she is very lucky.”17 In the past few years, Tehran Municipality, in an attempt to organize the activities of graffiti artists, selected some walls as free space on which the artists could work without trouble. These walls were located on the margins of parks in low-traffic neighborhoods. As sanctioned space, these walls initially provided an opportunity for graffiti artists to create skillful and time-intensive “pieces” and collaborate with each other. However, after the new government took power in 2021, this space was taken away from graffiti artists and restrictions on the art form were fortified. It is not clear, however, what future policies will be in this regard.
Graffiti art had no place in the formal contemporary art scene of Iran until very recently. It used to exist in a parallel world with its own rules, concerns, and, of course, internal competitions. Nevertheless, considering the global model as well as the increasing development of the art market in Iran and the attractions associated with exhibiting in a gallery, graffiti art in Iran is gradually being incorporated into art galleries’ programming. There have been already a few graffiti art festivals and open calls that seem to have been welcomed by some artists,18 while many others remain skeptical about the process of official recognition. Some artists, such as Hoshvar (هشوار, “vigilant”) and Black Hand, have been showing in galleries since the 2010s, and others are currently considering exhibiting their works in these established contemporary art spaces. In 2014, an exhibition of Hoshvar’s works was held at Aun Gallery in Tehran, and, in the winter of 2016, Mohsen Gallery in Tehran launched an exhibition of Black Hand, which mainly included spray-based works done not with stencils but rather directly using objects (called “Blackography” by the artist). An interactive installation in the form of a slide-like dinosaur was constructed in the gallery’s courtyard. In the spring of 2021, an exhibition of stickers, photographs, “throw-ups,”19 and paintings by Ghar, Omgh (عمق, “depth”), and Khamoosh was held at Tehran’s Soo Contemporary.
Graffiti artists maintain different attitudes toward displaying graffiti in art galleries. Many regard it as a total disfiguring of the nature of their work, holding the opinion that selling graffiti art goes wildly against the idea of counterculture and alternative art practices, and also negates the act of resistance inherent to the art form. Others mention the disparaging attitude of art galleries toward graffiti artists. However, some artists welcome the possibility of showing and selling their works, especially considering the costs of keeping up a graffiti practice. Noor, along with many others, is an artist who believes that “if we take away the three basic principles of the wall (and public space), independence, and impermissibility, it will no longer be graffiti.”20 In his opinion, graffiti is not appropriate for gallery exhibition, and if graffiti artists want to exhibit in these spaces, it would be more appropriate for them to show their visual achievements as painting, printmaking, and so on. Noor himself has held such exhibitions, under his real identity, independent from his graffiti art practice.21
Dislocating graffiti art by displaying it in galleries not only distorts its functionality and influence but also makes it prone to what has gravely affected contemporary Iranian painting and sculpture in recent decades: namely, an inclination to produce works that fit the tastes of local and global collectors. The risk is that the most original and alternative representatives of this movement will be soon tempted to leave the field and be absorbed by the art market.
However, due to some of the traits inherent to the actual, on-site practice of graffiti art, including the dynamism and sense of mission associated with it, its complete transformation into an art market commodity seems unlikely. The independent, defiant nature of graffiti art, its site-specific connection to urban space, the adventurous, breathtaking experience of working off the radar in the city, and, of course, the possibility to declare the ideas, demands, and beliefs of a young, marginalized generation, together keep alive the prospect of an always alternative and independent graffiti art scene.
1 The information presented in this essay relies on existing online and printed articles, websites, and virtual networks, as well as field research and interviews with artists. I thank the graffiti artists Noor, Black Hand, Khamoosh, Ghar, and SERROR, all based in Tehran, for their collaboration, guidance, and comments in developing this article, and Alireza Nikbakht, Ashkan Reshad, Akvan, Hamid Nikkhah, and Pouya Darabi for the photos. An longer version of this essay will be published in: Borzoo Forootan, Hooyar Asadian, Tehran 3D. The Emotioal Height of a City (Tehran: Table Space, 2022).
2 “Glossary,” in Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross (New York: Routledge, 2006), 476.
3 Ali Shariati was a Shiite revivalist intellectual whose ideas were influential in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
4 “The Mexican Muralist school [1920s–1930s] counted among its members the most-powerful figures of the genre. The murals created by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, depicting aspects of the Mexican Revolution, the country’s modernization, and class struggle, have become legendary.” Britannica Online, s.v., “Mexico: Cultural Life,” last updated February 18, 2022.
5 In this case, she was accompanied by her classmate Mass’oud Sa’ad Al Din and their instructor Hannibal Alkhas.
6 It is worth noting that revolutionary themes also circulated in the hands of demonstrators in the form of graphic art in posters designed by the Shishegaran Brothers, though they cannot be regarded as part of the mural movement in nature. Ismail Shishegaran (1955–2019), Kourosh Shishegaran (b. 1946), and Behzad Shishegaran (b. 1952) played an important part in contemporary Iranian visual culture by making numerous political posters and graphic media between 1976 and 1983.
7 Shahram Khosravi, “Graffiti in Tehran”, Anthropology Now 5, no. 1 (April 2013).
8 Noor, in conversation with the author, July 14, 2021.
9 Some women graffiti artists include RUN, Shahrzad (شهرزاد), SERROR, Ada (آدا), Hajv (هجو, “parody”), SAHARA, Amme (عمه, “aunt”), cob, Azhir (آژیر, “alarm”), and Khal (خال, “spot”).
10 Female Iranian graffiti artists are reluctant to emphasize their gender, and the reason for referring to this point here is to avoid it appearing as if the Iranian graffiti community is entirely masculine.
11 A “piece,” which is short for “masterpiece,” describes a complex, labor-intensive, and large-scale graffiti work.
12 Noor, in conversation with the author, July 14, 2021.
13 To name a few others: Nirvan (نیروان), Hoshvar (هشوار), Ashkar (آشکار, “overt, apparent”), Elf crew, Dej crew, Ebresk, Hamishegi (همیشگی, “eternal”), Omgh (عمق, “depth”), Bambam (بمبم), Zanbour (زنبور, “bee”), Saher (ساحر, “sorcerer”), and Mr. Blue (مستر بلو).
14 The photographer’s name is sometimes mentioned on the artists’ social media pages.
15 Tagging “entails the repeated use of a single symbol or series of symbols to mark territory. In order to attract the most attention possible, this type of graffiti usually appears in strategically or centrally located neighborhoods.” Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “tagging.”
18 Amir Hadi Anvari, “Techno, Graffiti and Skateboarding,” Asr-e Iran, July 31, 2008.
19 “‘Throw-up’ is a widely referenced graffiti term, most commonly used to describe tag-like drawings of bubble letters designed for quick execution, and usually consisting of artist’s name and only two colors.” “Throw Up,” Widewalls, October 15, 2014, https://www.widewalls.ch.
20 Noor, written interview with the artist, March 2021.
21 Noor, written interview with the artist, March 2021.