Graffiti inspired by Persian calligraphy. Photo published on artist A1one's Facebook page.
While rap has taken off in Iran in recent years, graffiti remains little known and poorly understood. But young artists across the country are trying to change this, some of them by incorporating traditional Persian art into their pieces.
Iranian graffiti can be traced back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, when many revolutionaries stencilled images of political figures and slogans on walls across the country. Graffiti in its current modern form first appeared in Iran in 1994, with an artist named Essence. Little is known about him, as his identity was never discovered. The first well-known artist, however, is A1one, whose works began appearing in the streets of Tehran in 2003, and later in other cities around the world.
Over the past decade, other artists have also managed to leave their mark, using nicknames such as CK1, Nafi and Khamoosh. At first, graffiti was mainly found in a few neighbourhoods of Tehran, but today, artists in cities across the country, big and small, are taking it up. While their work is greatly influenced by Western graffiti, more recently, elements of traditional Persian art forms have shown up in some of the more prominent artists’ work. For example, some use Nastaliq calligraphy, while others use elements of Persian miniature painting.
"It’s difficult to even find spray paint"
Penhan (pseudonym) is a graffiti artist who lives in the southern coastal town of Bushehr.
I was 14 when I first started to get into African-American rap, from which I learned about graffiti. I tried to dress like foreign rappers and graffiti artists I saw on TV. Later, I started researching graffiti more on the Internet and learned about its philosophy. I realised that there were already some graffiti artists here in Iran, and after seeing their works, I decided to try it myself. There are many good graffiti artists in large cities like Tehran, Mashhad and Shiraz, and I’m in contact with some of them. But in Bushehr, it’s just me and one of my good friends. Together we form the “Sayeh” collective.To me, graffiti means freedom and it means speaking your mind. In this sense it’s similar to rap music, but with graffiti, the artist leaves the interpretation of their work up to their audience.Like anything new in Iran, graffiti has its difficulties. Many Iranians are still unfamiliar with the concept. For example, we have trouble getting the equipment we need. The spray paint available here is of very low quality; it’s impossible to work with. We have to order spray paint cans especially from Tehran, but even there, finding them can sometimes prove difficult.This stencil graffiti by Penhan's collective depicts a recently-deceased Iranian violin player.“One policeman said, ‘Why are you painting in back alleys? Go paint in the streets. Your work is beautiful!’”Another difficulty, of course, is that graffiti has to be done outdoors. Because Bushehr is a relatively small city, I’m frequently interrupted by the police. I know graffiti artists in Tehran who have been picked up by the police and held in custody for several days. Here, I have been luckier. The policemen aren’t used to graffiti, so they don’t really know what to think of it, and their reactions differ. Some have threatened me with arrest. But one police officer, whom I will never forget, came up to me and said, ‘Why are you painting in back alleys? Go paint on the streets. Your work is beautiful!’Aside from my graffiti partner and my family, which is very supportive, I haven’t told anyone I am a graffiti artist. But the people who have seen me at work have all treated me very kindly. It’s really encouraging. I hope more young Iranians will get into graffiti art, too.