A painting of a pistol, colored in with the American flag, against a patterned blue backdrop, hangs on the wall at London’s Graffik Gallery. In the barrel sits a bright, red rose. Underneath the gun, in Persian calligraphy, it says, “Through love, thorns become roses.”
Since the start of March, the U.K. gallery has been hosting Iranian Urban Art, a street art exhibition featuring artwork from artists in Iran and the diaspora. Curated by Iranian archaeologist and musician Roya Arab and artist Shaghayegh Cyrous, the collection is an attempt to introduce a widely misunderstood art form by an equally misunderstood people.
“Through culture, you taste me,” says Roya. “You sense me, you feel me and you realize I’m human. The most important thing for me about this exhibition is bridging political barriers and social misunderstandings. You bridge gaps by showing commonalities. So yes, we dance, we sing and yes, we have graffiti on our walls in our own script.”
Graffiti is by no means a new kid on the Middle Eastern art scene. Iran, in particular, has had a recurring relationship with the medium, dating back to before the 1979 revolution. During the uprisings, slogans calling for the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty were sprayed across Tehran’s walls. Since then, a whole new generation of urban youth and graffiti enthusiasts have emerged, and are developing urban culture and pushing boundaries in Iran.
A quick walk through the gallery immerses the viewer in Iran’s rich heritage. Spray paintings show intricate Persian calligraphy and stencil art calling for peace and revolution; each image tells a different story. But, the prize for best display goes to the wall in the gallery’s backyard, which brings pieces of urban art from different Iranian artists together onto one, large canvas.
Shaghayegh says it was important to feature the work of Iranians across generations and illustrate the immense variety that exists in Iranian culture today. “People don’t think we have urban culture!” she says, laughing. “They don’t know that we are big on skating [i.e. skateboarding], parkour, and graffiti. I wanted people to really experience Iranian urban art and meet Iranian artists.
One of these artists is CK1, who is widely recognized as a trailblazer and one of the first true Iranian graffiti artists. His stencils of young boys holding signs with different social messages are iconic symbols and have encouraged many to leap into the world of street art. He has shown that graffiti can be more than just tagging and has the potential to exist as a movement.
“Graffiti gives me a sense of freedom,” he tells me. “It’s a bit like rap music. It’s another genre of art that many in the younger generation are using to express themselves.” Indeed, many pieces in the exhibition hint at the pursuit of freedom. Take the case of street artist Ill, whose colorful paintings of boys with blindfolds over their eyes and “mute” symbols sprayed over their mouths provide vivid social commentaries.
“Ghalamdar,” whose nickname literally translates as “one with the pen,” is among the young, emerging talents in Iran’s urban art scene who has been inspired by the older generation of graffiti artists. As a young boy in Tehran, he used to walk by CK1’s stencils on an almost daily basis. Today, some ten years later, he is holding one of CK1’s original stencil frames to spray on a wall in London.
His own work represents a celebration of culture, but also a longing for a lost Iranian identity. “In Iran, writing on the wall — or even just drawing a line — is a political gesture,” says Ghalamdar, “Young people like me are trying to use graffiti as a tool to fight back against the regime’s propaganda. What I care most about is the Iranian society we had before the 1979 revolution.” In his art, Ghalamdar uses Persian calligraphy and mythical Iranian figures to revolt against the influence Arab culture and language have had on Iran.
As Roya points out, while many Iranian artists are often heavily influenced by politics, Iranians also wish to celebrate the nuances that exist in their art and society.
But, for artists in Iran, life is not always easy. For every new Iranian artist that emerges on the streets of Tehran, another leaves in search of a better future. Still, Shaghayegh remains hopeful for the future of Iranian urban art. Ghalamdar agrees. “Graffiti is in exile right now, but it will rise,” he says. “We don’t have one-tenth of the equipment that artists have here in London, but we will find a way.”
The Iranian Urban Art exhibition can be seen at London’s Graffik Gallery until April 2, 2015.