Middle East Graffiti - The New, Young and Humane Iconography

April 11, 2015

The history of revolution in Iran is deeply connected with graffiti art. Not so long ago, during the 1970’s, the Middle East witnessed the social upheaval which used the graffiti art as a mean of visual communication of the masses. The walls became wide canvases that praised the new ideas and public opinions. The visual resources all over Iran played an educational role for the sizable percentage of illiterate Iranian population. However, after the fall of Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the success of this visual propaganda was used by new Iranian leader, Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini, for circulation of new ideologies that came into power. Ever since graffiti art has been used for and against the political agenda.

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Nafir, Tehran

Graffiti Art During the Cease-Fire

During the eight years of cease-fire in the Middle East, which started in 1988, the graffiti art with political background was not needed. The remains of the war time images in Iran were painted over with benevolent topics such as landscapes, traditional Iranian imaginary, mosaic patterns, calligraphy, poetry, thus creating an artificial atmosphere of tranquility. The process of this practice can be seen in Italian documentary Factory of Martyrs from 2008. Any form of political graffiti art in Iran during this period, apart from the formal discourse of the state, was being harshly sanctioned and censored. The same can be said for the graffiti art in Iran nowadays. But still, younger generations of graffiti artists are emerging in the Middle East, bringing together the global street art practices with traditional visual culture to the streets of Iran.

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Nafir, Tehran

The New Graffiti Art Iconography

The themes in graffiti art in Iran moved from the previous revolutionary ideas from the 1970’s and became more oriented towards the protection of the individual, criticizing the position of women in the Middle East, themes such as child labor, freedom of speech, auto-censorship, non-secular societies. In fewer words, all that is humanly. To communicate more easily with the people of Iran, artists such as Icy and Sot, A1one, Black Hand and Nafir, are using the traditional visual culture. At the same time, they are leaning on the western graffiti art practices in order to connect with the western society, providing it with the inside stories, without any kind of censorship and embellishment. Graffiti art in Iran provides us with the answer on how the battle looks like in a society where the basic human rights are at stake. Widewalls spent some time talking to the emerging graffiti artist from Iran going by the name Nafir, and he explained us the mechanisms of graffiti art in the Middle East in the present.

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Illegal Street Show, Tehran - 2014

Graffiti Art Is So Young in Iran

Nafir started by saying ''What we see on the internet and on the social networks doesn’t really form a complete picture of the graffiti art scene in Iran because some of the artist have intentions to produce graffiti art solemnly to post it online later.'' It is not a true view on their culture and not the true voice from their culture. Then Nafir continued ''The graffiti art is so young in the Middle East.'' To understand his country, Iran, one must understand that the people and the politics cannot be separated. The Iranian people will never give up trying for changes. Nafir explained the difference he feels in the graffiti art of the Middle East and of the Western world. ''When I paint riots, I feel them because I saw them on the streets. I saw child labor and acid attacks in person. I live in a completely censored society.''

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Illegal Street Show, Tehran - 2014

The Dangers of Graffiti Art in Iran

In general, the artist’s position in Iran is very hard. Living expenses are quite hard to match, so people really cannot afford commodities such as artworks. The artists really don’t get any kind of support. Especially, you don’t get any support as a graffiti artist in Iran. ''I get the support only through the social networks. Most of the older people in the Middle East are religious and tend to accuse you for making the calamity with graffiti art. They use their power, surpassing the law, to accuse you of anything. My whole soul is covered with graffiti'', finished Nafir.

We also recommend the article on Egyptian street art and graffiti.

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All images are the courtesy of Nafir and Widewalls.