Taking Back the Streets: Iranian Graffiti Artists Negotiating Public Space

Co-written by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Shahrzad Ghadjar and Ajam Co-Editor Rustin Zarkar. Follow Shahrzad on Twitter @spooksvilla.

On the eve of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, the Iranian public sphere was transformed into places where information could be exchanged verbally, textually, and visually. The walls came alive with opinions and the chants of the masses. After revolutionary forces under Ayatollah Khomeini triumphed and became institutionalized, these same walls became the space for the dissemination of new revolutionary values. This co-optation, however, meant silencing other views from finding space on the walls. Despite this, since the late 1980s Iranian street art culture has emerged again and has refused to be silenced. Today, Tehran’s walls are the site of competition between the messages of government murals, graffiti artists, Green movement political activists, and pro-government Basiji groups.

During the 1970s, a sizable percentage of the Iranian population was illiterate. Printed literature were of little use to the masses of urban poor, thus increasing the role of visual and audible revolutionary sources. Ideologues soon realized the power of pictorial imagery and dramatically delivered anti-Pahlavi sentiment. Since then, Iranians from all walks of life have been bombarded with revolutionary slogans, themes, and motifs represented by images. The public square and open street have served as living canvases for artists– whether state-sanctioned or independent– to express emotion and ideas through the art of persuasion.

Since the 1960s, visual street art in North America and Europe has traditionally been associated with youth, counter culture, and bohemianism. However in the Iranian case, the revolution and subsequent events led to the eventual domination and co-optation of the public sphere by the state, and thus was utilized by the government to display aspects of the ideological grand-narrative of the Islamic Republic. While the city was not entirely devoid of independently produced visual art, the most visible forms of graphic representation were articulated by the powers-that-be to instill the populace with mobilizing conviction. The most apparent expressions of this tactic were produced during the Iran-Iraq War, where buildings and walls were covered with the faces of Iranian youth who lost their lives in the 8-year-long bloodshed.

A mural of Hossein Fahmideh (d. 1980), a thirteen-year-old boy who was killed when he jumped underneath an advancing Iraqi tank armed only with a grenade. Ayatollah Khomeini declared him a national hero and dozens of murals were produced depicting his image.

As Iran entered the Reconstruction Era following the 1988 cease-fire, the murals of the dead were no longer necessary to boost wartime morale, but served as commemorative reminders of sacrifice. By the 2000s, however, many Iranians had put the dark years of the war behind them and tended view art produced during the Iran-Iraq War as necrophilic, so a beautification project was conceived to convert many of these war-time murals into something more benign, while still within the IRI ideological mindset. This process was covered in the 2008 Italian documentary “Factory of Martyrs”, the trailer of which is featured below.

Factory of Martyrs – Trailer from Fabrica

Now, instead of gigantic murals of martyrs, Iranian streets have been increasingly decorated with classical poetry, mosaic patterns, landscapes, and an array of other images with roots in the traditional Iranian arts and experimental urban design. Press TV calls them “urban drawings” which allow commuters in big cities to escape the banal urban environment.

While Iranian street art has been overwhelmingly dominated by state-sanctioned artists with the intention of indoctrinating the masses, the last decade has seen the rise of independent street artists with no connection to the state. Artists such as Icy and Sot, GhalamDAR, and A1one, have connected traditional Iranian visual culture with the motifs of global street art popularized by Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and others. Additionally, these rising artists do not only provide an aesthetic backdrop to the concrete edifices of urban Iran, but talk back to power and use graphic means to address issues concerning Iranian society. Rather than being only a language of politics, Public street art is entering Iran’s cultural vernacular through engagement rather than propagation.


A1one Tehran, Iran 2011

The above image is a piece created by A1one in Tehran. The spray painted word is haqiqat or truth. A1one uses a technique that Iranians call “siah-mashq,” an essential element of traditional calligraphic education. Originally, “siah-mashq” involves the study of a master’s writing by observing the aesthetic and spiritual characteristics of a particular style. The teacher or master would write the sar mashq (or model) while the student would copy, and then take it to the teacher for correction and advice. By imitating a model, the students were saturated with a particular style of calligraphy, one that could be traced back to previous generations. Usually, a single word or phrase was the object of this calligraphic practice; students would continuously write a word over and over again trying to perfect their script. Soon however, siah mashq became an art form in its own right and even became representative of patience, diligence, as well as an esoteric spiritual quality.

A1one Tehran, Iran 2009

Another example of A1one’s work uses paper and wheatpasting to memorialize the late Haj Qurban Soleimani, one of the last great Iranian bards. The subtlety of the piece is essential to its charm. Hunched over and nondescript, the musician has historically played an integral role in many Iranian societies. While more abundant decades ago, one can still find older gentlemen playing instruments like the tar, tonbak, and the daf on Tehran’s busy streets. As life in Iran becomes more urbanized, technologized, and fast-paced, this piece can be seen as a nostalgic look back at Iranian’s traditional arts, but also as a commentary on the ways traditional forms of music have been relegated to the margins of society. Additionally, in terms of locality, the musician is just as transient as the street artist. The non-permanence of location as well as their existence on the margins bonds these two dramatically different kinds of artists together.

A1one Tehran, Iran 2009

The innocence of childhood is a popular theme in Iranian graffiti. This image by A1one greatly personifies a child’s imagination. A1one spray paints a realistic stencil of a boy sitting on a box with a paintbrush in hand. He smiles happily at the flower he drew on the wall. The boy is thrilled by his ability to change his surroundings with the simple act of painting a flower on an old, dirty, unmaintained wall. He sits and stares; happily engaged with his own imagination. The inherent innocence of the child is representative of what A1one actions as a beautifier of his environment; street art is a format that inspires the artist to make one’s surroundings part of oneself. Here, reclaiming city walls from the state’s pervasive regulation becomes masked in a seemingly childish desire to imagine (and paint) a more beautiful world.

A1ONE from Webistan Photo Agency

Icy and Sot

Icy and Sot; “Beer is not a Crime” Tehran, Iran

While graffiti artists in Iran are working to create their own voices, there is still a great respect and influences from the popularizers of the current movement. This piece was done by Icy and Sot, two brothers from Tabriz. The style is very much in the vein of Banksy, one of Icy and Sot’s inspirations. The wheatpasting and typography is westernized, inherently a political and cultural critique of the IRI’s stance on alcohol. “Beer is not a Crime” is a direct reference to the post-Islamic revolution law banning alcohol consumption, ownership, and sales in the country. Open consumers of alcohol, Icy and Sot created this image as a rebellion against the Islamic laws that govern the country as well as giving the public a personal look into their own habits.

Icy and Sot; “The Old” Tehran, Iran

Like any urban center, construction projects are constant on the streets of Tehran and it is not rare to stumble upon a half-built or half-demolished home. This piece by Icy and Sot is a close up of a ghostly old man staring out onto the streets, seemingly watching as people and cars pass by. The name of the piece is appropriately labeled “The Old,” not only because of the subject of the stencil, but also because of the deteriorated structure that the piece stands on. Painted on an old building with its interior ripped out and only a few walls left to stand, this portrait gives the structure some life again. It is no longer just another half finished project, but home to an intricate and beautiful piece of art.

Icy and Sot; “Lego” Tabriz, Iran

Much like the aforementioned A1one piece, this stencil done by Icy and Sot is a commentary on the innocence of children. Where A1one’s piece alluded to the imagination and playfulness inherent in all children, this piece depicts a child at work. A straight-faced young boy walks up a pile of rubble as he carries large Lego pieces. In Iran, as in many other countries, it is not uncommon to see children from lower-income families laboring in the streets by working menial jobs such as washing cars and peddling– in some cases they can even be seen on construction sites.This stencil depicts the loss of innocence for many children of Iran’s urban lower-strata, often forced to work to supplement their families’ meager incomes.

Icy and Sot from the Shahrzad Gallery


ghalamDAR Tehran, Iran 2011

The imagery of disenfranchised children has also been utilized in this piece by ghalamDAR, a Tehran based graffiti artist. Here, ghalamDar uses a stencil and black spray-paint to depict a dispossessed child wrapped in a blanket. Homelessness is a common sight on the streets of the metropolis; the textual message,  “totally homeless,” is messily written and clarifies the stencil. It bluntly addresses dereliction as a pressing socio-economic problem that plagues Tehran. Furthermore, the work is in a state of intentional in-completion, as the image is not fully blackened. This makes the stenciled child look completely neglected and unworthy, like her realistic counterparts– reflecting the way pedestrians often see beggars as disposable wall ornaments.

ghalamDAR Karaj, Iran 2012


This ornate fill by GhalamDAR was completed using free-hand calligraphy and a diverse blend of colored spray paint. This work, which spells out “different” (متفاوت) in Persian script, transforms letters– symbols that convey audible meaning– into visual art. The piece is purely composed of overlapping words, harkening back to traditional forms of Iranian art through personally-stylized articulations of common calligraphic designs. Here, classical techniques conceived for the reed pen and ink have been reinterpreted for a different medium. GhalamDAR, like A1one and Icy & Sot, is able to take traditional artistic forms and apply it to the contemporary era, innovating and invigorating the Iranian art scene.

Today, as the Iranian public space continues to act as a platform for visual communication, individuals are utilizing this sphere in order to directly converse with the domestic populace. By producing unregulated and un-approved art, these artists are conveying alternative political, social, and aesthetic meaning despite ongoing attempts on the part of the state to limit the bounds of acceptable discourse.

For more Iranian graffiti and information check out :

Payvand – Photos: the Murals of Tehran
Stencil Archives – Artists of the Middle East
Fat Cap – Street Art in Iran
Urban Iran – A rare look at Iran’s street art scene
Brooklyn Street Art – Icy and Sot’s “Made in Iran”
ShahreFarang – Graffiti Mine
Street Art Utopia – Street Art by Icy and Sot in Iran — A Collection


  1. This is amazing. In those artworks, you can clearly see the position of graffiti in this is to stand for the alternative thinking and new future. And to think they can say it in such an amazing creative way. Thank you for this article, I´ve never knew that street art meant so much in Iran. There is so much said in one picture. Especially, the Lego child. It´s sad but it´s true. I understands that the point of the street art is that its spontaneous, therefore it´s very effective. However I would say yes to the creation of the public space. I feel like there should be a scene where you can freely display your art and thoughts. It would create nice clash. The public graffiti walls are a great alternative – especially for the younger artists. I have to say I was a bit skeptic about it few years ago, but after the creation the the public graffiti space in my city the I was easily silenced. If you are interested, I live in Toronto and the creation of the public wall made quite a debate here. So, in the end it worked well. And maybe Iran should try it too.

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