Making Graffiti an Iranian Art: The Works of Tehran-based Street Artist Ghalamdar

Since 2012, Ajam Media Collective has produced a series of articles documenting visual art in Iran and the diaspora, covering art exhibitions in New York, independent street art in Tehran, and a municipality-led beautification program in Mashhad. For this piece, AjamMC Co-Editor-in-Chief Rustin Zarkar sat down with Tehran-based artist Ghalamdar to discuss the state of graffiti art in Iran, its connections to the global street art movement, and its links to the nation’s own artistic heritage.

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examples of Ghalamdar’s wall pieces

Over the past decade, there has been a tremendous rise in the popularity of independent street art and graffiti from Iran. Utilizing websites like Fatcap and social media outlets such as Facebook, Iranian artists have not only been able to organize and collaborate amongst themselves, but have found virtual spaces to document and exhibit their work worldwide. There has been a concurrent proliferation in the domestic consumption of these works, as galleries in Iran strive to showcase (and sell) the newly-popular aesthetic to a fine art audience. In light of these changes, a new generation of artists is attempting to revolutionize the burgeoning scene by departing from global trends and positioning their work within an Iranian art historical context.

The works of 20 year-old Tehran-based artist Ghalamdar exemplify this new direction in Iranian street art. While the majority of artists operating in Iran are heavily influenced by motifs and techniques popularized outside of Iran, Ghalamdar is inspired by endemic calligraphic styles (khattati or khoshnevesi) and miniature paintings (negargari) that have been the primary subjects of 20th century modernist art. In several conversations with AjamMC, the artist discussed how Iranian visual and literary culture influenced his work and how dominant trends in Iranian street art have solidified.

The 2000s was the formative period for Iranian graffiti, just as street art’s popularity was rising across the globe through its commodification and exhibition. Artists such as A1one and Icy & Sot gained acclaim in the late 2000s, and several galleries in Iran began exhibiting their work. A1one was one of the first artists to experiment with Perso-Arabic script, but very few other contemporary artists have expressed interest in engaging with Iran’s calligraphic and figurative arts. Instead, the majority of graffiti in Iran is derived from internationalist motifs inspired by the Latin-lettered throw-ups of 1980s New York and easily-replicable figurative stenciling.

While graffiti culture was expanding, there were still very few notable artists due to the political and juridical climate. As Ghalamdar states, “When someone got caught doing graffiti in New York, the police would arrest them or fine them. But here, our crimes were not clear; the authorities didn’t know what to accuse us of. You could be accused of revolting against the government or disturbing the public; basically whatever [the authorities] wanted.”

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Ghalamdar’s works in collaboration with Elf Crew

Ghalamdar began his graffiti career as a 15 year-old, coming into contact with local artists and their works. From 2011 to 2014, he teamed up with the Elf Crew, one of the first groups of graffiti artists to operate in Iran. Ghalamdar’s distinctive style has been featured as part of their collective, accompanying the pictorial features of Blind and Ali Fj-one with Persian-inspired calligraphy. In 2013, the crew worked at a drainage canal in the city of Tehran, painting approximately two hundred meters of walls.

While some graffiti artists produce work covertly, Ghalamdar states that he and his past crew members would often ask permission from members of the community in order to practice their craft. As Ghalamdar tells us, “Sometimes we talk to the residents in a particular area to ask them if we can paint there. I show them my ID and tell them that I’m an university art student. I remember once in a while they would come out to see what I was painting, but after a while they stopped being suspicious of our work and didn’t mind us.”

Although the situation was not devoid of risk for graffiti artists, changes in societal attitudes towards urban art have increased the awareness of independent street art. Towards the mid-to-late 2000s, dozens of municipalities across Iran began new beautification programs to revitalize cityscapes through massive artistic projects. While Ghalamdar is critical of the didactic message of these initiatives and urges that graffiti culture was alive and well decades before, he states that the projects might have opened up a space for independent artists to work, even if their work continues to be erased: “In some ways, the [beautification programs] have improved our situation. For example, if I approached a wall with a spray-can years ago, ordinary people would have looked at me in a negative way. Now however, most people aren’t surprised to see artists working.”

Ghalamdar’s work is unique in the realm of Iranian street art because it alludes to 20th century artistic discussions in Iran while maintaining the presentational form of graffiti. The artist sees tremendous potential in engaging with Iran’s cultural products, and hopes many will follow suit: “In this modern period, we are able to take our own elements, visual culture, our own literature for inspiration. We have had a lot of artistic circles throughout the last century that have experimented with traditional forms. We could do it [with graffiti], but most prefer to emulate.”

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Ghalamdar’s digital works

The utilization of the “traditional” in 20th century works has been an important turn in the history of Iranian art. With the increasing economic and cultural penetration of colonial powers in the 19th century, artists began experimenting with different techniques and media from Europe and elsewhere; but art forms like calligraphy and miniature painting that had developed over centuries of contact between Iran and its neighbors were not lost in the changing political and socio-cultural climate– there was, in fact, a resurgence. With the establishment of the School of Traditional Arts (Madrese-ye Sanai’-e Qadima) in 1929, a new group of miniaturists were funded and trained by the Pahlavi state. These artists, emulating the styles and models of the Timurid and Safavid ateliers, influenced later generations of miniaturists in the 1980s and 1990s (called the negargaran) that include such artists as Mahmoud Farshchian and Mohammad Bagher Aghamiri.

It was the works of these later artists that compelled Ghalamdar to experiment with miniature painting two years ago. Unlike emulative practices of the negargaran, however, Ghalamdar strove to bring the artistic forms into the realm of pop-art– cartoonifying human figures and isolating them from their traditional literary and visual contexts. Ghalamdar’s early ventures into this style were done digitally, as he states that he did not have the necessary skills to work freehand. Using his background as an art student, Ghalamdar was able to contact several professors and research various aspects of miniature painting. After several months, the artist began producing his miniature work on walls of Tehran and Karaj, before moving on to calligraphy.

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negargari and miniature-inspired works

For the experimentation with calligraphy, Ghalamdar turned to the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s and 1970s, who used calligraphy, folk objects, and Shi’i iconography as part of their subject matter. Unlike professional calligraphers, this group of artists avoided the strict rules and preparation rituals of the craft in favor of abstraction. Saqqakhaneh artists directly inspired Ghalamdar to challenge the dominant pictorial material of Iranian street art in favor of developing an aesthetic with distinct Iranian markers.

“Seven or eight months ago, I went to see an exhibition featuring the works of Saqqakhaneh artists at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. There, I saw the works of Mansoureh Hosseini–may she rest in peace– and others like Tanavoli and Zenderoudi. I was looking at Faramarz Pilaram in particular when I thought about trying out a new artistic outlook. I was also listening to Dariush Dolat-shahi’s Third Eye: Improvisations on Tar, which also gave me an energy to pursue this type of work.

I worked on ten walls that were just for practice. I felt that this was a great start, and that no one else was doing this type of street art in Iran at the time. I practice Persian and Arabic calligraphy everyday in my notebooks. I never went to a class and never had a teacher– I just picked up a few books and then started writing myself. Though I draw in my notebook, I rarely use a pre-drawn model for my murals. There are particular forms that are internalized, but I try to bring something new out of myself each time.”

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pieces from Ghalamdar’s notebook

While Ghalamdar’s has undoubtedly been influenced by traditional calligraphic practice, his work shares an affinity with the interlocking aesthetic of “wildstyle” graffiti, demonstrating an amalgamation of the two cultures of writing. Like the letterist works of the Saqqakhaneh artists, Ghalamdar’s text-based pieces have emphasized the pictorial form of Perso-Arabic script over the literary content of traditional calligraphic practice.

The artist recently showcased his latest calligraphic work at an underground workshop in central Tehran. The workshop is located inside an old house that was previously listed as a cultural heritage site, but was removed from the municipality’s list due to its small area. The owner of the house has scheduled its demolition, but not before opening up the venue to a number of Iranian street artists to showcase their work. This past spring, a group of prominent street artists under the name of Black Hand curated an exhibition in the same space, demonstrating that a variety of spaces–on and off the street–are opening up for Iranian graffiti artists to display their work.

Ghalamdar believes that shows like Black Hand’s exhibition and the “gallerization” of street art in general do not necessarily alter the message or form of graffiti. As he says, “In terms of presenting our works in a gallery, I really don’t see a problem with it. Right now the debate concerns whether our work has to be located on the street for it to be considered graffiti. In my opinion, street art is a package that encompasses a variety of practices like design, decor, and fashion– it’s something that doesn’t have limitations any more. The nature of graffiti is changing, but the core of it all– writing on the walls– shouldn’t be lost either.”

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Ghalamdar’s work featured in an underground workshop in Central Tehran

Ghalamdar and his cohort are operating in a socio-cultural environment where many members of the Iranian public are familiar with graffiti culture and are actively promoting such works. Although Iranian municipal authorities (like those all over the world) continue to erase independent street art, more and more venues have been dedicated to presenting Iranian graffiti to new audiences.

The young artist’s innovative style is indicative of a new generation of Iranian street artists who are experimenting with Iranian artistic practices in their work. Whereas the majority of Iranian street artists operating today reproduce the formal and presentational idioms of global street art, Ghalamdar has engaged with endemic visual culture to produce works that are in conversation with Iranian art history. Additionally, the artist avoids reproducing the “traditional/modern” binary in his attempt to revitalize the Iranian street art movement by engaging with a variety of modernist and postmodern takes on Iranian subject matter.

Ghalamdar believes that departing from established international styles and engaging with Iranian art will help revitalize–if not create– an indigenous Iranian graffiti scene. As he states, “In my opinion, we still don’t have an authentic Iranian street art movement; right now most of us are just replicating what is being produced in the U.S. and Europe. We haven’t created a graffiti that we can call our own– all I can say is that there are a few individuals who are truly trying to produce original street art. I don’t think our ideas will be picked up immediately in Iran, but hopefully this will change in the future.”

 

For further reading on the Saqqakhaneh movement, calligraphy, negargari, and the history of 20th century Iranian art, refer to Hamid Keshmirshekan’s Contemporary Iranian Art: New Perspectives

 

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