Graffiti is not only an ancient and controversial way of conveying a message to the public but also a continual contest between the sender of the message and those who do not wish the message to be heard.
The messages on the walls of the Islamic Republic are not exception. State-sponsored graffiti covers many buildings and walls in Tehran and other cities, but the government is unwilling to cede any urban space to anything it has not produced itself, let alone messages that directly challenge its authority. Spray paints and markers however have made the battle less unequal.
In April of this year a street artist who goes by the pseudonym “Black Hand” held an exhibition of his work in an old house in central Tehran. The property was under the protection of the Historical Preservation Society for its unique architecture but the authorities concluded that it was too small and decided to tear it down, presumably to make space for a new development.
Black Hand’s signature tag is becoming familiar in Tehran, and his work often pops up in various corners of the city. He chooses his locations cleverly so that his graffiti can be seen immediately and people record the sight on their mobiles before the city workers arrive with their paint cans.
Black Hand’s exhibition uses the rooms in the condemned but beautiful house to explore the social themes that engage him.
For example in one of the rooms, called the Shirin (sweet) room, every object is printed endlessly with its own name, the sofa, the framed painting, the table, the cigarette box, the lighter and the dresser, and a harsh strobe light completes the nightmare. Black Hand seems to suggest that we live in a society where everything introduces itself by labels with no regard for content and meaning. As in the famous painting by Belgian painter René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, in which a pipe is labeled “This is not a pipe”, a dresser can easily be not a dresser and even the house can be a piece of land destined to become a high-rise. In contemporary Iran the label can be changed quickly and the form can remain without content.
The Persian Leopard is Dying
The next room is a challenge to the protection of the environment in Iran. Black Hand has succeeded in using the whole space to convey his message with smell, sound and color. The room is an installation which marks the imminent extinction of Persian leopard, an endangered species that green activists have sought to forestall in recent years.
Three identical leopard statues are painted in the green, white and red colours of the Iranian flag. The middle leopard wears a headband similar to the crescent that appears on the Iranian flag. The smell of a cheap and foul-smelling perfume fills the air and a laptop computer displays videos of the killing and the dismemberment of leopards accompanied by a Persian-language song titled “The Tiger Has Beautiful Eyes.” This rather vulgar song with women dressed in tiger patterns is a reminder that the Iranian culture has approved the killing of wild animals for use of their skins.
In the hallways one can see blank canvases spray-painted with the word “Art”. This attack on official art is carried to its conclusion in a crumbling room labeled “A Review of Iranian Visual Arts in the past 100 years”. One wall has been scraped off to reveal its crumbling inner cavity and splashed with the phrase “Iranian Contemporary Art.” On another wall hangs a cheap canvas bearing the painted logo of a famous domestic manufacturer. A scorched frame faces a wall which is about to explode outward.
Black Hand’s critique here is multi-layered, he seems to be challenging the commercial art world success of Iranian contemporary art, suggesting that its core is hollow.
The smelly toilet of the house is adorned with a red light and a red sign that says “Sex Club.” The walls recreate graffiti on public lavatories in Tehran where gay men often communicate with each other, because their sexuality is pushed to the margins by both society and the state. The putrid smell of the room reminds you of the rotteness of a culture that denies people freedom of choice in their sexual lives.
A Gauge of Freedom
In more open societies the existence of such nameless artists is recognized. They might not be encouraged but they are not systematically oppressed. Perhaps the extent of freedom enjoyed by underground artists is a useful gauge of freedom enjoyed by the whole society. No surprise then that the Islamic Republic treats underground art as harshly as it treats the whole of society.
In one of the rooms Black Hand has reconstructed himself as an artist who works with spray paint and wants to open his wings and free what is inside him. The walls of the room are covered with drawings of flying birds. “The Underground Artist Becomes A Star” reads a sign hanging from the door of another room built over the basement. When you open the door you see that the floor has collapsed into a grave-like hole and a light in the dark basement blinks on and off. This is a warning to the artist himself that celebrity art status can be a death sentence.
Iranian underground artists must truly be lionhearts. They do not have to create works with social or political themes to put themselves in danger. Any work of art which has not been approved by authorities, any work that does not have a “permit,” will do the job.
But underground artists and especially graffiti artists intentionally cross red lines and break boundaries. Child abuse is one of those boundaries that nobody likes to talk about, not the people, not the police and not the judicial system. Black Hand has covered the walls of one room with an imitation of children’s drawings. You hear children’s tunes but a headphone is hanging from the ceiling and if you put it to your ear the music is mixed with the panting of a man in the throes of sexual exertion.
Graffiti did not have a robust presence in Iran before the presidential elections of 2009 but with its violent aftermath it has found a new life. Every night you can witness city workers attacking the walls with paintbrushes and buckets of paint. The new Iranian generation, the generation born after the revolution and the war with Iraq, seems to look to the future with a sense of resignation and perhaps despair. Its underground art, like its rap, its rock music and its graffiti, is bitter and fed up but also full of energy, as Black Hand’s exhibition testifies.
Captions to the slideshow above:
- Black Hand’s work first became known when he painted over hardline slogans.
- “This white wall is not white,” a well-known graffiti by Black Hand on the side of an overpass in Tehran
- Like other graffiti artists Black Hand takes advantage of spray paint.
-The entrance to the exhibition is labeled “Safe House” but has four painted locks.
-Remainder of material used to create the Black Hand exhibition.
-“I am a bird; I have no wishes”. Signed: “King of Graffiti”.
- Back Hand uses sculptural techniques in addition to paint.
- The kitchen is covered with everyday labels and fliers.
- “A Non-Painterly Review of 100 Years of Iranian Painting.”
- “Contemporary Iranian Art,” a recurring critical theme in the exhibition
- Black Hand compares contemporary Iranian art to ruins.
- Children’s drawing and music are mixed with the sexual panting of a man
- The hallways are covered with graffiti.
- A parody of contemporary Iranian art: a blank canvas with the word “Art”
- The toilet has been renamed “Sex Club”
- Gay men in Iran use public toilets as a space to communicate
- Revolutionary songs play in the toilet renamed “Sex Club”
- Black Hand considers the use of puffy fonts in graffiti as “past the expiration date”
- In a dark room with a collapsed floor, a blinking light in the basement warns the viewer
- He condemns the hunting of the endangered Persian leopard with colours of the national flag
- A strobe light accentuates the growing distance between labels and meaning
- The exhibition space, a beautiful period house due to be torn down for new development
- The small size of the house led to its removal from the list of protected buildings
- Black Hand has other ambitious ideas as well