One can of spray paint
If you mean about the law, it is not mentioned in ‘The Law.’ But when the Iranian Islamic police catch you and they start feeling uncomfortable with what you’re doing then your future could be in jeopardy until they decide if it is anti-Islamic or not—this is the only thing which has meaning for some people and that is where the risk lies. They may not care about your art or even the issue of vandalism or public property before thinking about it in terms of being political or pro-Western.
—A1one on the penalties of graffiti in Iran
Graffiti has often been featured as the centerpiece image on this blog, but never its subject. My reaction to it has always been visceral: it is one of the few visual mediums that I seem to experience sensibly rather than analytically, not for lack of conceptual or imagistic terms within the worlds of graffiti and tagging themselves but mostly out of the indelible pleasure of living through this medium rather than objectively criticizing it. There are hundreds of books on graffiti and its surrounding cultures, astute talks and lectures and even graffiti scholars. Nevertheless, it’s one of those fields of human endeavor I’ve somehow cordoned off for pure gazing, singular reflection, silent delight and a great deal of enjoyment.
This past month in Iran, I tried, but was ultimately unable to visit Ghezl Hesar and Evin prisons in (Karaj and Tehran respectively) where my youngest uncle was jailed for nearly his entire 20s. Soon after the outbreak of the Iranian revolution, he had been arrested and detained for spraying what were perceived to be anti-regime (‘Western’) slogans on a public wall. He was 17 years old.
I was small enough, at age six, that the guards permitted the family to send me alone inside the jail cells, where rules of propriety, decorum and politesse among the political prisoners applied in much the same way they do in regular Iranian society. My clothes would be padded with food (and maybe cigarettes?) and I would be sent in more or less without supervision. I don’t think anyone has ever been happier to see me than those prisoners, my uncle and his young friends, for whom the sight of a verbose six-year old with food hidden in her clothes must have appeared as a Christmas tree once did to a Dickensian orphan.
Eventually, after the authorities were convinced he had paid enough for his painted outburst in served years, a house would be sold to secure my uncle’s release. He would prove good behavior by not leaving the country for years, even as jobs in his area of study dried up in Tehran. His mother’s hair turned white by the hands of an invisible painter.
When I called to tell him about my failed visit, my uncle (who has never since talked about his experience, and more or less gave up talking after his release) said, ‘If you want to see the inside of those prisons now, just stand on a street corner and yell, “Down with the Shah!”’
(Photo from Art Crimes in Tehran. ‘Ali’ and political posters.)