See Iran’s Graffiti Artists Risk Everything to Push for Peace

The documentary hides the identity of artists while revealing a passion for art and free expression in the Islamic republic.
Jul 13, 2015·
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

For the past 36 years, the decor of public spaces in Iran has been state-sanctioned, limited to what falls in line with the Islamic republic’s ideals. There are no billboards of bikini-clad women selling suntan lotion, obviously. But from classroom walls to public murals, there is plenty of state-sanctioned political art: The faces of leading mullahs peer down from massive murals, colorful remembrances of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War line boulevards, and anti-West slogans cover sides of buildings.

In the country’s major cities, graffiti artists are finding ways to convey another, less anti-Western, monolithic narrative—and risking grave punishment to do so. The Iranian government has said that such work can be treasonous or satanic—both dire edicts in a religious country. Though the artists take huge risks to make these political statements, their work often disappears under another layer of ideological paint.

An uplifting note familiar in the American political zeitgeist, the word “hope” takes on a whole different meaning when it’s scrawled in English by a graffiti artist in Iran above an (abundantly meta) image of a hooded graffiti artist. Those images and political sentiments are captured in a documentary from Zeinab Tabrizy and Paliz Khoshdel before they can be painted over by a state that is intent on maintaining order.

In Mutiny of Colours, the day-to-day lives of five Iranian street artists are captured—from their creative messages for peace and women’s rights to run-ins with the authorities. Their identities are hidden to preserve their safety. Tabrizy and Khoshdel first stirred controversy with 2010’s 38-minute documentary Street Sultans, which went inside the world of the young men and women who do parkour, the physical art of bouncing off walls and street objects.

The filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign and are seeking to raise $50,000 to release their latest film in July 2016. Their promotional video pokes fun at their push to maintain artistic integrity on the film and the world’s lack of understanding of what Iran really looks like, or what real Iranians care about.

“[The Iranian] government doesn’t like the way these street artists think, so they face a great deal of danger when they’re doing their art,” Tabrizy says in their Kickstarter video.

“These artists just want to send a message of peace and friendship to the people of the world,” Khoshdel adds.

So, Why Should You Care? Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran have been nonexistent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the country’s monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a religious government led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the decades since, Iran has grown isolated from the world, a problem that’s grown particularly acute in the country’s push for modernization. Despite frequent state-led chants of “death to America” during Friday prayers, imagining that Iran’s people are perfectly represented by their government is a mistake.

In Iran’s current push to attain nuclear power, a lack of trust has led to fraught multinational negotiations that have dragged on for more than a year and a half. While global leaders argue behind closed doors in Vienna, Iran’s youths are growing up in a closed society that openly longs to make peace with the world.

Understanding the next generation in Iran means paving a more peaceful future in a region that is increasingly unstable.