Saturday, August 1st, 2009...13:56

Iran. June 2009.

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The height of post-Iranian Election fervour. As thousands of pro-reform demonstrators took to Iran’s streets asking where their votes went, one man went on a solitary journey along Tehran’s avenues pasting and painting hundreds of his own questions. crowd rush
A1one, the street name for a Tehran-based street artist, erected over 400 pieces on the day the Guardian Council and the Iranian government announced that the Presidential incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi in a four-horse election held throughout the country of 70.5 million.
Mousavi inspired a new generation of Iranian voter, the under 30s born after the installation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. He filled football stadiums with people bedecked in the green colour of his campaign. Friends in Iran before the 12 June ballot day reported his rallies as being “the closest we’d get to the Rolling Stones.”
When the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s victory came, a swell of green took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands asking “Where’s my vote?” Not because Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but because of the majority he was reported to have had and the speed at which his victory was declared (Iran uses paper ballots). IRNA, Iran’s official news agency stated he’d won 69% of the vote – a figure downgraded to 63%. Mousavi, it was said, won only 33%. Iranian voters and international observers smelled a rat.
Although Ahmadinejad’s rural support and popular backing from older voters (he’d increased pensions prior to the election campaign) could not be negated, the declared margin of victory prompted Mousavi to say that he would not accept the electoral “charade”. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami later described the disputed results of the election as a “coup” against democracy.
Mousavi officially challenged the validity of the vote on 14 June by lodging an appeal to the Guardian Council, the group answerable to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni that chose the four presidential candidates (Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohsen Rezaee) out of a possible 476.
On 15 June, Khameni said there would be a partial recount but urged the country’s people to accept Ahmadinejad as their president because it was “divine”.
By this time, the sea of protestors on the streets were clashing with the basij – a volunteer militia founded in 1979 who receive their orders from the Revolutionary Guard – and their local police. Images of people young and old being beaten with batons and charged at full speed with motorcycles flashed around the world. Pictures of marchers in Iran’s major cities from Tehran to Tabriz regaled evening news bulletins. Iran’s Information Ministry declared that all foreign press, who prior to Election Day were given unheard of freedom to report around the country, were banned from reporting in the streets and confined to their offices and hotel rooms. Internet connections were slowed down to as low as 12k. Mobile phone networks were jammed and social networking websites were blocked. There was fire on the streets and shots rang out from the guns of those trying to quiet the demonstrators.
This chaos. This swelter. This confusion. This anger. The perfect cover for a man who walked the streets of North Tehran armed with art, spraypaint, stickers, and wheatpaste. Meticulously drawn characters with a semi-tribal feel nestled photographs of Mousavi or simple patches of green. From small six-inch stickers to five-foot pasteups with a simple “Where is my vote?” written in Farsi calligraphy, A1one covered demonstrations with his own silent protest. Sometimes he received help from protestors, other times he had to run from the police. If caught, his crime would guarantee him a long jail sentence…possibly in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, or somewhere else where torture and forced confession are the norm. What A1one does on the streets of Tehran makes Banksy look like a fraud.green
His progression from bolshy student to activist artist was as shambolically natural as can be expected from a man who once told administrators at the Azad Islamic University of Art and Architecture to go “do one” prior to being dismissed for challenging Islamic limitations.
“I started graffiti because felt so alone. Like I was the only one who sees the world for the greedy place it is. If it is possible to risk my life then I will. I thought, let’s do something. Risk it. And if it’s worth it somebody will understand, and what I say will have an effect. There’s little to lose.”
I told him he had much to lose.
“No. I don’t want to fade away in the first minutes of action. I want what I do to be worthwhile. It is risky, it is dangerous. But what I have to say needs to be said.”
The risks are real. And the penalties are high.
“You heard of chain murders?” A1one asked me at the height of his activity. “There are some muslims. They are called the basij. They can go onto the internet and find out things. They come into your house at night and cut your neck.”
The matter-of-fact way in which he said it is what chilled me. The way he asked me not to publish his real name or any detail of where he was staying and working was born out of fear. Not paranoia. Actual, real fear.
He maintains he still holds respect for the “real basij”. The ones who take it upon themselves to uphold the morals of Islam. But not the “thugs” who bully and intimidate people merely asking why the man they voted for isn’t in the office they voted him into.
His sense of isolation is compounded by those he calls “kids”, people who get into street art because it boosts their hipster credentials, not because they have a message to relay.
He once told me “there is nothing more political than risking what you have to whisper a secret message with art on the streets”. If that message is meaningless, it weakens the venom for those who use vandalism to attack the real criminals and perpetrators of injustice.
I argued that everyone has to start somewhere, that these “kids” will hopefully develop a social and political conscience.
“No. They do it because they think graffiti makes them big. Cool. It’s not about a message because there is no message. Being born in Iran means you are born so far away from any progressive scene. In my country, maybe 3% are really truly independent with their own creative ways.”
Having first met him in April 2008 when he staged a “Spray Art Show” in Tehran, he may have a point. The people who gathered for the show’s opening night were mostly male, in their late teens and early twenties. Most conformed to the Rod Stewart rooster-style haircut, jeans and trainers look. All were middle-class or affluent. Many had travelled abroad. Few cared about the direction their country was going, choosing instead to ask if I had Jay-Z on my iPod.
There was an extraordinary woman who, upon entering the gallery, whipped off her hijab – the headscarf worn to conform to Iran’s Islamic dress code. At various stages throughout the evening, women took their hijab further back on their heads.
“You’ll find women are more switched on in this country than men. Men accept the status quo because it suits them,” said one woman who attended the show.show
We shared stories about activism and art. He wistfully commented that he wished he could be as “bold and aggressive” as some people I know. I pointed out to him that he’s the one tramping all over Tehran putting up art that is a) illegal and b) overtly challenges the authority of the Islamic Republic. Two things most people would balk at doing.
He sees an injustice perpetuated not only in the country of his birth but throughout the world. An injustice to the everyman carried out by those drunk with the currency of power and tenacious greed fuelled by insecure paranoia.
As politicised as his work may seem, he claims not to be interested in politics but by society.
He first hit the street art radar in 2004 with stencil images of American president George W. Bush with devil’s horns and an image of a man peeing his “a1one” tag against a wall.
Other pieces, including one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with blood on his hands, are likely to be viewed less favourably by those in charge of Iran’s arts and culture.
Any artist who wants to exhibit their pieces in Iran has to first present their recent works and the music they want to play at the show to the Islamic Ministry of Culture and Education. It is they who approve the content and structure of an exhibition. If it is found to be un-Islamic, the show is cancelled and the artist placed under watch – to see if they’ll do anything else considered subversive.
A recent Iranian television programme about rappers and street artists in Tehran. They were labelled Satanists and likened to bank robbers and rapists. A1one was accused of being an agent for foreign countries to sully Iran’s artistic heritage.
He knows his art is risky, but he also knows that as an artist, he has to explore and progress. And like many political artists I know, he constantly battles with himself over how best to express his ideals.bloodywinner
“Although I am very interested in graffiti and have done a lot of it, I want to look at more mature ways of expression. There are many things in Iran like prohibitions and restrictions that take me on to the streets. There are many troubles in our society that make me feel more alone every day. I don’t care about the people who worship oil money. I like to paint.”
When I published his activities and art on my blog, he sent me another warning.
“Do not publish my name. What I tell you is the truth. I have to be very careful because what I do will anger many people. I am between life and death every minute and wish I could think straighter and answer you better. I’m sorry to say this. I’m sure no one in this world can imagine the tight situation we are in. Maybe as friends of the new generation in Iran, you can help us do something. All we seek are our rights.”
The signature at the bottom of his emails reads “Peace begins with thin-king” “You are so A1one” “Being A1one is not a crime”.
Many established artists in the graffiti scene look at A1one and gawp in amazement – here is a man doing the very thing street artists from Los Angeles to London claim to do. He rebels. But not out of choice or as an “image thing”. He rebels because he has to. Because there is no other way for him to live with himself, his art, and his reality.

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This article was first published in Who’s Jack Magazine, August 2009. All rights reserved.

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