STORIES

The Secret Life of a Wanted Iranian Street Artist

By David Jenison on March 29, 2017

The Islamic National Guard does not want thought-provoking art on the streets of Tehran, which is why the thousand-plus pieces that NAFIR created rarely stay up for more than 24 hours. Considering the risks, NAFIR is naturally an alias, and his real identity is a secret he keeps even from his friends and family. He works a regular day job in the capital city, but most nights, he's out on the street working at a breakneck pace to put up the art and take a photo so his works can continue to live on social media well after the authorities remove it from the city walls. Click here to see footage of Nafir in action on his European art tour, but he was back in Iran when he communicated via email with PRØHBTD. 

You grew up with state-sanctioned murals in Iran that celebrated its religious heroes. Did that artwork inspire you in any way, be it positive, negative or both?

No influence. I never noticed them. They are not so effective when you see them everywhere like advertising. 

When did unauthorized street art begin to emerge in Iran?

Protest art started around the time of the Revolution in the 1970s, but graffiti is going its own way.  

When did you start doing street art?

I started in 2008. At that time, my friends and I wanted to start a rock band so I sprayed our band name in the streets. 

What types of themes do you like to communicate in your artwork?

I'm kind of trying to take it from street and give it back to street.  

Do you see your street art as a form of protest, creative expression or both?

There is a thin line between protest and acting like it. Protest does not mean writing something with bad handwriting. It's an image that pushes people to think and be more creative. 

You've described your art as a "scream" on a wall. Why a scream?

My street name is NAFIR, which means "scream" in Persian. It is a form of screaming for me to paint on walls. 

In what ways does your artwork speak to the identity and culture of young people in Iran today?

Honestly, I have no hope for them. For example, Iran is one of the first countries where you can find subtitles for movies. That means all we care about is to download free stuff and watch Hollywood shit. 

The Facebook "like" symbol appears in several of your pieces suggesting, I think, that people today are addicted to social media validation. Am I understanding the theme correctly, and is this a problem in Iranian culture as well?

We don't have the free society we want in real life so social networks here are a free society of sorts that people live in, and it's because you can't change a thing in an unreal world.

I believe you did some street art in Syria. What was your experience like going to Syria?

It was actually in Turkey for the Syrian people. The thing is, traveling is very dangerous for me. I can't travel to Gaza. There is no way for Iranian people. 

In what ways do you adapt your use of color to the wall and its surroundings? 

Fast. In a very fast way. 

Is it dangerous to do graffiti art in Iran? What would happen if you were caught by a special intelligence unit?

Yes, it is dangerous, but I can't tell you clearly as there is no law about street art or graffiti in Iran.

Is it necessary to keep your identity as NAFIR secret from your friends and families? 

Yes. 

Is it worth taking the risk?

No.

What role does opium poppy play in Iranian culture? Is it considered more acceptable than alcohol?

Religious opium is legal or halal, but alcohol is not. 

What roles do marijuana and hashish play?

In my view, the media very much affected young people to use weed. 

How can people purchase your works?

Iranian banks are on sanction so I can't sell directly to anyone. I always have problems for money transfers. It's like I sell pieces, but I can't have the money here so it will be in the account of some friends. Like with the graffiti prints, I travel out and ask someone to use their bank account and they give me cash.

I don't sell inside Iran, and few people like to buy art. I can't do a show here. It's funny. It's like geographic dictatorship. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

 

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