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Rebel Without a Crew: Street Artist A1one in Tehran

Interview with Street Artist A1one
Henry Street Settlement, Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, LES
July 17 - August 31, 2008

Last Thursday, "Street Slang: The Modern Urban Imagination" opened at the Abrons Art Center of the Henry Street Settlement. Curated by Lois Stavsky, a longtime observer of global cultural trends, the show included a healthy dose of graffiti and street artists from Tel Aviv to New York. Noticeable among those on exhibit was A1one from Tehran, Iran. A pioneer of the Iranian street art scene, this marks his first show in America.

A street artist with a taste for drawing, collage, stencils and spray paint, A1one helps break down the monolithic image we have in the West of a conformist Islamic Iranian society. The 27-year-old is an eclectic talent who easily synthesizes a whole universe of influences. From Banksy to Australian Aboriginal art, from hip hop graffiti to Islamic calligraphy, A1one is a one-man street art crew who has inspired an emerging generation in Iran to take to the streets with a message informed by their local experience.

His name, A1one, is as multi-layered as his graphics. "A-1" refers to his preeminence in the Tehran scene, Mr. Ground Zero for local street art style. The visual allusion to "Alone" refers to what he was when he began his street work and his mindset as he set out years ago to express himself in public. In Arabic, "al" means the "one" a reference--he tells me--to God, and "al-wan" means colorful, which his graffiti always is.

A1one, photo: Hrag Vartanian.

The following email interview was an attempt to understand the foundations for the Iranian capital's street art scene and what inspired A1one to develop the Iranian accent of an art form that has taken the world by storm. It was edited, with permission from the artist, for clarity.

HV: What inspired you to start creating street art? Are there any artists who inspire you?

A1one: Love and hate [inspired me]. Six years ago, I was really thinking about ending my life because all the paths to success seemed closed to me as an independent person in Iran and having no clue how to get one of the "official" jobs. So, I thought, "Better risk it and enjoy myself, like a joker, rather than just ending it." When I was younger I learned that killing myself is not bravery but continuing life and facing reality is.

So I risked it all and continue to enjoy my life by spray painting and creating urban art in Tehran...expressing myself and escaping from police and religious people and doing images for myself. Many people laughed at me. I lost many friends because of differences in our life views. I feel like my life is inspired by the artist Francis Bacon, the painter Van Gogh and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche...yeah, I found these famous persons very close to my sensibility after reading or looking at their work. I think the keyword is "pain-thing"--I hope that makes sense. They helped me understand that I really have something to say.

HV: Do you have a traditional art education? Did you go to art school?

A1one: I have been doing, learning and working in art since my childhood. For five years I studied art in university but got expelled from college by the University president because of a disagreement over Islamic ideals. I am so proud of not being a slave to a degree. Even if all the world asks me if I have a B.A. or M.A., I say no but I know I am so much bigger and deeper than a Univerzoo (University) master.

HV: Is there a scene in Tehran or are you the only one doing it? If yes, what are the names of some other artists?

A1one: Um! If you compare with the rest of world, there is no real scene. Certainly, there are no other artists here creating life-size stencils...I mean no other person here is doing street art wholeheartedly, but many young people are spraying and scribbling on the wall and sometimes making art!

A1one, photo: Hrag Vartanian.

The kids inspired me to see how I could provide them with knowledge about street art. So, I translate articles and interviews about street art into Farsi for Iranian and Farsi-language readers around the world.

So, yeah in one way I am alone doing my work, but in another way there are about 30 younger artists around, checking my blogs, emailing me questions, doing graffiti...including the old skool type of graff. I even suggested to some of them to start using Farsi and some of them are. I really have hopes about the future of these guys. I hope the next generation will be better and not simply put up stickers and start making proper stencils. They may "bomb" the city someday. Maybe !!!! :)

To be fair, I cannot name any artists because none of them do continuous work...they do something and then stop it. Maybe they get scared or they lose interest.

HV: What are the potential penalties for doing street art in Tehran?

A1one: 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.

Two years ago, I went to the Tehran city council to check if they may be as so kind (and wise) to give me one free wall. I received an appointment with the head of the wall painting committee and spoke with him. All he was interested in was money and commissions. I really hated thinking of it that way. They said, "No, we can not give you a wall just to paint on your own and be able to go over your painting every month or week. We can give you some buildings for some decorative painting or you could paint something about our [Iranian] martyrs and religious subjects." Of course, this was all dependent on whether the city department would accept my submitted designs and then commission me to execute them. They would've even provided assistants to do it for me. "Shit," I thought. "I want something else!" I want to show my talent at least once to my people without fear.

HV: What do the people on the street tend to think of your work?

A1one: Some say "Ah! What a fresh artist." Some ask, "Is it a new art form?" They do ask questions and seem eager to know more. Some others dismiss me as a stupid person. They say, "Hey man, haven't you grown up? Don't you know this is public property? Go and scribble on your own wall." Or they just call the police. But I always try to talk to them so that they do not seem so nervous or confused about what I'm doing.

A1one, Installation View, photo: Hrag Vartanian.

HV: Do newspapers, magazines or Iranian blogs ever cover your work?

A1one: Newspapers have. At the end of my first year doing graffiti, one Iranian youth magazine copied an article I wrote about creating graffiti in Farsi--I had gathered information for it from the Internet. They printed my article verbatim. Many important blogs and some intellectuals discussed my work, my blog and my style after that.

The largest Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, dedicated its Art & Culture page to an exhibition I curated last year. The show was called Spray 2007 and it was the first spray-related event in Iran. They said it really deserved to be held in a big museum but--because of a lack of credentials with government officials and a lack of money--the show was held in a small private gallery.

Another newspaper published photos of my works and asked if they were political or what.

I have never been involved in any festival, biennial or any such thing in Iran as I believe any type of event that censors is bound to be shit. I can also say my works and my "footprints" are now visible in many universities since I have been the topic of many research projects.

HV: Which of your works are you most proud of?

A1one: I am proud of being myself in a country that tries to promote a uniform voice and people are expected to toe the official line...I am proud of quitting the mainstream, getting fired from the university, forging a new path for Iran and youth from neighboring countries--all this I am proud of.

HV: Do you have any big street art projects in the works?

A1one: Nothing bigger than making a nation think when they do not by themselves, when they are completely under economic pressures.

I can tell that the Tehran city council is observing me and is starting to react to me and work by other street artists. I guess anything out of the ordinary makes them think.