Monday, January 14, 2013

Painting the Town—Tehran’s Street Art

By Heidi Noroozy

When I’m in Tehran, leaving the house without my camera would be as unthinkable as stepping onto the street without a scarf and manteau, the tunic every woman is required to wear for proper Islamic modesty. The city is filled with the most fascinating snippets of life, exotic to me if not to the locals, and I’d hate to miss an opportunity to capture them.

On my most recent visit to Iran last spring, I sometimes abandoned my usual dynamic subjects of daily life in favor of the city’s painted walls. Murals are everywhere in Tehran, alongside highways, on public buildings, tucked away in hidden alleys. Some carry political or religious messages while others are simply pretty works of art. Many are serious, a few whimsical. But all add color to a city that is often gray and drab.

Let me take you on a quick tour of my favorites (so far). We’ll begin at the edge of Sayeh Park, a green space in the heart of Tehran’s Shemiran district, just blocks away from my in-laws’ home. I love to walk here, and any excursion means checking out the murals along Vali Asr Avenue. The most delightful work of art is this house, which is painted to look like…well…a house, complete with windows, doors, and even flowers in bloom:

Here’s a detail of a painted-on window box filled with spring flowers.

Whenever I pass this charming house, I half expect a hobbit to emerge, tip his hat, then invite me in for tea, quite forgetting I’m in the Islamic Republic and not Middle Earth.

Farther down, across the street from Book City, my eye is drawn to a lovely painting that stretches all the way up a wall.

The first time I saw it, from a distance, the bright colors and geometric shapes captured my attention, and it took me a moment to realize the people were moving. I’d thought they were part of the two-dimensional scene. In fact, the artwork decorates the side of a staircase that leads from Vali Asr Avenue to a street higher up on the hill.

Nearby, on the same side of the road, this piece of modern art stretches nearly an entire block. It’s not actually a mural but a mosaic, the motif created from thousands of colored tiles.

In Tehran, I always spent a great deal of time sitting in traffic on clogged roads and highways, an inevitable aspect of any trip to this sprawling city. On my recent visit, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: a lovely mural along the southbound lane of the Modares Highway. Now that a long stretch of Vali Asr Avenue is one-way northbound, this highway is the most direct way to reach my in-laws’ house from my favorite bazaar in Tajrish.

I like to think this mural was set in place to give people something pretty to look at while sitting impatiently in the inevitable traffic jams.
Another roadside painting occupies the entire side of a skyscraper:

We passed this building early one evening as dusk was falling, and the bright red spots are reflections of taillights traveling along the road. The patterns decorating the hands caught my attention, and I first thought they looked like the henna designs that traditionally adorn the hands of Indian women. But on closer inspection, I realized they are formed by calligraphy, miniature versions of the larger writing in the image’s center. The messages written here tell the story of Imam Hossein, the 7th-century Shia leader who was beheaded and martyred in Karbala (in present-day Iraq) during a battle between Shia and Sunni Muslim armies.

Occasionally, I’ve found murals in the most unexpected of places, like this one that literally adds a ray of (painted) sunshine to its neighborhood.

The charming scene decorates the side of a school at the end of a narrow alley off Jomhouri Eslami Street, right across from the red brick complex that houses the British Embassy (closed since 2011). Birds are a common element in these kinds of murals, and the two girls are wearing a typical school uniform—a long tunic worn over pants and a contrasting hood called a magna’eh.

Each time I return to Tehran, it seems that more of these colorful paintings have sprung up since my previous trip. So you can be sure that on my next visit—maybe this year, maybe next—I’ll be wandering about, camera in hand, eyes peeled for more lovely street art.