October 2, 2015

Medhi Ghadyanloo is Iran’s most famous street artist.

It’s not a country that gets a lot of attention for its graffiti, but Iran is actually home to a progressive scene, born out of the rapid expansion of its urban areas. Medhi’s home city Tehran exploded into a metropolis in the ‘90s, and as it grew, its bare walls multiplied.

The city is home to a mish-mash of architectural styles, with traditional buildings piled in alongside new creations forged in concrete and aluminium. It’s an urban artist’s dream. Most buildings in the area are built with only one façade, and three walls left blank, providing an abundance of canvasses begging to be painted.

The street art movement has its roots in illegality, but Iran’s painted walls are the result of progressive city planning. When Tehran’s growth began to explode, the local municipality recognised its starkness, and formed the Beautification Organisation of Tehran to commission local artists to give the city a makeover. Medhi had just finished his training at the city’s faculty of fine art and grabbed the chance to make his mark.

Now his work graces over 100 of the city’s walls. His quietly surreal public murals are a demonstration against drabness, depictions of a universe he says he wants Tehran to become; blue skies appear through portals, precisely painted figure dance through optical illusions and dream-like scenarios abound.

It’s not a straightforward utopia, though. There’s a lurking sense of unease about his work, too. Medhi grew up during the tumultuous years of the Iraq-Iran war, witnessing first-hand the long queues for fuel and bread, the constant bad news on the television, the state of anxiety that grips a nation under threat. The trauma manifests itself in his work through stark symbolism; cut-off aeroplanes, enclosed spaces, a sense of danger and unreadability about the world he paints.

Because of the surfaces he paints on, Medhi has been compared to Banksy, but his work has more in common with surrealists like Max Ernst and René Magritte. Like the surrealists, he puts a high importance on the role of the subconscious in painting, and his approach to his craft is more usually associated with fine art practitioners. It’s taking street art to a new place.

And it makes sense that the future of street art should come from somewhere as unexpected as Iran, when you think about it. The art form has its roots in ignored places. Born in the subways of New York with a lack of acknowledgement from the established art world, it has always thrived in the overlooked areas of cities, rejecting and being rejected in turn by the gatekeeping galleries.

It’s an attitude that’s essential to the form. Street art teaches us to pay attention to the surroundings we do not normally look at. To find beauty amongst the steel and concrete. And to pay attention to the world’s forgotten corners: they are where the future lives.