1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
July 23, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 2:36pm

Tehran's murals tell the story of Iran's political history

By Barbara Speed

Over the past 50 years, Iran has weathered both a revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, one of the longest conflicts of the 20th century. Both, of course, made their imprints on Tehran, the country’s capital – but perhaps the simplest way to track the changing city and its politics is by looking to its walls. 

Murals have long been a part of Tehran’s urban framework, but their contents – even their positioning – have changed dramatically over time. Traditionally, blank walls were a canvas for governments to blazon their messages. The government controlled public life, and it followed that it controlled public art, too. 

But during the 1979 revolution, things got messy. Both the sitting Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the revolutionaries attempting to topple him used murals to spread their messages. As Pamela Karimi notes in her paper “Tehran’s Post Iran-Iraq War Murals and their legacy”, these were placed at eye level, as the messages battled for attention. Some activists, she says, would even “write their messages in blood” after facing fire from the Shah’s army.

After the revolution, under the direction of the new prime minister, murals migrated upwards to the top of buildings again: they went back to being a government mouthpiece, despite the overthrow of the monarchy. During the Iran-Iraq war, new murals depicted heroic battle scenes to justify the war, or traditional Islamic imagery. 

Since 2004, though, the city’s walls have taken a new direction. Under the direction of the Bureau of Beautification, a non-governmental municipal body dedicated to, well, beautifying the city, 800 murals have been commissioned, over 100 of which were all painted by the same person. 

Medhi Ghadyanloo was not even a mural painter, but nonetheless responded to a call for artists by the bureau. His 100 murals embody the tone of post-2004 art in the city: it’s abstract, and, most importantly, non-political. Ghadyanloo specialises in witty, joyful paintings, many of which contain optical illusions, like this “Folded Building”:

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Many of the paintings offer a kind of utopic vision of the city, like this vista of flying cars:

Another running theme is the insertion of sky into buildings, so the urban landscape feels airier and more open:

The laws of gravity are often bent, or ignored entirely:

(Luckily for Londoners, Ghadyanloo has completed several projects here, too.)

Commenting on the post-war penchant for wit and optical illusions on murals, Pamela Karimi notes that these artworks are “new expressions of public taste in an urban environment, a realm previously claimed only by the government”.

Meanwhile, a recent survey showed that only 5 per cent of Tehranians now approve of propaganda in murals. Over half, in fact, felt that their sole purpose is to “beautify the city”. 

 All images: Mehdi Ghadyanloo, used with permission. 

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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