Since the 2009 uprisings in Tehran, the Iranian creative community hasn't had the easiest time of it whenever it chooses to question its government. Whether they stay or leave, a small yet flourishing underground art culture has emerged globally.
Two of the most prominent figures in that movement are brothers Icy and Sot, skaters and street artists from the city of Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, specializing primarily in stencil artwork. On March 14, they and their work will be paying a visit to Houston at Aerosol Warfare Gallery - another stop on their East Middle West Tour of four U.S. cities. Fellow Iranian rabble-rousers the punk rock band The Yellow Dogs are part of the excursion.
We recently spoke with Icy and Sot in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Tell us about the East Middle West Tour.
Icy: It's something we have been planning with The Yellow Dogs for a few months now, so it's exciting to be finally living it -- taking our art to a broader audience and spreading awareness. We will be introducing new work and also site-specific installations in each city, with live sets from The Yellow Dogs at each opening-night event.
Sot: It will be eight guys traveling 8,000 miles in a small van, but it has been and will be worth it. There are so many people that we have met online and corresponded with, but until now we have not been able to meet them face to face. So that's been really special, and we can't wait to meet more of those people in Houston and Chicago, and to also make new friends and earn new fans.
Your artwork has been exhibited in galleries all over the globe, but it wasn't until last August, in New York City, that you were able to actually attend one of your own shows. What was that like? Sot: That was our Made in Iran exhibit, and it was really amazing. We were so happy to be there...to see people react to our work and hear them comment on it. In the past, we could never attend our own exhibits outside of Iran because of how very difficult it is to receive a travel visa to leave the country...which is frustrating. Getting an artistic visa from America is so hard for us. We had to travel to Turkey twice, since there is no U.S. embassy in Iran. We were lucky, though. The person that interviewed us knew our work. He was a fan...so we were granted an emergency interview and were thankfully approved.
Icy: Which was really a relief for us, because we knew leaving Iran was the only way to take our art to the next level and to do so without fear of persecution. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago...why Houston?
Sot: Houston was an easy choice for us. Not only is it a highly creative city, but the Aerosol Warfare Gallery is one of the top galleries for showcasing street artists. Gonzo247 and the entire crew there are street artists themselves, so they understand us and have done a great job creating a very special venue.
Icy: It also made sense because of its proximity to SXSW. The Yellow Dogs are performing there on March 15, so it worked out for all of us.
I'm sure a common question many have is: How do two brothers from Tabriz, Iran, become internationally acclaimed street artists?
Sot: It really came about because of skateboarding. There isn't much going on in Tabriz and I was the first guy that started skating there. I was an oddity. We were also into skating video games -- Tony Hawk -- and in those games, we would see street art and we knew immediately that that's what we wanted to do. So we started making small stickers and stencils and putting them up in our skate spots.
Icy: That was 2006 and it's been our profession since 2008.
So you owe it all to Tony Hawk?!?
Icy: In a way...yes (laughing). To some small extent, I guess you could say that.
Sot: Skating was our passion, and our profession, but once we started seeing these beautiful images in Tony's video game we knew that street art was going to become our long-term passion and profession together.
Do you only work together?
Icy: We do our own stuff, but prefer together. We've been together since the beginning.
Sot: We are friends more than brothers, so we like it. It's a special connection, and I think one that allows us to expand our creativity.
Icy: It's the ultimate in collaboration. Friends -- brothers -- co-creators.
Why Stencil versus other forms of street art?
Sot: It goes back to the Tony Hawk video game. It's what we saw on the TV screen, and we loved the way it looked. From there we discovered the work of people like Banksy and have not looked back since.
Icy: Part of it is also the process. Stencil is made for the street. You can create an amazing amount of detail and create your image very quickly, which is important when you are taking it to the streets, especially in Tabriz or Tehran. Getting in and out quickly was really important.
Banksy, Nick Walker, Blek le Rat...those are some of the legends in stencil street art. Who's influenced you and how do you differentiate yourselves from other stencilers?
Icy: All have influenced us.
Sot: It's the truth. We see so many great things in all street art that we come across. Do we have favorites? Of course, but walking down any city street and seeing the beautiful colors and intelligent messages that are created is really special for both of us.
How do you choose the street locations for your stencils? What features do you look for?
Icy: Back in Iran, we tried to put our works at spots that would receive the most views possible, but also in locations that had a lower risk for us. Because of the government's dislike for our work, we had to have that easy access that would allow us to flee if needed. In rural places it was a totally different case. The risk was lower and you don't have as many people, so it was more about the texture and the concept of the spot and message.
Sot: We consider the same factors here in the U.S. For the legal walls with high visibility, it's also more about the texture and concept. We try to choose a piece which matches with the wall. Great "canvases" are everywhere, though. For example, we have done work on the streets of Paris, São Paulo, Turin, Istanbul, Oakland, Hamburg and Berlin.
So many labels seem to be placed on what you do through your street art, or what others like The Yellow Dogs do via their music. Some call it Opposition Art, Dissident Art, Underground Art, Political Art, etc. What do you call it?
Sot: The interesting thing is the labels that the Iranian government placed on us. They don't like what they see, but they don't know what to charge you with, so they stick labels on you that aren't related. For example, we've been called Satanists.
Icy: Street art is a kind of political art by definition, in my opinion, because it's speaking directly to the people. It's to the people and for the people, but we have many themes and don't consider them all directly related to politics, but we are communicating our beliefs with walls.
Besides the government, what other "walls" got in the way of your art in Iran?
Sot: Whether it was from police or citizens, there was always opposition. Our stencils were often destroyed within minutes or hours of completing them, which is always frustrating, but that kind of goes with street art. It's part of it.
There are obvious themes in your work. You use many images of children and old people, and often you show people with their eyes covered or obstructed in some way. What meaning do those have for you?
Icy: Children, the old and even women ... we use them often because they are the most vulnerable in society...the innocent.
Sot: And the eyes have many meanings. Some of it is what we've experienced, or what others that we know have, like having our heads covered with a red cloth when we were arrested. We used that image in our piece "Blindness" back in 2011. It might also mean the darkness in Iran. The lack of understanding or the lack of vision that our government or society had in Iran.
Icy: Or elsewhere, for that matter. Many of the issues that we address are global in nature, not just specific to Iran.
Have you been arrested because of your art?
Sot: Yes, several times. In 2009, there was a gallery show in L.A. which caused the government to find out about us, since our artwork was more political at that time. The elections had just happened, so the government was much more active in trying to stop people like us. The officials called and told us that we had to come in to answer some questions. It is, of course, terrifying. You fear not only for yourselves, but also for your family and friends...for anybody that supports you.
Icy: The last time, we were in jail for a week and it was scary. There is always the threat of being detained and being accused of political crimes, or as Sot said earlier, of being Satanists. I knew we had to leave. We knew.
And you have now left Iran, correct?
Icy: Yes, since receiving our artistic visas, we have been in Brooklyn for the past several months living with The Yellow Dogs, who are from Tehran but have been in America for a few years now. Sot: I've now been granted political asylum and his will come soon. Has being friends with The Yellow Dogs made your transition to America easier?
Sot: Yes, in many ways. Not only because they are Iranian, but also because they understand the kind of persecution that we experienced back home, since they too went through the same thing. Their music was considered illegal because it was not approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Icy: They also have many friends and contacts in America, which made it easier for us to come here without any.
How has the Brooklyn street art scene treated you since your arrival?
Icy: It's been amazing. We've made a lot of friends in the scene and have been able to meet many of the artists that we've admired for a long time. So far we've created over 30 stencils on the streets all over New York, and the response to them has been very positive.
Sot: It's such a larger scene here in the U.S. and in New York in particular. Street art is an underground movement in Iran -- mostly in Tehran and Tabriz. But I must add that it's not just the street art scene...everybody here in America has been really accepting of us as artists and as human beings. Do you hope to one day return to Iran?
Icy: Of course we want to go back, but it's hard there. We miss family and friends, but we can keep in touch on Skype, and later this year we'll exhibit in Europe with our friends from Tabriz.
Sot: Our hope is that one day we can return.
I've been told by friends in Iran that they don't dream anymore, because they don't believe they have any chance of fulfilling their dreams. What do you say to that?
Sot: It's common in Iran that people lose faith in their dreams, but it's not a good way to believe. It's good to always have dreams. You may fall, but you can always still reach your dreams. We're living proof.
Thank you, Tony Hawk!
The East Middle West Tour rolls into Houston March 14 and 15 at the Aerosol Warfare Gallery, located at 2110 Jefferson St., 832-748-8369; it closes out in Chicago on March 22 and 23 at the Co-Prosperity Sphere. To learn more, visit IcyandSot.com.