Last Thursday, as one of several photographers pointed his lens, two grown men posed by their paintings, shyly smiling and giving no indication whatsoever that they were the reason everybody was gathered. They were young street artists, Iranian siblings ICY and SOT, whose exhibition of around 30 paintings, titled MADE IN IRAN, spent just three days in the Open House Gallery on the Bowery last week.
“They’ve been in New York less than a month,” Mona Dehghan, the artists’ PR rep, told us. “They have been arrested and the like back in Iran for what they do. Expressing yourself creatively is still something that is not fully understood, so to do it illegally on the street is a definite no-go. They are here seeking asylum.” Though they shouldn’t forget that graffiti is a punishable crime here too, they moved to a country where street art is considered high art. Street art’s prominence in the gallery scene has gone hand in hand with the increase of economic disparity in the West, as rebellion and anarchy are suddenly exciting prospects. People such as Banksy and Dan Witz have wrenched street art’s reputation and dragged it from the alleyways, and we asked the artists if the fame of these other artists has had a positive or negative effect on their own careers, especially considering we had heard more than one attendee utter the phrase “It looks like a Banksy.”
“Banksy is obviously an influence to us,” SOT admitted, “but the fact that our work combines Eastern and Western cultures makes it a bit different.”
Ms. Dehghan agreed, “If you’re too similar to one artist, people criticize you, but if you’re too unique, people don’t relate to you; it’s lose-lose.”
The young men were shy and conscious of the language barrier as we talked outside the front of the gallery with them and Yellow Dogs, a Persian rock four-piece that the artists met in Iran and share an apartment with in Brooklyn.
“We know each other from the skate park in Tehran,” lead singer Obaash told us. “Now we all live together and have a lot of fun.”
We asked if there was a relationship between the band’s songs and the paintings on the wall. “We come from the same backgrounds. We have the same foundation, so naturally there will be a relationship. Back home, people don’t understand. We got popular after appearing in a documentary [Cannes award-winning film No One Knows About Persian Cats], but there is a difference in Iran between support and people understanding it,” ICY said. “It is the same with art. We have seen people rip our pieces off the walls at home—not cops, just normal people. They do not like it.”
The band was called away to played a short set of punk rock songs that threatened dangerously to transform the gallery into a mosh pit. The camera crews were filming for yet another documentary about the artists. Their work was impressive, but nothing particularly unique. Images of children featured heavily, and ICY informed us, “They represent innocence.” Several pieces featured shadow imagery or the theme of blindness, possibly a reference to the strict and unwelcoming society they come from, and one piece was a direct reference to Banksy, his famous Balloon Girl reinterpreted: rather than a balloon carrying her hopefully away, it lay flat beside her. But it was the story behind these young brothers that was most impressive—the fact that they are handy with a stencil was a bonus. As we overheard one admirer say, “These are good, but I just want to talk to them.”