The Art of Icy & Sot: Uncensored from Iran to America
By James Buxton
Through profoundly simple and powerful images, Iranian artists Icy & Sot have brought global attention to concepts of censorship and freedom of speech, having lived in a country where they believed only the walls would listen. Now living in exile as asylum seekers in Brooklyn, Global Street Art’s Interviews Editor James Buxton met up with them to hear the story behind their art.
Everything started with skateboarding, we used to make small stickers, small stencils and put them where we used to hang out. At the time we didn’t even know what we were doing were stencils. Stencil is the best method to use in Iran, because you can do it so quickly on the street. We started in 2006 doing small things.
We were born and raised in Tabriz. It was a great way to share and communicate our vision with the people. We first saw street art in a Tony Hawks skateboarding game, it was a mix of videogames and internet.
When we started we were looking for a nickname because we couldn’t use our real names. Icy, it kind of reflects my character, cold. My friends used to call me Sot, it means drunk idiot! The adventure of going to do pieces on the street is what initially inspired us. At the time there were a few artists active in Tehran like Alone and CK1. Now there are plenty of street artists, mostly graffiti.
After the elections in Iran and the protests… It affected us. It was different; we wanted to communicate with the people through our works. Our messages were mostly about human rights, love, hate, war, peace, the things that were happening to us, and the things we faced in that situation.
When we got arrested we didn’t know what would happen, there were so many authorities in the police. There was no one certain crime for street art. In 2009, after the Iranian election, we sent our work for a group exhibition in L.A. The police called us after the show in and said “you participated in a political exhibition in L.A.” There were some links, but we could get rid of our work in Iran. Sometimes we signed a paper saying we would not do it again. They put us in prison for a day and then we paid the bail.
Being arrested affected our work a lot. It’s funny, once we did a piece with a boy blindfolded with a red cloth and the last time we were arrested they did the same thing to us with the red blindfold. They asked so many questions, “Do you have a Facebook? Do you have a Gmail?” We said nothing. If you say something then… the bad thing is you don’t know, they can do anything.
Everything started with Flickr. Sometimes our works about the protest made people more aware, our pictures were put on different blogs, and people got to know about the situation in Iran. LikeForbidden, this piece we did in Iran stayed up for two or three months. They destroyed all of them but that one stayed up. And the skateboard pieces we did them on real street signs. Here we couldn’t find the same signs!
We both had to do one and half years of military service to get our passports to get out of the country. Two years ago we started the process for the U.S. Visa. It was never 100 percent until we passed the border. One time we were in jail. We were thinking everything is done. Most of our friends had been arrested for stupid reasons like being with a girl with a beer, like normal life. We had to say we were going to Turkey, and then we got our visas in Turkey to fly to New York for our show.
In Iran when we were sending our art, they checked each piece because if the subject was political, they didn’t let us send it. For our show in Amsterdam we covered the canvas with another canvas, and we did another piece on it. So we had to tell the gallery about the hidden piece.
We applied for asylum, I have mine, Icy is still waiting for his, which means we can get our travel documents so we can travel to Europe. It’s the law here that we can’t go back, that’s why we’ve got political asylum. It’s really dangerous to go back to Iran after we did interviews with BBC Persia and CNN.
We have learned a lot in the past nine months, especially after a one month trip seeing different states in America and the different street art everywhere. Our pieces are mostly about the things around us, now it’s more of a global message, we get inspiration from the things around us.
Now I think people follow us from Iran, they see we are doing these things, it is good energy for them, that we came from Iran but we can’t go back now, it’s not an option. After the government changes we could paint, this is our hope. Someday we hope it will change, people have to act, it’s hard to tell, but we hope so.
We have a group show coming up at Ethos gallery in L.A. called, The Little Things on May 10. And we are currently doing a piece for The Water Tank Project, where they are painting 100 water tanks around the city. We have also been asked to paint part of a nine floor building in Paris alongside 50 artists in September, so we will go if we can get the visa.