Most of the street art of Icy and Sot, peppered with images that speak the international idiom of youth culture—skateboards, peace signs—doesn’t necessarily say much about the artists themselves. But there is the occasional piece, like the stencil of a man dressed like a beer bottle with the word “BEER” followed by “IS NOT A CRIME” in spray paint that gives clues to where they’re coming from.
The brothers, aged twenty-seven and twenty-two, hail from Tabriz, Iran, where they lived until they moved to Brooklyn last summer. As teenagers, their entry into street art came about from their interest (especially Sot’s) in skateboarding—a growing, though not yet particularly popular, pastime in Iran. They began putting up small stenciled works on the streets of Tabriz and posting the images on the Internet. Documenting their work was important, because the art would be erased within two or three days of being created.
Graffiti is illegal in Iran and rather uncommon too. The brothers estimate that the entire country’s street art community consists of about six to ten people. Last August, at the opening of their first New York show on Broome Street in Soho, the brothers, who share the same wiry build and quiet, intense manner, described how difficult it was to be a street artist in Iran. “If they catch you, they can charge you with other things,” Icy said. “They will accuse you of Satanism.”
Icy and Sot, who do not want to reveal more than their street art names, experienced this danger personally when they were arrested shortly before leaving for New York last summer. They are both reluctant to talk about it, but say that they were held for five days and at one point blindfolded for about an hour, adding that they were lucky the police did not catch them in the act of putting up art on the walls, which would have been more serious. In such situations, sometimes bribes can help. According to Ali Salehezadeh, their manager, “That’s the thing about Iran–there’s all these laws, and there’s all these ways to get around the laws.”
When the members of a punk rock band called The Yellow Dogs, who are hometown friends of Icy and Sot, left Iran for New York in 2010, they inspired the brothers to do the same. After completing their eighteen months of obligatory military service, they managed to obtain U.S. visas to attend a show of their art last August. The show had been set up by Salehezadeh, who they knew as The Yellow Dog’s Iranian-American manager.
The pair applied for asylum and now share a former factory space with The Yellow Dogs and Salehezadeh (who also became their manager) in the hipster haven of Bushwick, a far cry from Iran. The current anti-Iranian climate in the U.S. has served their asylum applications well: Sot’s has already been approved, and Icy is just waiting for his paperwork to go through and his hearing date to be set. While their request is being processed, they’ve been careful to limit themselves to only painting walls legally, with permission.
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Their parents support their move to the U.S., even though it means that Icy and Sot can’t ever go back to visit them in Iran. There will be ways to meet, in nearby countries such as Dubai or Turkey, for instance. For now, their parents follow them on Facebook, which is blocked in Iran, but savvy users can find ways around it.
The brothers are generally reticent to talk about their life in Iran beyond the fact that they felt there was little future for them in their country. There, their art was not overtly political, with the exception of “Beer Is Not a Crime:” Alcohol is outlawed in the country and punished even more harshly—meaning with more lashes—than hash, says Salehezadeh. That’s presumably because of its association with the West. Yet people still import it illegally, and wine is also made clandestinely in many Iranian homes. In 2012, the market research firm Euromonitor International described “a huge black market which cannot be controlled by the Iranian government.”
Even if Icy and Sot aren’t often making such clear-cut statements, their works point obliquely to the strictures of life in contemporary Iran, as in three stencils of boys that evoke blocked vision. In one, titled “Almost Blind,” a boy wears 3-D glasses with vertical lines, recalling Venetian blinds, as if, by wearing them, he is choosing his own blindness. In another, a boy’s eyes are blindfolded (the brothers made this piece before being arrested and blindfolded themselves). In the third, the boy’s eyeglass frames are red circles with a forbidding slash through the middle because the artists feel that “everything is forbidden” in Iran.
Icy and Sot’s images are quite different in both style and content from those of the few other street artists in Iran. On the Flickr page devoted to Iranian graffiti and street art, there are many tags inspired by Persian calligraphy. An artist named ghalhamDAR produces bubbly images and skillful, brightly-colored, three-dimensional lettering that looks like an Iranian version of graffiti from urban America. A1one, one of the most prolific contributors to the photo pool, creates stylized, almost abstracted calligraphic forms. His most compelling images are whimsical or threatening characters that are almost cartoonish in shape, made of lines and sometimes brightly painted. A1one adds the occasional stencil to his calligraphy, but none of these artists focus on stencils with clean lines and potent symbolism they way Icy and Sot do.
Some of the brothers’ best work involves stenciled images with painted gray shadows looming behind them, expressing a deeper reality behind the images: Two boys fighting project the shadows of soldiers, and a man in a wheelchair is shadowed by his image as a skateboarder. Another project they did outside Tabriz is a big departure from their other work. They found an old abandoned tank and turned it into a giant crushed soda can by reshaping it and painting a Coke label directly onto it. Aside from the symbolism of turning an Iranian military machine into an icon of American consumer capitalism, the piece is a pretty astonishing artistic feat.
The brothers always work as a pair. “We have separate ideas but we put it on the street together,” says Sot. “It’s always Icy and Sot.” Once an idea is developed, they work together on stenciling, spray painting and placement.
They clearly enjoy working on their art more than talking about it. When asked if there was one piece that they were happiest with or most proud of, Sot would only respond, “All of them.”
Icy and Sot think New York is “awesome” and have enjoyed seeing street pieces in real life by artists they had only known from the Internet. Above all, they’re thrilled to have their work stay on the walls. “Here it’s going to be on the street for a year, maybe more, and so many people can see it,” says Icy.
Right now, they have pieces up at two outdoor galleries: The Bushwick Collective (between St. Nicholas Avenue and Troutman Street), where they stenciled “FREE” upside-down with a boy sitting on the F, and Welling Court in Queens, the site of a big stenciled angel holding—what else?—a can of beer. And they’ve already made some fans who are willing to pay for their work. Although their show in August was set up primarily to facilitate their visa applications, they ended up selling about thirty percent of the pieces over its three-day run, according to Salehezadeh. They also were one of five artists invited to decorate a room of the Nu Hotel on Smith Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
In addition to a manager and a P.R. representative, Icy and Sot have an agent in the Netherlands who discovered them online and has already set up some exhibitions in Europe—some of which are pretty unorthodox, such as one in a gallery established by a twenty-three-year-old Frenchman in his 300-square-foot Paris apartment. They have just wrapped up a pop-up tour with The Yellow Dogs that took them to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston, showing their work for one to three days at a festival, gallery or club in each city. At the Noisepop Festival in San Francisco, they met Shepard Fairey, the street artist and graphic designer who did the 2008 “Hope” poster for the Obama campaign, and gave him a print.
Their tour was self-funded and not without hitches. The axle of their trailer broke just outside San Francisco and the wheel was about to fall off. It was too complicated to repair, so they had to rent a U-Haul to get their artworks to the show. After traveling all day on tour, they would paint at night, often working from midnight to four a.m., at one point putting up a ten-foot mural on a frigid Chicago street in the middle of February. Salehezadeh estimates that they’ve spent $5,000 on paint alone in the last six weeks.
Since their arrival in the States, the brothers have experimented with less orthodox styles. In one piece, a soldier climbs up a dangling rope with a lit fuse at the end—a visual joke that is reminiscent of Banksy’s work. They also put up a wheat-pasted image of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sitting next to Bashar al-Assad of Syria, with the word THIEF right above the leaders’ heads—obviously not something that the brothers could have tried in Iran.
Icy and Sot’s work has charmed many in the New York street art scene. Joe Ficalora, the self-taught street art curator of The Bushwick Collective, calls them “serious artists” who “have an amazing message and are amazing to know.” Terri Ciccone, who blogs about street art at Contrappostoart.com, finds their style “whimsical and meaningful” and adds that their art “is a great and accessible way to expose us to a culture that we typically only hear of in conjunction with war or general foreign tensions.” How much they represent Iranian culture, though, may depend on your perspective. “Of course some Western people like to see Banksy or Dolk in an Iranian accent,” Iranian street artist A1one relates via email. “It is exotic for normal people and it is good marketing for some simple galleries.”
Icy and Sot have never claimed to represent Iran, but their background as refugees from an intolerant regime is going to inform how people see them for awhile. It remains to be seen how their work will develop in new ways now that they live in the U.S., and whether the excitement over their work will subside when it’s no longer produced in an atmosphere of risk and oppression.
“We want to make Icy and Sot a brand,” Salehezadeh says. He isn’t concerned about whether some people will lose interest in their work once they’re no longer a novelty. “It’s OK to lose those people if that’s the price to pay to live here and do their work. They’re not part of Iran’s culture, either, so they’re always going to have problems with that world, whoever’s in charge.”
While they miss their family and friends in Iran, it’s clear to Icy and Sot that their future is in New York. Sitting on folding chairs at a pop-up gallery space during their New York debut last summer, when asked what would have to change for them to be able to have an exhibition like this in Iran, they replied in unison: “Everything.”
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Adam McCauley is a Canadian writer/photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time Magazine and The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter @adammccauley.