Graffiti, Hip-Hop, Sk8s: Tehran's Young Rebels Battle the Crackdown

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Iranian band Hypernova, now in exile in the West

For a few hours on a recent evening, the headaches of keeping a step ahead of Iran's notorious security forces begin to fade. Skateboarders, BMX bikers and aggressive inline skaters zip down the quarter-pipe in their baggy street wear, pumping their arms whenever they land a tricky move. Small groups of teens from relatively well-off families, some still in middle school, stand on the sidelines staring in awe while beats spin over the booming speakers.

The capital's only skate park is a rare refuge for some of the country's restless and burgeoning youths, allowing them to congregate without being harassed by the feared Basij militia. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rule and particularly since the disputed June 12 election, when thousands of angry teens and 20-somethings took to the streets, the religious police have cracked down on this sort of rebellious youth culture, driving it further underground. "These artists are at the same level as those in the West, but they're working under the most incredible pressures," explains an Iranian electro-music producer who is in his 20s. "If they're arrested here, the end of the road is execution."

That is not to say these musicians, artists and skater punks have been cowed into silence; rather, their influence in a country where 2 out of 3 are under the age of 30, with many hungry for Western cultural imports, has perhaps never been greater. In the run-up to the presidential election, many young voters were eagerly trading CD mix tapes featuring underground artists — practically all working under pseudonyms — campaigning for the leading opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

After the regime's brutal response to the street demonstrations, an adviser to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi said he handed out "around a thousand" CDs containing hip-hop and rap tracks with pro-democracy messages. A graffiti artist sprayed "Death to [Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali] Khamenei" — a phrase no one would have dared utter two months ago — on a city bus. And a prominent underground Tehran rock band, Hypernova, now living in exile, created a Web portal, the Freedom Glory Project, to gather support from other Iranian performers for the "green movement."

The postelection crisis has rallied Iran's rebellious youth as well as its street artists, albeit in furtive and risky situations. Graffitists hurriedly stencil their graphics in out-of-the-way alleys (for example, to mock the regime's insistence that foreign agents helped foment the street protests, a noted brother duo sprayed "God Save the Sk8" against a British flag). Break dancers and techno producers must be content performing in cramped basements and villas outside the capital. Nonetheless, the mere existence of these cultural jammers is a form of protest.

"We have noplace to perform live music," laments the electro producer. "Under Ahmadinejad, it is absolutely a dictatorship." He says that during Mohammad Khatami's presidency from 1997 to 2005, when Western street culture took hold in Iran and many underground artists got their start, he was able to hold public concerts that hundreds of fans attended. Now, even concerts held at private residences are likely to be interrupted by the religious police. He describes a recent rock party thrown by his friends where some 200 concertgoers were arrested in a late-night sting by the Basij; later, the government issued a news report that a "Satanic underground movement" had been infiltrated and broken up.

"I have to move somewhere with the freedom of speech to share my feelings with others," says the producer. He says that operating as an artist in Iran has become almost impossible because of the heavy-handed Internet filters that block the social-networking sites he relies on to market his music. "When I get out of the country, I will show [the government] who I am."

Most youths in the street scene are just as desperate to leave, for to become commercially successful in Iran, an artist or performer must at least have the tacit approval of the theocratic regime. One of the country's best-known rappers, Hichkas (Soroush Lashgari), started out being harshly critical of the regime, but in the past year, he has become increasingly pro-government. In one song, he scolds partygoers who stay out late and get roughed up by the religious police. "He's a total sellout," says a 26-year-old student who now listens to exiled bands like the San Francisco–based group Kiosk who can criticize the government without retribution.

As darkness falls on the skate park, the carefree mood is once again pierced by the harsh reality of a life in Tehran. An 18-year-old skateboarder who voted for the first time this summer gathers his gear. He'll be moving out of the country this fall. "I'm glad I'll be leaving this place soon," he says. "It's gotten to be unbearable."