Censorship, the Streets and the Best of 2018: An Interview with Icy & Sot
"Everything is harder for Iranians, especially if you're living in Iran." Icy & Sot emphasized this to me, hours before they set out to open their solo exhibition at MOCO Museum in Amsterdam. I marveled at how incredible it is that two brothers from Tabriz, Iran, despite the unjust intersections of life, are enjoying a major showcase in the art center of Amsterdam. I was struck by a notebook example of how street culture and street art can impact the lives of people worldwide.
Growing up in the turbulent Iran of the 1990s, the brothers got hooked on skateboarding culture and everything that comes along with it: the visuals, sounds, attitudes and worldviews from the streets, parking lots and skateparks around the world. Eventually, skateboarding found its way to their hometown. Through skate videos and games, the brothers discovered the alluring world of stickers and stencils and new ways of interacting with their surrounding environment. Quickly, street art became their main form of expression. A decade later, they began to make sculptures and installations worldwide, from all across the US to Belgium and Berlin, having solo exhibitions everywhere from LA to this most recent one in Amsterdam.
Allowing their work and interests to grow while traveling the world, Icy & Sot, now based in Brooklyn, recently started creating some of the most momentous, politically engaged works within street art, with sculptural and in-situ works grounded in the intense life experiences and the harsh reality they endured in Iran. Considering what their destiny might be, and how their lives might develop if not for all those early influences, we can measure and better appreciate the mighty impact of street culture.
Sasha Bogojev: Do you remember what triggered your interest in creating art?
Icy & Sot: It all started with skateboarding. We used to make small stencils and stickers and put them up around the city. At the time, we didn’t know very much about the street art movement or stencils, and we used the Farsi word, shablon, for stencils. It was something we saw in skateboard games and videos and we wanted to do it ourselves.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to get more serious about all of this?
We never decided it really [laughs]. One day, in New York, we kind of realized, "Oh, we really just came here to make our art". This has just become our lifestyle and career. We both decided at an early age: we're gonna find a way out of Iran. It was really hard to continue as artists there, especially in street art.
When did it grow into something bigger?
Well, through the Internet, we got to know more about it, mostly through Flickr, and eventually we started doing more stencils around town. We liked the stencils because they were a quick way to paint on the streets. We could prepare it at home and then just go out to put it up. At first, it was just fun to put pieces up around the city, but then we realized we could actually do something and say something with these stencils. We also used paste-ups sometimes. If the piece had more layers and colors, which would take longer to do on the street, we'd just paint the stencil on the paper and paste it up.
How was the response to what you were doing in Iran? Did you ever get in trouble?
Most of the works we did disappeared really quick. They would paint it over in less than a day sometimes, but that actually made us more passionate. And yeah, we did get arrested a few times but always found a way to walk through. It wasn't really easy making art in Iran. It was more stressful because we didn't know what would happen if we get arrested. Also, it depends who arrests you—the normal police or the religious ones. They would stick labels such as satanism, advocating western culture, or political activism, even for non-political works. Before we left Iran, we got arrested with a Dutch filmmaker and were in prison for 10 days, basically for nothing.
Does your work still connect you with your homeland? Do you show there or make work about the local issues?
There is a group show tonight that our friends put together, and we have a piece in it. We have some plans for some projects, but because we can't go back and do it ourselves, we have to find a way. It's the kind of work that's not gonna make sense if we make it in New York. And since we can't be there, we're thinking of something with the help of our friends.
How did the move to America happen, and was it difficult?
We planned to leave the country for a while, because working there was getting more stressful. We already had works in shows in Europe where we couldn't be present because we didn't even have passports, like a solo show in Amsterdam in 2010 that we couldn't attend. Really, everything is harder for Iranians, especially if you're living in Iran: getting visas, traveling, shipping work, everything. We couldn't even ship the works for the LA group show in 2009 because they checked everything at the post office. We had to stretch another layer over our work and paint something nice and pretty to cover the images.
Did you have to do that because your work was controversial or provocative?
Yeah, this was after the presidential election, and there were two candidates whose campaigns were represented with green and red. One of the pieces had a little girl holding the Farsi word for peace written in green. Green was the color of the Mousavi's campaign, and he was put on house arrest after the government cheated in the election. So they were sensitive about it and said we couldn't send something like that out of the country.
You were engaged in your work from quite an early stage. Was art the obvious channel for you to pass the message?
It started with us just expressing ourselves. Some of our first stencils were about child labor and that was because we would see a lot young children selling stuff in the street, washing car windows, etc. Then we made some works about censorship in Iran, so it was things that we wanted to talk about. We just wanted to communicate and make the works for ourselves. Also, we wanted to show the world what was happening in Iran because art blogs give people a chance to see. We did this piece, "beer is not a crime," because beer is not a crime, but it is a crime there. You know, just simple things like that.
What would you say are the main subjects that you're focused on these days?
We have started working on new sculptural and installation works about economic inequality, capitalism, ecological justice, borders and refugees.
That is quite a leap—from the right to drink beer to environmental issues. But you also kind of stepped away from strictly stencil art, too.
Even in our early stencil works, we always tried new ways of making works. We always like to change things. About a year ago, we decided to think outside the box and basically decided that whatever idea we have, we would make happen in whatever medium or material that makes the work stronger. We started doing performances, interventions, installations and sculptural works. So we are using lots of objects now. New mediums and materials are more fun and exciting. We learn so much and find more possibilities to share our ideas.
If you were "stencil artists" before, how would you define yourselves now, however tricky and unnecessary that might be?
I don't know how to define it. We just wanna make things, and are not even limiting ourselves to sculpture or installation. Some ideas might be stronger as, say, a performance, than a video or photograph.
I feel that your recent work is stronger and more charged, and the message is packed in a stronger, hard-to-resist package. How do you feel about these compared to the stencil works?
I guess we feel the same. In recent works, we're using specific materials to talk about specific subjects. For example, if you draw a fence on the wall, it won't be as impactful as an actual fence.
Out of those newer works, is there one that got particularly good feedback or that you're particularly proud of?
I think, in general, we got a lot of good feedback about newer works, although we are doing totally different things now. You hear about artists having this fear of changing from what people are used to, to something completely different. The New American Flag, made with the fence and steel, felt really relevant at the moment, and it still is, unfortunately.
Do you see yourselves as political artists?
Yeah, I guess we are working within art and activism, because in our career, we always wanted to share messages with our work. And we plan to continue that.
Do you have a lot of ideas that you think might be too much and end up self-censoring?
Pretty much never. We did have doubts about certain works, but we didn’t care and just made the piece. Sometimes it’s okay if an art piece is upsetting.
And how did it feel for you to witness the recent changes in American politics? I'm guessing you moved to the US with a certain idea of how life would be, and now it seems things are going the other way.
Luckily, we live in New York, and New York hasn't change that much. I don't think we could live in any other part of the country. Maybe another big city, but we really like how diverse New York is. We can feel how divided the US became after Trump got elected, but it's not like it used to be amazing and now it's bad. There were always all those problems, but now they’re more visible. It was never "the best country,” and those same things are happening everywhere in the world.
How do you make sense of it?
That's a really hard question. It just feels like the world is going backward instead of forward.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 print edition of Juxtapoz.