Mirza Hamid, the ‘Banksy of Iran’

Written by Maura Rosner

Within the city of Tehran, there is an anonymous street artist The Tehran-based Street muralist who goes by the pseudonym Mirza Hamid. To locals, he is known as the “The Banksy of Iran.” in his home country, where his work is well known. Hamid’s identity is unknown. Hamid’s captivating street paintings depict mostly monochromatic conceptual figures painted with red earth pigment, reminiscent of ancient cave paintings. The photographs of these street murals in Tehran (including some that no longer exist because they were painted over by the city) were taken by Morvarid Khalilzad, whose images are works of art themselves. I recently spoke with Hamid, in a first ever interview. He explained that he uses red earth because it is the first pigment that humans used. It can be found in ancient Persian pottery, in paintings in the Grand Canyon and on Egyptian mummies, where it symbolizes life after death. For him, it is the color of humanity. All of humanity is battling the same red-hued sense of estrangement and exile, he said.

Sometimes Hamid finds unmarked walls on busy streets, in ruins, even on government buildings. After painting, a new story begins for that wall, he said. Once, he painted three murals on one of Tehran’s water department’s walls. All three were painted over the next day, but Hamid received a direct message on Instagram that said, “This is the security guard at the water department, I just wanted to say I did everything I could but was not able to convince my colleagues not to cover your paintings, I’m sorry.” Hamid said this was a particularly meaningful moment.

In recent years, Hamid’s reputation has spread beyond Iran. He was included in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Epic Iran exhibition of 2021 and the museum also purchased a 9-foot canvas from Hamid, which became a part of its permanent collection. He also exhibited at NADA Foreland in Catskill, NY with the New Gallery, and The New Gallery in collaboration with Basilica Hudson. Mirza also has an upcoming debut exhibition this fall in New York City. Global recognition has earned Hamid legitimacy typically not afforded to street artists working subversively. Asked how that affects his artistic goals and if he is seeking mainstream success, Hamid drew a mysterious metaphor.

“In the same way that the past is outside of me, the future is also outside myself,” he said. “Imagine an ant that gets on your shirt in the country and, without either of you realizing it, gets in the car with you and rides to the city. How does that ant feel? Endeavoring to decide the future is as useless for us as it is for the ant. Now, if that ant were to be a painter who loves their work, that ant must fend off anything that is outside of him and continue his painting in the city in his new situation.”

“In the same way that the past is outside of me, the future is also outside myself,”

Hamid welcomed the “protection” that paintings in galleries have compared to the “defenselessness” of a street painting, whose “only shield is its own beauty. But is this beauty always enough protection? For sure not.”

He mentioned murals in Tehran that were painted over by the city. After two years of being rained on, the new paint washed off and the red earth came out “shining through, as fresh as the first day. All these happenings are beautiful to me, and I welcome them.”

“Hamid welcomed the ‘protection’ that paintings in galleries have compared to the ‘defenselessness’ of a street painting, whose ‘only shield is its own beauty. But is this beauty always enough protection? For sure not.’”

Hamid said he is inspired by Darvish Khan Esfandiyarpour, the creator of an otherworldly StoneGarden just east of the city of Sirjan. Over a period of decades starting in 1961, Esfandiyarpour would uproot dead trees, plant them in his own garden, carry large stones long distances without any machinery and attach them to the dead trees as fruit. It was a silent protest against land reform  plans imposed by the Iranian government.

But what appeals to Hamid is that most of Esfandiyarpour’s work remains a mystery. “His work, because of being unknown, produces astonishment,” Hamid said. “The sense of astonishment is rare in our time. Applied sciences recognize and explain things to us in one sentence. That understanding makes us lose our wonder. But in an encounter with the Stone Garden, no one can claim they understand it.”

Mizra Hamid is Represented by The New Gallery