Fine art replaces advertising on Tehran’s billboards

Capital city’s mayor has turned the entire metropolis into an art gallery overnight

The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, is well known in Iran as a former Revolutionary Guards commander, a retired pilot and the loser of two presidential elections.

This week he added one more title – patron of the arts – as he directed all of the city’s 1,500 billboards to be fitted out with copies of famous works of art, including many by prominent western artists.

Almost overnight nearly all of Tehran's billboards, which are owned by the city and are a prime source of income, stopped showcasing South Korean dishwashers and the latest bank interest rates (now 22 per cent) and sported still lifes by Rembrandt and images by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Residents of Tehran, who spend hours a day on congested roads, often protecting their mouths from the continuous blanket of smog, rubbed their eyes at the sight of works by such artists as Rothko (Nos 3, 10 and 13) and Munch (The Scream, of course), along with pieces by prominent Iranian artists.


“My usual morning route has become a big adventure for me,” said Hamid Hamraz (58) as he navigated his yellow Peugeot taxi through traffic on the Hemmat highway. “Now, in my taxi we discuss paintings and artworks.”

Such discussions are exactly what the project aims for, said Mojtaba Mousavi, an adviser to the Organisation of Beautification of Tehran, a municipal group in charge of decorating walls, parks and other public spaces, including billboards. "Our people are too busy to go to museums and galleries," he said. "So we decided to turn the entire city into a huge gallery."

Wise guidance

The mayor jumped at the idea, said Reza Bagheri, another city official. “All of this was done under his wise guidance,” he said. “Mr Ghalibaf loves art, especially in recent years he has developed a deep love for artistic works. Managing a big city like Tehran goes beyond providing services. Culture and art should be a part of this too.”

He added: “I am not saying this because I work here.” Perhaps not, but analysts here were quick to detect an ulterior motive in the mayor’s sudden devotion to fine art. As in the United States, political factions are already preparing for the 2016 presidential elections. And Ghalibaf, despite the two defeats, is known as a canny and ambitious politician.

With a deal on Iran’s disputed nuclear program possible this summer, and with it a possible warming of relations with the US, the mayor might be trying to position himself as the right man for the times, analysts say.

“Presenting art to the middle classes of Tehran is clearly an attempt to win their favour,” said Hamid Taheri (65), a historian and art collector. “I don’t mind though. It’s amazing to see art across the city. It’s unique.”

Of the works, chosen by a special committee of the beautification organisation, more than 30 per cent are foreign, including works by John Singer Sargent and photographer Lee Friedlander.

Among Iranian artists, only works of the deceased were considered, as “some of the more modern work could lead to objections that we wanted to avoid”, Mousavi said.

On display are old Iranian carpets, paintings inspired from the famous Book of Kings, and works by Bahman Mohassess, who is known as the "Persian Picasso".

“I love this idea,” said Manijeh Akbari, a 60-year-old who lives in the western neighbourhood of Saadat Abad, “but the city shouldn’t forget the sidewalks need to be cleaned as well.”


For years after the 1979 revolution, even advertisements were frowned upon by Iran’s clerical leaders, who instead favoured placards.

A famous one during the Iran-Iraq war read, “The blood in our veins is a gift to our dear leader.” Walls often were decorated with murals portraying the martyrs of the war, in which 400,000 young Iranian men were killed.

Although billboard art has largely moved on to commercial themes, the new offerings have been widely and enthusiastically welcomed.

“It is fantastic to see a Rembrandt hanging above the Modares Expressway,” said Mahtab Ahmadi (24), a chemistry graduate. “It’s great to see art, Iranian and foreign; it is a really cool decision by the city.”

Some said they had never gone to a museum, but welcomed the art. “Of course it is better to see art instead of ads,” said Majed Hobi, a 19-year-old physics student. “This really inspires me to for the first time in my life to go to a museum, instead of again going out and smoke water pipe.”

New York Times