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#NotACrime: The Power and Politics of Street Art

Street art is political. At its very core, the idea of painting art in public places with or without the permission of owners and governments, has placed the artform in political territory, often before the spray paint hits the wall. And while street art is increasingly part of regular, lawful modes of artistic expression, it hasn’t lost its political edge, and it’s something that people in New York City are using to discuss very real political issues facing our world, and specifically the country of Iran.

Iran, as many people know, has very strict laws when it comes to expression, whether it’s religious, political, or otherwise, and frequent quelling of expression happens all over the country every day. It’s a huge issue that impacts millions of people, not just in the streets of Tehran, but family, friends, and fellow countrymen around the world. And some street artists have used their chosen artform to raise awareness.

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The #NotACrime movement began in New York city and focuses on two major issues facing modern day Iran: the persecution of Iran’s largest religious minority, the Baha’is, and the suppression of journalistic freedom. According #NotACrime’s website, “Iran’s government has persecuted them since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Businesses are torched, people are fired from their jobs, thousands are harassed and jailed, and hundreds have been killed.” Baha’is aren’t allowed to teach or study at Iranian universities, and many have been forced to study in secret at great personal risk.

The second major problem is journalism and is the origin of the movement’s name and hashtag. The project started as a way to raise funds to help those who have been imprisoned, harassed, and censored, to provide these brave people with legal and psychological counselling that can help them overcome their many difficulties.

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But they didn’t stop with fundraising and are now taking to the streets, quite literally, to spread the word of the problems many of Iran’s citizens face. The awareness has taken the form of a series of murals in New York City, and has attracted the attention of celebrities and Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mark Ruffalo, Nazanin Boniadi, and Justin Baldoni.

The murals themselves have generated a lot of attention for both the movement and the issues they are speaking about, and the group has decided to democratize the movement. Their website features a handbook, which covers everything from doing street art legally to mixtures you can make for paste to tips on stencilling. In their own words, “#NotACrime hopes that a mix of old-school street art and social media pushes this cause into the public imagination.”

#NotACrime not only highlights an important issue facing a substantial number of people in the world today, it also demonstrates that public art can fight, raise awareness, and do good. It shows that artists who take to the streets are capable of making bold and important political statements. It’s something that’s part of the artform’s history, and something that must never be lost.