Vandalized Mural of Cartoonist Atena Farghadani Ignites Debate

The vandalization of a mural depicting jailed Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani in Brooklyn, New York, has left free speech advocates confused over the misinterpretation of the message being depicted.

The mural, by South African artist Faith47, was put up in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn as part of the larger #PaintTheChange Not a Crime campaign, the goal of which is to raise awareness about free speech injustices through art and technology. One of many planned murals, Faith47’s mural depicts a close-up of Farghadani’s face, minus her mouth, was designed to not only show solidarity with the CRNI Courage award-winning political cartoonist, who is currently serving a nearly 13-year sentence for her work satirizing Iranian politicians, but to also send a message to visiting Iranian president Hassan Rouhani that violations of free speech will not be tolerated silently.

The mural was defaced on two occasions by individuals with paint guns. Although officials do not know who is responsible for the defacement, a heated debate has grown out of the defacement between residents, some staunchly defending Faith47’s art and some equating the image to terrorism and upset that it is sending the wrong message. “After 9/11, people don’t want to see that,” said a local man. “People around here are saying, ‘After what they did to us, let’s worry about our own instead of somebody’s right to put up art.’”

The Not a Crime campaign was organized by Mazaiar Bahari, an Iran-born reporter and human rights activist who has also served jail time in Iran and was the subject of John Stewart’s film Rosewater. The campaign is meant to incite conversation about human rights violations in Iran and around the world. Whoever defaced the mural was sending a message of their own that this “was not a conversation they wanted to have” notes Bahari.

For whatever the reason the acts of vandalism were committed, though, there is a level of irony. For some people it was simply “the face of a Muslim woman being drawn on a wall,” said Bahari to The Washington Post. “We tried to explain that this idea was not to celebrate oppression, but that this Muslim woman is a symbol [against] many of the things you are against. We are on the same side. But many people wanted not to think about — they just wanted to be angry.”

Because the mural continues to be misinterpreted and vandalized and because the owner of the building has concerns over the safety of tenants, plans are currently being made to have it removed by October 15. The owner granted permission for the mural to be painted, but she’s faced opposition since its inception. Bahari has respected the wishes of the building owner, noting “She is under a lot of pressure.”

For her part, mural artist Faith 47 has noted the negative impact the defacement could have on the Muslim community. “If an Islamic person who lives in the neighborhood walks past that wall and sees the image splattered by a red paint gun, essentially it’s a message of war, death, intolerance,” Faith47 said. “I hate for my work to have any part in that.” Regardless, the artist doesn’t see this as a total defeat. “The mural was like a short fierce flame that ignited something,” she says. “We’re seeing the correlation of the aggressive censorship of a totalitarian state like Iran and the hateful censorship of an individual… This is not a problem faced only in Iran. This is a deep human psychological crisis.”

“Many people have expressed solidarity with us and sent us nice emails,” Bahari tells The Washington Post. “[The vandals] are the minority who have done this. Like many situations, it is the loud minority that tries to overwhelm the majority.” As one resident of the neighborhood, Karen Poliski, commented, those who defaced and are critics of the mural “offend the public peace with acts of vandalism, are bullies, and should not be given the right to dictate what we see or do not see.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!