Suddenly surrounded by the rumble of wheels on pavement, onlookers turn to observe a raucous horde of 30 skateboarders. They hurtle down steep roads at breakneck speeds. Sporting American-brand clothing, GoPro cameras, and skull-covered skateboards, it seems like a scene out of Southern California. It is, in fact, a scene out of Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Unlike American citizens, it’s pretty easy for French people to visit Iran. After applying for a visa at the Iranian embassy in Paris, I simply took a flight from the French capital to Tehran in September 2015 in order to meet and photograph the Islamic Republic’s skateboarders. In contrast to their government, many young Iranians have adopted a Western-friendly lifestyle. I accompanied the skaters I met through eight towns and completely immersed myself in their daily lives.
According to several enthusiasts I met on my trip, there are about 2,000 skaters in the country—mostly students between the ages of 15 and 25. Given the difficulties associated with importing American products and Iran’s inflation, skateboarding is not accessible to all.
“It’s a costly hobby here. At the moment, it is a sport confined to middle and upper classes,” said Alireza Ansari, owner of TSIXSTY, the country’s first skate shop.
While Tehran builds skate parks, other towns remain reluctant due to the sport’s perceived Western stigma. That said, it’s becoming more and more popular in Iran, and is even one of the few sports where genders intermingle. Wearing backward caps atop discrete-but-compulsory veils, girls skate with boys.
While the country’s leaders grapple with the West, these young Iranians are living their lives, weaving between French Peugeot cars and Paykan from the time of the Shah. In Tehran, the road belongs to them.
The first skate shop in Iran opened six years ago. Located in a shopping center in Tehran, the most popular American brands are sold there. The economic and financial sanctions leveraged on Iran force Alireza, the owner, to import these products via Dubai. The portraits of the Supreme Leaders hang on the walls of every shop. Though not mandatory, Alireza displays them to avoid offending certain clients.
A group of skateboarders from Tehran hit the road to meet other skateboard enthusiasts in the country. Ispahan, around 211 miles south of Tehran, is their first stop. In front of a mosque in the Iman Khomenei square, Erfan is towed by a carriage usually meant for tourists.
Persian rugs are traditionally used for sitting to eat, drink tea, or rest. While waiting for friends from Isfahan to join them, the skateboarders from Tehran improvise a game on a board without wheels.
The Grand Bazaar in Tehran is usually filled with people, but Friday is the weekly day of rest in Iran. Amid ghostly decor skateboarders lose themselves in the many narrow alleys of the labyrinthine market.
In Southern Tehran, Ashkan kickflips in front of a mural depicting the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
In Kerman, located in southeastern Iran, girls take ownership of skateboarding, too. Wearing mandatory veils and long sleeves, here are three that train regularly with boys.
The group from Tehran continues their journey across the country. Near Yazd, they diverge a bit to skateboard on roads through the Iranian mountains.
Erfan teaches skateboarding year-round to young beginners. Throughout Erfan’s journey across the country, enthusiastic children confronted him about the seemingly foreign object rolling beneath his feet. For many of them, it was their first time seeing a skateboard.
In recent years, groups of skateboarders have appeared in all of Iran’s major cities. Iranian cities, where modern and traditional architecture intermingle, are their playgrounds. Unlike Tehran, there is no skatepark in Isfahan. Young skaters must settle for the street.
Âbo atash (water and fire) is the largest skatepark in the Middle East. Built in Tehran by a German company three years ago, many young people come to skateboard, roller skate or bike. Electro music plays over loudspeakers. Observers often sit in bleachers to admire the skateboarders’ tricks while drinking Islam-friendly, alcohol-free beer.
Tehran, the most progressive city in Iran, is home to the country’s largest community of skateboarders. Documenting themselves with GoPro cameras, the above crew of skateboarders rides through the city, past the wide-eyed gazes of passersby. The footage will be posted on Instagram. Unlike Facebook, Instagram is not blocked by the Iranian government.
Thank you to Mathias Zwick for sharing his story with us