Dorit Shitrit needed a little convincing that graffiti, which many people regard as vandalism, could be used as a learning tool for children’s artistic expression and community-building.
As executive director of Jerusalem’s Greater Baka Community Center for the last six years, Shitrit was looking for a new activity to help build bridges in an area where the communities are at opposite ends of the social spectrum. The Shikunei Talpiot neighborhood faces the problem of integration and cooperation between its two demographics: a disadvantaged community with a large immigrant Ethiopian population and the upper middle-class neighborhood of Arnona. In the middle of it all are three buildings – the Zalman Aranne elementary school, the Payis after-school program building and the Greater Baka Community Center. The latter has been working hard over the past 10 years to turn a dangerous area with elevated crime, drug use and violence into a hub of cooperation and integration.
Shitrit was working on organizing the Artists Festival of Talpiot – an event for children to improve the status of the neighborhood that included art, dance, crafts and cooking – when she was approached about adding an element of graffiti by Avi Poch, Jewish Renewal coordinator for Ohr Torah Stone, an institution working to raise awareness and promote Jewish values and Judaism.
Poch was in contact with Artists4Israel, an NGO that brings over some of the world’s most high-profile street artists to channel international attention to the everchanging reality in Israel. One of the organization’s standout trips was a 2010 visit to Sderot to paint artwork on bomb shelters at a time when rocket attacks were less frequent but the suffering of the people remained.
Sderot spokesman Shalom Halevi said of the artists, “It feels good to see that people in faraway countries are still thinking about us.”
On this trip, the Artists4Israel’s mission was to draw attention to border areas affected by Syria’s two-anda- half year civil war. When Poch heard that the group was coming back to Israel and, having worked with A4I founder Craig Dershowitz in a similar project at a different community center, he wanted to bring the artists to Jerusalem.
“I was not familiar with this [graffiti] and was a little taken aback,” Shitrit told The Jerusalem Post at the festival in November. After being shown a film about the group’s work, Shitrit was easily convinced.
“I saw the passion they had for their work, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s be spontaneous.’ This is the first experience [for us] in the neighborhood; and if it’s good, we will ask them to come again,” says Shitrit.
“Art opens people’s eyes in ways that they don’t think about usually,” says Poch. “So when a child comes in and sees an abstract graffiti artist painting, at what looks at first glance like just a bunch of nothing, but finally he can understand how the letters go into each other and work together, that can expand horizons.”
With Shitrit on board, Poch then had to convince the principal of the Zalman Aranne school, Mor Keren, to allow 15 artists free rein over the outside walls of the building.
“It’s hard for me as a principal to accept graffiti as art,” Keren says. “But it’s not just the product but the whole process. I think that every chance to add a little bit of color and to have the children working and creating something together is good and affects the environment. The most important thing for me is for the whole community to work together.”
The artists, who have come from the US, the UK, the Czech Republic and Israel, have all donated their time, with the only condition being to not plan beforehand exactly what they would paint. When the artists arrived, they spread out along the outer walls of the school, tagging their names in signature style with 300 cans of spray paint at their disposal, brought in that day from Tel Aviv.
“I think the shark was a little violent,” Keren says, referring to a piece by New York-based artist Norm. “But I heard that the children loved it.”
Poch also had one condition: When the artists worked with the kids to teach them about graffiti, there would be a Jewish educational aspect to it.
“We agreed with the school that we would do the Twelve Tribes, which is Jewish educational content...
something the school can use for years afterwards to teach about Jewish history and bring everybody together,” he says. “The symbols of the Twelve Tribes show that all of Am Yisrael is really everyone together, integrated.”
As the artists arrived, including some of the most recognized names in the graffiti world with histories as colorful and multifaceted as their tattoos, the children approached them with no reservations, taking cans of spray paint and asking if they listened to popular tween musicians like Miley Cyrus and One Direction.
To understand the juxtaposition, take, for instance, UK graffiti artist Aroe. An easy 1.8 meters tall, 115 kilos, with tattoos from his calves up to his neck and a goldcapped tooth, the sight of him could be a bit shocking.
But the gaggle of 11-year-old girls who excitedly crowded around him wanted to practice their English and speak with the foreigner.
The artists had come to make an impression on the kids, but an unexpected result was the effect the kids had on the artists. Aroe, referring to the painting of an armory at a kibbutz on the Golan Heights, was shocked at the atmosphere of normalcy one kilometer from the Syrian border, where the sounds of bombs and gunfire are unmistakable.
“Painting something beautiful on a building that houses destruction and death, and the kids were playing around it like it was nothing,” Aroe says. “I come from a country where even the police don’t carry guns.”
Dershowitz, who started the organization, wanting to take his passion for graffiti and apply it to advocacy for Israel, says, “It was exhilarating to see how the parents and the children bonded over our art. We keep saying it is a universal language, but it is also a multigenerational dialogue. Jerusalem is a home of many layers of family and meaning, and Artists4Israel was glad to experience that family pride and to strengthen it.” •
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