Visitors to Israel do not usually include Tel Aviv’s Kfar Shalem neighborhood in their tour plans. A crowded and low-income residential quarter out on the city’s southeastern edge, Kfar Shalem feels very distant from the westernized, cosmopolitan heart of Tel Aviv just a few kilometers to the west.
Yet on one quiet and ordinary Friday in April, as chickens strut in the street and locals drink black coffee and ruminate over games of backgammon, something extraordinary is happening in the heart of this half-forgotten Tel Aviv backwater.
A tour group from New York has arrived for a visit.
These are no ordinary tourists, and theirs is no ordinary tour. They are not affiliated to any Jewish organization. Most of them, in fact, are not Jewish. They arrive not in a smart tour bus but in a modest minivan, which they park in the playground at Tel Chai middle school. When they emerge from its paint-splattered interior, for a moment they seem like visitors from another world.
Which, in a way, they are: These are street artists, many of them veterans of New York’s urban art and graffiti scene. As members of Artists 4 Israel, an advocacy group from the US, they share a passionate belief in Israel, a country many of them are seeing for the first time.
They have come to Kfar Shalem to cover the local middle school in colorful murals.
“I want to bathe this place in a sea of colors,” comes the rallying shout of Craig Dershowitz, Artists 4 Israel president. “Spread the paint!”
Dershowitz, a small human tornado, is mostly responsible for this whirlwind painting tour of Israel. Called “Murality” – a portmanteau of “mural” and “morality” – the tour has beautified public buildings across Israel, from Sderot bomb shelters, a Chabad House and an army base, to a refuge for battered women in Jerusalem. Dershowitz and his artists have created something of a sensation wherever they have gone. They are about to do the same at the Tel Chai middle school in Kfar Shalem.
What, though, motivated this Kfar Shalem school to invite a wild band of graffiti and street artists to paint on its walls? After all, graffiti is usually the last thing that schools want to see, and schoolteachers are hardly renowned for encouraging children to pick up paint cans and start spraying.
“It’s about creativity and expression,” says Irit Roll, head of the school’s arts program. Tel Chai is passionate about the arts, and offers painting, drawing, sculpture, cinema, and music.
“When I found out about Murality, I thought what a wonderful project it would make for our kids,” she explains. “We decided to invite the artists and make an art carnival.”
In preparation, Tel Chai’s children were taught about street art and graffiti and their context within the wider spectrum of contemporary art. “We taught them how graffiti artists can express political or social messages,” Roll adds.
Dershowitz agrees that graffiti can be inspirational. “The artists are hoping that teaching Israeli kids graffiti will help them not just leave their mark on local walls, but write a better future,” he says.
The kids, aged between 10 and 12, are jumping with excitement. The artists too are raring to go. Despite averaging only three or four hours’ sleep a night for the past week, these artists, all successful professionals, are thrilled to be here. They show the children how to sketch ideas for their murals.
“Draw your ideas, draw stuff from your lives, draw what’s important to you,” shouts out artist CJ Reilly, and the message is passed around and around the room, repeated like a mantra. Images of peace, smiling people, children playing, families, all start to emerge.
Outside in the playground, a DJ blasts out hip-hop, and mountains of food and soft drinks appear as if from nowhere. The carnival is under way.
Amid the waves of color and noise sits a group of parents, soaking up the atmosphere.
“This is great,” says Michal, who says she encourages her daughter to paint. “Art is a way for these kids to express themselves.”
One small boy, clad in baseball cap and baggy hip-hop gear, shyly asks Dershowitz for an opinion about his painting. Dershowitz asks him to explain his work. “Well, it’s got several meanings,” the boy replies. “But basically, it’s about my life.”
These children are being taught to use art as a means to personal expression, but Artists 4 Israel use it to spread their support for Israel.
“We use art as advocacy to educate artists about Israel,” explains Tara Lyn Gordon, one of the organization’s founders. “We take these artists and turn them into cultural ambassadors for Israel.”
Like Gordon, Artists 4 Israel president Dershowitz channels his charisma, energy and firm belief in Israel to educate non-Jewish artists about the Jewish state.
“We’re young, we don’t have financial resources,” admits Dershowitz. “We don’t have a lot of credibility in the media. But what we do have is a sense of justice: the idea, almost a spiritual belief, in Israel’s right to exist.”
Today, though, Artists 4 Israel are here for the children of Kfar Shalem. When the first paint is sprayed on the walls, a sense of awe ripples through the crowd of children. The artists wield their spray cans like delicate fine-tipped brushes and, as if by magic, a fairytale fresco emerges from the grubby wall, a mishmash of words, birds, beasts, raw color, shapes.
The children are keen to help, and an artist hoists one small girl onto a wall so she can paint a message of peace. “Yalla, Jessica!” yell her classmates, as she sprays from a can of purple paint.
More and more neighborhood families arrive, drawn to the music, the laughter and the shouting. Suddenly, the playground is filled with a rush of children, who use bright chalks to transform the concrete floor into a giant abstract canvas bursting with all the colors of the rainbow.
On one wall, artist Sarah Brega is quietly painting stencils, helped by an eager group of preteen girls. Brega, a fashion designer turned stencil artist, is also one of Artists 4 Israel’s founder members. There is definitely support out there for Israel in the artist community, she says.
“When we made those first ‘Artists for Israel’ stencils during Operation Cast Lead,” she says, “lots of people approached us, saying, I’m an artist! and I’m for Israel! and I believe Israel has a right to defend itself!”
Like most of her colleagues, Brega is not Jewish, and this is her first time in Israel. She says the trip has touched her life. “I’m here because I want to show my support,” she says.
As well as painting the walls, several artists take the time to instruct children in drawing and painting. CJ Reilly sketches pencil portraits while Cycle, a veteran of the New York street art scene – “He’s one of those guys who used to graffiti New York subway cars,” explains Dershowitz – just sits quietly, drawing with a spellbound group of 10-year-olds.
“It’s like therapy for all of them,” says the school’s Irit Roll.
How has this unusual project met up to expectations?
When I catch up with Roll at Tel Chai school a couple of days later, she tells me that the Murality event has had a very positive effect on the children, and even on the wider neighborhood.
“The reaction was just incredible,” laughs Roll. “It was like, suddenly the whole neighborhood came out, whole families came to look at the murals and take photographs.”
This is a poor neighborhood, and life is tough for many Kfar Shalem families.
“A lot of people here don’t get to experience culture, they don’t go to
the opera or to art galleries or concerts,” says Roll. “They just cope
day to day. So when professional artists from abroad come to visit,
come to create art with them, it’s very powerful.”
Although the artists have returned to New York and life in Kfar Shalem
has returned to normal, the colorful murals remain to be enjoyed by
anyone who cares to look.
“You don’t have to be rich to look at them,” points out a parent. “This is art for everyone.”
Perhaps this has been Artists 4 Israel’s greatest gift.