Certainly the central market place of any great city is colorful, ringing with a cacophony of sounds and sights that attract shoppers and tourists. But it’s often a different story on the backstreets, dingy and gray with urban grunge.

The bustling Mahane Yehuda Market, or shuk, is a well-known Jerusalem landmark. People travel from far and wide to buy vegetables, meat and fish, spices and treats. More recently, chic cafes and boutiques have sprung up. And now there’s a project called Tabula Rasa to transform the rundown surrounding streets with urban artwork.

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“We chose these streets because they are less colorful and they don’t have all of the vegetables and fruits, so it is less colorful and more grayish and neglected. We wanted to color it up and put some life in it,” Itamar Paloge, 28, artist and curator of the project, told The Media Line. 

“We have local artists from Jerusalem and street artists and we have the shop keepers and businessmen from the market cooperating with us,” Paloge adds as a few merchants line up to add their artistic talent to a massive graffiti-motif mural.

“I’m the Picasso of hummus. They asked me to paint and why not? If we can do pretty things to this market then I always participate,” says Elran Shefler of one of the local hummus restaurants. 

“A month ago this area was a real mess. But they’ve managed to make a lot prettier and with recycled material. They took some tin and put in a little earth [to make urns], put a plant here, a painting there. They did a real nice job,” Shefler tells The Media Line before he lays down his can of spray paint and rushes back to his work.

In Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda has become a sort cultural palette for a plethora of philanthropic organizations with projects to bring culture and style to a place better known for its working class grit. This past summer, Jerusalem Season of Culture – an American-funded organization aimed at bringing culture to the masses – used it as a venue for street theater.  High-end culinary chefs have set up haute cuisine kitchens on the rooftops over the alleyways and galleries have nestled in between the food stalls. 

This latest urban art endeavor, however, is sponsored by the municipality and even the mayor, Nir Barkat, showed up to do his part. He said he saw no symbolism in the fact that he was given a stencil of a … rat to paint.

“It means that I do what they tell me. I listen to the artists and do what they say. I think we should welcome projects like this where artists are accepted by the community,” Barkat told The Media Line. 

Garbage bins, exposed walls and concrete squares all serve as pallets for the street art. After his artistic contribution to a mural, Barkat strolls about the back streets to examine some of the creations.

“When we have a joint venture between artists and the commerce here in the neighborhood it creates a very, very nice atmosphere. It makes the place much more clean and much more wonderful and pretty. This is how it creates more people who come here and enjoy Mahane Yehuda. And this is exactly what we wanted. We wanted the place to come alive and it’s coming alive,” Barkat says.

Paloge says the inspiration came from the merchants themselves.

“They saw us working and were, like, ‘We want to give a hand and we want to paint our own streets.’ So we took the offer and we brought them together and we did a workshop in which we taught them how to do stencils and how to spray and then they are going to go down and spray the streets,” Paloge says.

Still, in the middle of the work day it takes some heavy coaxing to get the merchants to leave their stalls for a few minutes of creativity.

 “I think anyone can be an artist or just to be able to color up the streets and put some life into it,” Paloge says. “Even a vegetable salesman.” 

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