Come down on a weekday, and the industrial area of the south Tel Aviv
neighborhood of Florentin is bustling. People teem in and out of auto repair
garages and carpentry shops.
But on Friday evening, as Shabbat
approaches, these back alleys and side streets are deserted. Except for two
They look the part of typical Florentiners – old cut-off
jeans, T-shirts, sneakers. But one wears a face mask to protect himself from
spray-paint fumes. The other wears a cap and a bit of five o’clock shadow.
Bottles of paints and spray cans are organized on the ground around them as they
create, working on their graffiti/street art masterpiece on the outside wall of
a rundown building.
A police cruiser drives slowly by, stopping several
“I hope they keep going,” one of the young men says. His
friend nods in agreement. They both wait. The officers watch, and talk amongst
“Keep going, keep going,” says the second young man,
repeating it almost like a mantra. He gets his wish, for a moment later the
cruiser moves on. The men, who go by the street names of Dede and Wonky,
They are two of Tel Aviv’s growing number of graffiti
and street artists, at times seen as a scourge, but then ironically, embraced –
even if indirectly – by the Tel Aviv Municipality.
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For 30-something Dede,
who works in a design-related field by day and is a graduate of one of Israel’s
prestigious art academies, it all began at the age of 13 with a can of spray
paint rolling in the street.
“It seemed logical to pick it up and paint
something on the schoolyard wall – because it was close by, and because it was
what people did,” he recalls.
Unlike the notebooks in which he sketched,
Dede found that he liked walls for the space they afforded, and for the ‘freedom
of hand’ – as he puts it – “a page that doesn’t end.” Dede’s parents are his
loyal fans, regularly inquiring about the location of his newest works so they
can come by and see them.
Wonky, in his early 30s, also makes his living
through an art-based profession. He says he has been drawing for as long as he
“When I was a kid, my mom sent me to art clubs, and at
home, my parents were always drawing with me.”
As with Dede, Wonky’s
parents know about his extracurricular activities, and support what he
“They believe in me,” Wonky explains. “They trust my decisions are
thought out, even if sometimes they are a little different, or [even] against
The municipality is less understanding, pointing out that all
artistic activity done in public areas without proper permission is
“Drawing graffiti on the walls of both public and private
buildings is a criminal offense,” a representative of the spokesman says.
According to the municipality, the enforcement of anti-graffiti laws falls under
the jurisdiction of the police. However, the spokesman points out that the city
does sanction graffiti in certain locations – including the Galit Park
skateboard area in Yad Eliahu, the Strauss Garden, and the wall at the city
But most of the graffiti and street artists working
in Tel Aviv are the first to admit that illegal as it may be, they would rather be doing
unsanctioned pieces on whatever wall or building strikes their fancy – partly
because of the thrill, and partly because of the creative freedom.
these is 21-year-old Haha, a tall, thin blonde with an introspective demeanor
and dreams of working in fashion as an art director, or something else with
It’s nearly midnight on another deserted side street in
south Tel Aviv. Haha is doing a quick paste-up in which she uses transparent
glue to stick a large, prepared drawing to a wall. She then hops on her bike and
rides off, while her boyfriend films the process from the opposite
“Pasting is so quick,” she explains. “I can do it at, like, 10
or 11 p.m.” The hour is important because the earlier it is, the more chance of
But this chance of being caught is not necessarily a bad
“Two years ago, when I was 19, it was my first time,” Haha
remembers. “I was anxious, but it was such an adrenaline rush. I went with a
friend and we waited till like 3 or 4 a.m. because we didn’t want to be
The question many people ask is: What makes graffiti/street art
the real thing? Is it still graffiti/street art when officially sanctioned; done
without the fear of being caught; and without the risk of having the work
painted over by the municipality?
These are questions Tal Lanir has
“What happens to street artists when they come into a museum
with great big white walls?” she asks. “Works on the street are usually
done in an unauthorized place, and without permission – they are site-specific.
So the minute the art goes into a museum, is it still street art?”
On August 26,
the public will have the chance to consider this when the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
opens its new exhibition, “An Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv.” The show will
feature some of Israel’s most popular graffiti/street artists including Klone,
Know Hope, Foma, Zero Cents, Broken Fingaz and others. Lanir is curator of the
In early July, some of the artists scheduled to participate in
the museum exhibition took part in an art sale in an old Florentin
loft. Showcasing a broader range of works than those that might typically
be seen on the street, all proceeds went to the artists
Promoted on Facebook, the Florentin art sale drew a steady,
young and trendy crowd, who drifted in and out of the open front door, through
the graffiti-covered stairwell. They chilled to the tunes of a DJ and
ordered drinks at a bar.
There were piercings, tattoos and shaved
heads. The walls were hung with colorful prints, sketches, graffiti.
T-shirts, books and stickers were for sale. Visitors took photos of the
art with their cell phones.
“I think the people you saw there, they
respect the art,” Lanir says. “They know that an artist needs to make a living,
so they come and they buy their work.”
As in other sub-culture movements,
the term “anarchist” is one you hear used in conversations concerning
graffiti/street art culture – especially by observers on the outside who attempt
to define it. And while sometimes it may seem that the motivation of those who
do illegal artwork on the street is much more basic – the thrill, the love of
creating – there is also, at times, a clear “fight the system” mentality. “F- --
you all, I'm not part of the twisted game,” one of the animations on the wall
“Some of them start out as anarchists and then they come inside
the system,” Lanir explains. “Some of them are real anarchists. They live it,
it's what they do. Some of them are kids who come from good families and want to
explore something illegal.”
Regardless of how they make it inside the
system – whether via museum exhibition or allowing their work to be used for
commercial purposes (think clothing chain Castro’s graffiti “street project”) –
most of the artists admit they would sell their art if they kept creative
control and believed in what they were promoting.
Says one member of
Broken Fingaz, a Haifa-based crew of street artists, “We sometimes do album
covers and posters.” It is not selling out, he explains, because he and
his partners are given full artistic control.
“These are people who come
to us because of what we do, and they say, ‘Be creative.’ We never think about
what people think – if we did, we would get stuck somewhere. What we do is try
to stay loyal to what we believe.”
As for the artwork itself, many note a
general division between graffiti and street art. In this mindset, graffiti is
usually defined more traditionally: as lettering, i.e., words or letters;
tagging, which is a name or symbol left as an artist’s mark; and general
characters or animations.
Street art in this case, are the kinds of works
you might expect to see on canvas, or in a museum. As Wonky points out, “There
are people who started on the streets because it was hard to get into
“There is a hierarchy on the street,” Lanir explains, “and
many of the street artists began with tagging.” Even Know Hope,
considered one of Israel’s most talented street artists, got his start in
tagging. “Then he added a lamp, then a tree….”
But whether great works of
art or traditional graffiti, the majority of property owners and passersby see a
very simple line between art and vandalism – and as Lanir noted, the graffiti is
“If I saw it on a nice, renovated building, it would
bother me,” says Tam Gryn, a 25-year-old financial journalist who attended the
Florentin art sale. “But if I saw it on an old Tel Aviv building, it would be
Sixty-year-old Moshe Yehezkel agrees, “The building is rundown,
and this makes it nicer,” he says, pointing to a giant blue face painted on the
outside of his south Tel Aviv carpentry shop.
This is something the
artists are aware of. Says Dede, “I try to choose walls that are uglier, that
need to be upgraded. I look for corners where I won’t bother people who don’t
want it. That is part of knowing the difference between doing vandalism and
Haha agrees, saying she believes good graffiti/street art can
add a lot to the city.
“It stimulates you visually. Street art makes you
remember the street, it makes you pay attention. For a second you stop thinking
about anything, and you say, ‘What a great piece.’ It makes walking through the
city more fascinating.”“Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv” opens on
August 26 at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For
more information, call (03) 607- 7020 or visit:
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