Visionary Vandals

The painted politics of Tel Aviv.

Graffiti art (photo credit: Mara Friedman)
Graffiti art
(photo credit: Mara Friedman)
The walls of Tel Aviv are talking. All around the city there are catchy phrases, elaborate murals, stenciled scenes, and three-dimensional objects glued to buildings. Sometimes the conversation is between the artists and the people of the city, calling for us to be vegan, to be aware of the plight of foreign workers, to protest the high prices of housing. Sometimes the conversation is strictly between artists, tags that seem to be vandalism without a shred of art that are really embedded with layers of communication. From poetry to painted band-aids, the streets of Tel Aviv are covered. Once you open your eyes to it, you begin to feel the pulse of the city.
The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word for “scratches.”
As long ago as Roman times, people made their marks to say “I was here.” Even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has crusader crosses carved into the walls. The artistry and culture of graffiti in Israel has only grown since those early days.
In a country where politics are on everybody’s mind, they are also on every city’s walls, particularly in Tel Aviv. Political graffiti skyrocketed during the social protests last summer, when thousands of Israelis took to the streets and lived in tents on the main boulevards of Tel Aviv and other major cities to protest the high cost of housing.
This social uprising created a boom of graffiti that cleverly tweaked and politicized popular songs, sayings, and images.
Today, artists continue to play with familiar scenes to talk about modern issues, usually creating anonymous stencils that can be seen in every neighborhood in Graffiti Israel The painted politics of Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv. On one wall, a stenciled painting of the famous Warsaw ghetto boy is framed by the words “Don’t Deport Me,” referencing the controversy over the deportation of illegal foreign workers and their Israeli-born and Hebrew-speaking but non-Jewish children. A picture of Theodor Herzl can be spotted all over the city above the words “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to,” a post-Zionist play on Herzl’s famous words, “if you will it, it is no dream.” Remnants from the protests remain too, such as a stencil of a man breaking into a house with the words “give houses without people to people without houses.” Perhaps these stencils are anonymous because they’re not done for artistic purposes but rather to get a message out as far and wide as possible. When they are unsigned, they belong to a movement rather than a person and anybody can contribute to spreading them.
When you put your politics on display, you are opening yourself up to a dialogue. “Am Yisrael Chai,” which means, “the people of Israel live” has been spray painted all over Israel. Others have added onto it, turning it into “am yisrael chayalim” which means, “the people of Israel are soldiers” or “am yisrael chai b’hodu,” or “the people of Israel live in India” mocking how popular India is as a destination for young Israelis after their army service. This is a graffiti that is not meant just for artists, but for anybody walking by to understand.
When you get to know the art on the walls, you also begin to know the artists. When I see a stencil of a pigeon being brushed into a dustpan around the corner from my apartment, I immediately recognize that it’s by Dede. He says that he doesn’t see himself as an artist, nor his work as graffiti; it’s simply something that happens and that is inspired by the world around him. He paints bandaids that patch the city and the nation, and he says they are meant to heal his own wounds as well as Israel’s.
One of his more elaborate pieces was inspired, “from looking at people around me who are so busy thinking about what’s wrong in their lives instead of looking on the bright side and at how great they are.” Within that same trend, he has painted bright arrows pointing upwards with the words “Cheer Up” all over. These “cheer ups” are older pieces which have given way to artfully sketched two-headed animals and pigeons doing things like juggling or roller skating.
Graffiti is not limited to stencils and spray paint. Many artists, including one named Know Hope, often use a popular technique called wheatpasting. This is when the artist makes an image at home on thin paper and uses a homemade mixture of flour and water to glue it to the walls.
This technique lets the artist create intricate and time consuming works with a lower risk of being caught in the act. One of Know Hope’s characters is seen all over Israel, a sad man whose heart is in a different spot on his body in every picture.
Another artist, Maya Gelfman, has been crafting hearts out of red yarn and placing them in frames made from shoeboxes around the city. Maya says that using tangible materials feels natural, as if she is speaking the same language as the three-dimensional city-scape. She lets the streets guide her, choosing a location first and then crafting a heart and a frame to suit the spot.
In an industrial district in South Tel Aviv are white Braille letters that have been glued to a wall, just above arm’s reach. These letters, clearly not meant for blind or sighted people, force us to question the boundaries of art, vandalism, and politics. Are Dede’s pigeons political because they break the law by virtue of being graffiti? Are Maya’s hearts art because they are not what we’d expect from vandalism? Is a clever political slogan that makes you chuckle more acceptable? In a medium that is too easily dismissed, Tel Aviv street artists are incredibly skilled at stopping you in your tracks.