The street art of the city

"I can tell you that making graffiti in Jerusalem is suicide," says artist. "People are not supportive. You can get stones thrown at you and you get reported to the police."

Graffiti in Jerusalem (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Graffiti in Jerusalem
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
How many times have we rushed through downtown Jerusalem, determined to make an appointment, get to some store with a sale on, or heading for the shuk to get the fruit and veggies? The streets and buildings are just familiar blurs as we go about our business, weaving our way along Ben-Yehuda Street or Agrippas Street following our beaten path of choice.
All Jerusalemites know the Clal Building, right? That great clunking edifice which, thankfully, has been on the receiving end of an aesthetic and cultural makeover in recent times. But what about the next bit of vacant wall, right by the first store down Jaffa Road? How many of us have stopped to admire the gaily polychromic creation installed there by a certain Solomon Souza?
If you’re around that neck of the Jerusalem woods at 8 p.m. on Thursday you can get a handle on the Souza urban offering – and plenty more where that one came from – by joining Elinoy Kisslove on the “I’m a Political Wall” circuit.
Kisslove’s guided tour of graffiti in the center of the city is part of this year’s Batim Mibifnim (Open House) event, which comprises 107 slots around the capital, taking in visits to private homes, public buildings and even a cemetery, as well as walks and architecture-related lectures and tours. The latter form part of the inaugural advent of Architecture Week, which will take place under the aegis of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, the Tourism Ministry and the Municipality of Jerusalem.
The forthcoming Open House is the local annual edition of the international Open House Worldwide initiative, which began in London in 2000, and takes place across the globe, including in Helsinki, New York, Melbourne, Dublin, Chicago and Buenos Aires.
The Jerusalem program of free events will run October 25 to 28, with quite a few of the events held several times over the four days. Some also have a limited capacity and require prior registration on the Open House website ( The Kisslove graffiti walkabout is restricted to 30 participants; if you’re interested you have to sign up in advance. Registration opens today.
We set off along Jaffa Road from Davidka Square, through some of the alleyways that lead to Agrippas and thence into the mesh of narrow arteries that crisscross the eastern side of Nahlaot. The walkabout with Kisslove, a former Jerusalemite who decamped westward down Route 1, is an eye-opener in several senses.
“Look around you,” she suggests. “Here we are, in Davidka Square, a really central location, and how much graffiti can you see?” The answer to that one was very little, and even that was not very impressive, and was on the other side of Jaffa Road. That, explains Kisslove, is down to the uniquely Jerusalem phenomenon of the style of stone used for the vast majority of construction in the capital, dating back to the days when Teddy Kollek ruled the roost in the municipality.
“No graffiti artist, and that includes me, would feel comfortable putting stuff on a wall made of Jerusalem stone,” she says. “Anyway, it’s not easy doing graffiti on that stone. It is rare to find something on Jerusalem stone and, if you do find that, it will probably have been done by someone who does not understand what graffiti is all about.”
That, she explains, means you have to stray from the main thoroughfares if you are going to catch some appealing, thought-provoking painting or text.
As we leave UK-born Souza’s splash of color and turn the corner in the direction of Agrippas Street, we come across a bunch of delightful silhouette numbers with some wordplay typical of the alfresco discipline. “What am eye?” And just a meter or two away we espy a sagacious observation sprayed on a white concrete wall: “It is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”
Ne’er a truer word was spoken.
By the way, in case you are suddenly taken by the urge to spray or daub some witticism, or political comment, out there you’d be best advised to do so with caution. “Graffiti is illegal,” Kisslove states unceremoniously. “That is one of the basic definitions of graffiti.”
That noted, one might have thought that graffiti creators stealthily go about their unlawful business in the dead of night. “Wrong,” Kisslove declares. “That’s when the police are out in force and you are more likely to get caught in the act. We do it during the daytime, and hope to get away with it.”
Clearly, many do get off scot-free, and judging by the artwork and lines we catch along the narrow passageways, they have plenty to get off their chest, too. One three-liner, exquisitely crafted in Torah-like writing, rails satirically against discrimination against women, while a group called VCU produced a specter-like figure on a huge wall of a building on Jaffa Road that references the troubling practice of well-heeled non-Israelis buying up properties here and leaving them unused for most of the year.
There are some more Souza gems down Nahlaot way, including a gargantuan work featuring the legendary Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who died in 1969, and who was known for his sterling efforts on behalf of Jerusalem’s poor and sick, as well as his support for members of the Jewish underground imprisoned by the British Mandatory authorities in the Russian Compound.
Some of the graffiti we found was of a more practical nature, including, for example, some exhorting passersby not to relieve themselves in the vicinity. Others were of a more somber nature, not least the stencil-style mentions of women who have been the victims of honor killings, while the Jaffa Road entrance of Haim Alboher Alley sports the date June 11, 2003, and 5:30 p.m., the exact time when a suicide bomber blew up a bus during the Second Intifada.
Kisslove notes that graffiti creation is not always well-received.
“I can tell you that making graffiti in Jerusalem is suicide,” she says dramatically. “People are not supportive, you can have stones thrown at you and you get reported to the police.” It may be a risky pursuit, but the aesthetic and philosophical end results can leave you with something to mull over, and even marvel at, as you navigate your way through the urban rat race.
That also goes for street art crafted by the likes of siblings Elna and Gab, and Koba. It appears their efforts are better received by the authorities, as evidenced by the metal street sign placed last year on Shoshan Street noting the fourth edition of the annual Urban Edges street gallery event sponsored by the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Jerusalem Municipality.
The work of the aforementioned artists, and quite a few more, can be viewed on the Graffiti in Jerusalem tour which takes place under the aegis of the Alternative Tel Aviv company, and will start off from the Shlomo Hamelech Street entrance to Mamilla Mall on October 27 and 28 (both 11 a.m.). The 90-minute guided walk will be led by Bezalel Academy art history master’s student Shachar Ben-Nun. Registration for this, too, is required and the walks are limited to 40 participants.
There is plenty to see just a stone’s throw from the mall in the some of the more unkempt backstreets of downtown Jerusalem. According to Ben-Nun, Jerusalem’s center is a magnet for any self-respecting street artist. “They all come here,” she says. “They know they have to leave their mark in Jerusalem if they are going to be taken seriously.”
It is fascinating to catch the telltale signs of a particular artist’s style, and the cultural, social and political inferences they weave into their work, and the drawings are an aesthetic and spiritually uplifting boon for some otherwise drab and downright depressing parts of town.
For more information: