Urban scrawl

Graffiti is giving J'lem a new look. But where does city draw the line?

graffiti 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
graffiti 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
'Stop! Closed military area," warns the writing on the wall. A few yards around the corner of the narrow alleyway, another sign pops up: "No thoroughfare without authorization," stamped with a large tzaddik, the initial of the Hebrew acronym for the Israel Defense Forces. Around the corner of the cobbled streets of Nahlaot, another notice commands pedestrians to come to a halt: "Checkpoint ahead." But the roadblock, like soldiers or other signs of military activity, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, life goes on as normal as traditional religious families rub shoulders with art students, veteran Israelis and North American New Age spiritual types carrying home their shopping from the nearby Mahaneh Yehuda market. The mysterious notices are not the work of the army, but belong to the unseen graffiti artists who roam the city's streets under cover of darkness, armed with cans of spray paint instead of M-16s. Their handiwork can also be seen at the shuk, but this time as professional photographs set in handmade picture frames. The Pirates of Jerusalem gallery tucked away on the second floor away from the clamor of the fruit and vegetable stands sells photographs of unusual Jerusalem scenes, including stencil graffiti, casting a skeptical eye over the city's changing architectural and cultural environmental. Hanging in a frame on one of the gallery's walls is a stencil of the word "Yerushalayim" in Hebrew, its final letter swapped with the Golden Arches of the McDonald's Corporation. Gallery owner Yoram Amir, who lives in an apartment in the building, explains that the piece is a comment on Jerusalem's declining authenticity due to increasing commercialization, as embodied by the homogeneous cuisine of the multinational corporation. The fact that graffiti has made its way to the shuk is a sure sign that the images that have been hitting Jerusalem's streets in the last few years are being noticed, sparking a debate over whether it represents vandalism or a form of spontaneous urban renewal. Some graffiti carries a distinctly political message, often ironic and in Hebrew, such as "A star dies in Gaza, a star dies in Sderot" and "Missiles don't return hostages," while others leave their mark on the city with more elaborate drawings or social commentary or are just downright perplexing. "This is not what I wanted to say, actually," confesses one speech bubble on Rehov Hillel. "FOR CLOSE to six years I painted the streets of Jerusalem from sun-up to sun-down, painting for so long I got blisters on my fingers, but the streets began to take on new life," says INSPIRE, one of Jerusalem's most prolific street artists, whose stencils, drawings and murals can be seen all over the city. "I write [under] seven different aliases on the street according to parts of my collective vision that I wish to manifest. Mainly, I want to see more inspiration so I write INSPIRE. It's about manifesting the positive. I want to see more growth and happiness so I paint smiling faces and flowers," he says via e-mail, reluctant to meet in person, adding that the present street-art culture in Jerusalem was initiated by him and a few local artists. INSPIRE, whose other pseudonyms include Idiot the Wise and Seven, shares Amir's concerns over the commercialization of Jerusalem. "More and more, the streets of this holy city seem to speak the monolithic language of money. Giving the average city walker a feeling more of a creative interaction with their urban environment is a goal of mine. I aspire to be a kind of reverse threat - that of a good example." Not all messages left on the streets are entirely anonymous, with some writers tagging their work with pseudonyms, such as Know Hope and Ame72, some of whom are believed to be immigrants from the former Soviet Union and North America. "In Tel Aviv, there were some groups who got together, gathered at night and sprayed all over, especially in problematic areas like Jaffa. But it is mostly done by individual, creative people who can't keep their ideas to themselves and feel obliged that others will listen. These people don't have money to publish books or albums, they want to announce their ideas here and now. They don't want to wait too long. You'll see that they are short, they don't write a thesis," says Dr. Baruch Blich, senior lecturer at the Department of History and Theory at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "Graffiti is an urban action; you won't see it in kibbutzim or moshavim. In a way, it is designed to spoil the order established by the authorities of cities and of the government. It's a way to rebel and say things in a way that you usually can't say them, for example, in a newspaper article." THE QUIET on Nahlaot's streets is interrupted momentarily by a crowd of over 30 Israelis on one of the many guided tours of the picturesque neighborhood. They marvel at the ornate artwork adorning the Hesed Verahamim Synagogue, admiring its shiny metal gates, painstakingly engraved with Hebrew prayers and 12 panels signifying the ancient Tribes of Israel. As their tour guide finishes his potted history of the area, the group disperses, revealing the Hebrew words "Na, Nah, Nahma, Nahman, Me'uman" spray-painted on a wall adjacent to the historic Moroccan synagogue. The stuttering Kabbalistic mantra, written by followers of the late Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, is probably Israel's best-known graffiti, reaching just about every corner of the country. A close second in the notoriety stakes is "Kahane was right," scrawled by far-right activists in support of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset for being racist. But Jerusalem also attracts graffiti that can't be found anywhere else in Israel, often satirizing the city's political friction. From "Happy West Jerusalem Day" to the Hebrew for the city's long-awaited light railway, "Harakevet Hakala" subverted to "Harakevet Takala" (the inoperative train). Strolling down Rehov Hillel, it seems that the municipality has taken to spraying its logo on walls too. A closer look finds the Lion of Judah from the municipal logo in an intimate position with another, presumably male, lion. "Jerusalem of everyone" proclaims the stencil, following protests by religious groups to ban the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance, which returned to the city this Thursday. "It's important to remember that Jerusalem is the center of the planet in all respects. The whole world seems to be watching and listening to what happens here now for many different reasons, so if I say something and cause real and positive change here, how much more would it be realized elsewhere?" asks INSPIRE. Blich describes graffiti as "poetic vandalism." "All over the world people brutalize their surroundings. But they [street artists] don't want to ruin the area, they want to express their ideas," he says. "Jerusalemites are the ones doing the graffiti so you've got to think that they are enjoying themselves quite a bit. For those who are on foot in Jerusalem, the graffiti and street art is seen easily, enjoyed and interacted with every day," says INSPIRE, who now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife. "I love to see new and fresh works on the street; it really makes my journey outside my house and studio worth it." Yaakov, whose stencil images of the musicians Miles Davis and Tom Waits as well as Russian novelists Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol can be seen downtown, says that the people he sprays on walls are inspirational figures to him. "It's what I want to see on the street. I like them, so I put them up there myself. It's to improve the quality of the environment, it just comes out of myself. I want to see more of it in Jerusalem." When asked what motivates him to pick up a can of spray paint, the young Israeli, who is currently doing a national service program working with art students in Jerusalem, explains that he sees his graffiti as a reaction against the dumbing-down of culture. "Standards have been lowered by the mainstream media, they've lost them. It's best to set the standard yourself. I think it should go back to talent, skill and thought, instead of conforming to what makes the most amount of money," he says. "It's also out of boredom, too. One day I said, 'Let's make a stencil of Miles Davis.' Sometimes it's out of motivation, but sometimes it's not." According to Blich, "Nowadays, graffiti is much more accepted and agreed upon, it has become a kind of street art in Israel." But graffiti still has a way to go before gaining universal acceptance, as evidenced by the large patches of white painted over graffiti throughout the city, which inevitably become fresh canvasses. The municipality is tasked with removing graffiti from the walls, the exact cost of which it is unable to calculate since it falls within the overall budget for maintaining the city's streets. "In Jerusalem, on average around 1,500 graffiti writings are removed each year. Removal and cleaning of graffiti from the city streets is performed by workers of the Maintenance Department at the city Beautification Department," the municipality said in a written statement. Blich believes that there is more graffiti in Israel than in New York or European cities where anti-graffiti laws are strictly enforced and severe fines levied. So far the law in Israel, which makes painting graffiti a fine-carrying crime, has not proved a deterrent, as reflected by the volume of graffiti. The Jerusalem Police spokesman did not provide In Jerusalem with a response by press time. Yaakov acknowledges that the municipality is less than fond of his pastime, but it doesn't bother him. "If the police will come and stop me, then maybe I'll care," he says. Paul, a visiting graffiti artist from the San Francisco Bay Area, says that he believes that the graffiti in New York became much uglier after it was made a felony since the risk of being caught meant that writers put in less time. "The laws and the general population are more accepting of graffiti in Israel. But eventually the laws will become more fascist as it [graffiti] becomes bigger," says Paul, who flew to Israel specifically to see the graffiti. "I'm incredibly happy to see so much street art here. I'd be bored if there wasn't any," he says as his female companion zooms her camera at a black and white stencil of the White Rabbit on a pillar outside Café Nocturna on Rehov Bezalel, where nearly every inch below head height is covered with stencils, tags, murals or ink of some sort. THE PREVALENCE of graffiti in Israel is a form of democratic expression, both by the writers as well as the society itself which tolerates the activity, argues Blich. "In Israel, people have a more Mediterranean mentality, people talk everywhere, in shops, in the theater queue, in the road. You can see this in graffiti too, sometimes," he says, adding that it reflects the Israeli expressiveness where one can "Say whatever you want to say, at any time or any place." Even though it is against the law, graffiti has (unofficial) rules of its own, including some unique to the holy city itself. INSPIRE, who acknowledges that any creative force can be potentially destructive, initiated an effort to avoid writing on Jerusalem stone. "I guess I have set a strong precedent in the area because the Jerusalem stone stays mainly clear of any graffiti. The surfaces that I have painted in Jerusalem all are reusable surfaces in some way," he says, adding that he paints with more ease in Tel Aviv where the available surfaces are manifold. The Tel Aviv Municipality has even designated some walls specifically for graffiti artists to ply their trade. That graffiti has become a sought-after work of art, making its way into shops, exhibitions and people's living rooms, indicates that it is becoming more accepted by the mainstream. In the book Wall Language, published last year, Gayil Hareven and Aliza Olmert document the rise of graffiti in Israel. "Ten years ago you wouldn't have thought there would be a book in Israel that would collect graffiti and bring it to the public and academic judgment. It has brought it into the open and given it a status that it didn't have before," explains Blich. INSPIRE is now busy curating exhibitions too, the first of which was held at Nahlaot's Barbur Gallery in spring 2007, followed by the Re-Use Project, which transformed a huge abandoned building behind the Central Bus Station into a space for urban renewal. "Some graffiti artists won't show their work in a gallery because they think it's on the way to being some sort of 'sell-out,' but we all have to make a living somehow, so why not do something you love and really give back to your communities at the same time? To me, a gallery is just another wall because our main exhibition is always happening," says INSPIRE. Tel Aviv hosts its fair share of exhibitions, too, including the Legal Action Gallery in Florentin and one currently running at Rehov Sheinkin's Urbanix Gallery. Works by Israeli graffiti artists are also beginning to be exhibited abroad. "It's witness to the fact that graffiti is not a simple-minded thing done by hooligans, it's something worth listening to," says Blich.