Israeli street art and tattoos – leaving the comfort zone

The street art of Boaz Sides, aka UNTAY, gains notice from Israel to Europe.

The art of Boaz Sides , aka “UNTAY,” NORTH JAFFA, February 2017. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The art of Boaz Sides , aka “UNTAY,” NORTH JAFFA, February 2017.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Boaz Sides, known also by his artistic nickname “UNTAY,” is an Israeli multidisciplinary artist who specializes in tattoos, murals and illustrations. The majority of his works are figurative, mixed with abstract and free lines, and feature a combination of classic drawings.
While Sides lives in Tel Aviv, his work can be found across Europe. In 2014, he co-founded Tel Aviv’s Prettimess Collective, a group of alternative and underground artists, and a subsequent gallery in Florentin that showcases their work. Sides also independently organizes exhibitions and art events, and soon plans to open his own school for young artists.
Sides graduated with a degree in Visual Communication from the Holon Institute of Technology and worked as a designer and art director in the advertising and hi-tech industries – until he quit to forge his own path.
With body and street art reaching ever-higher levels of visibility, prominence and respectability in Israel and worldwide, increasingly conveying complex messages about politics, personality, philosophy and humanity (although sometimes they are just for fun), the Magazine cornered one of the leading local practitioners of these cutting-edge arts and fired a few questions.
In 2016, you left your day job to start your career as an independent artist. Today, your murals are in several parts of Europe and you are a recognized artist. Were you confident that you will succeed?
Yes. This decision was growing in me for few years. I was ready for that. I was working as a graphic designer all my life. After I finished my degree, I started to work for a publicity company, and a few years later, I moved to a post-production company. Later on, I worked for a while at a start-up, but I did not find myself in it. I was developing as an independent artist on the side. I was also developing my brand and group of fans who liked my art. I still liked designing, but not as a full-time job.
Design being a job took away the pleasure of doing it?
Yes, everything that becomes a job takes away the pleasure... After leaving my job, I took a year off. I had savings, so I could spend that year just thinking about what I really want to do in my life. I found the new platform: tattoos. I thought that I could do and also get paid. Most of art is a business – artists need to pay their bills. I hired a private tattoo teacher to learn the craft well.
The tattoo industry seems to be a huge in Israel. Is it art?
It’s a huge industry, but it is not considered a profession, especially an art profession. You can say you are a “tattoo artist,” but this is not officially accepted by the authorities. They know me as a designer, an artist, but the “tattoo artist” does not have any meaning here.
Is doing tattoos equally important to you as creating, for example, murals?
Today, everything I do is equally important to me. Money comes from tattoos and murals, but beside that, I am producing exhibitions and art events three to four times a year together with my friends from The Prettimess Collective. We combine all the street culture that we come from: murals, graffiti, skateboards, music. We want art to be accessible. Our agenda is to connect to the street art and real people.  Only after that do we contact galleries.
As you did at Beit Hair Museum, at Bialik Square in Tel Aviv, two years ago.
Yes, it was a great success, three floors of exhibition. Almost  2,000 people came for the opening! The exhibition lasted for four months. And it is just one of many events we are doing as the collective.
Besides painting murals, graffiti and illustrations, you use the human body as your art material. You’ve said before that there are people who let you tattoo whatever you want on them. Before this interview, I did a survey among my friends, who have and adore tattoos, if they would agree to that, and they all said no, they need to have some level of control over what is on their skin.Why do you think people trust you and give their bodies to your imagination?
You would have to ask them. I think they like my style. But in general, that is what we do in the world of tattoos. We like tattoos. For example, I gave my arm to one artist, and he can do whatever he wants with it. But of course most of people don’t agree for a freestyle. They usually know what they want.
It is irreversible. I am always curious whether people are not afraid that, in let’s say 10 years, they will not get bored of their tattoos?
We are not dealing with those questions anymore – not if I will not pass my job interview due to tattoos. If you are asking if people will regret tattoos, yes, people regret tattoos all the time. But if you come from the tattoo culture, you do not think about it – you just do it.
Why? Because you like it. Why do people get married? The same with tattoos – it’s a fashion. You see someone on the street with a tattoo and you want to have the same on your body. People often start from small ones, as a reminder of something significant in their life, and later on they grow to big body parts. Often, they do not mean anything but are just beautiful. Sometimes, they want to have specifically my tattoos.
What is the creative process with the freestyle? Is a body just a material, like a white wall, or in case of tattoos you need to build a relation with a person?
It is more of fitting the surroundings. Each person’s body is different, the same ways as it is with walls when I paint them, or with exhibitions. Each time, it must fit the surroundings.
Speaking of walls, how did you start doing murals? Did you do graffiti as a teenager?
Not as a teenager – in general, I am a late bloomer. I do everything late. But I was always into street art. During my third year of studies, I started to paint on streets of Holon, and when I moved to Tel Aviv, I painted on streets every day. I started in an industrial area of Tel Aviv – Montefiore, where I used to live. I had my day job, so usually I was doing graffiti during the weekends. But I was not vandalizing – it was art, not destroying streets. But I quickly understood that I was too old for graffiti. I was 26 years old. And so I moved into murals.
Why, as an artist, do you prefer to paint on the wall and not a painting that can be hung in a museum?
Because this is coming out of the comfort zone. This is also my agenda in life. I do not like to sit in an office or a studio all day long, to sit on a chair and do one thing. I like to put myself in situations where I need to react and to understand new things. I was feelng very comfortable in design, so I was getting bored. I thought, “What can I do to move on?” I like to move all the time. Graffiti and murals are the best ways to get out of your comfort zone, because you do not know what to expect. You do not know how the wall will react to colors – it also depends on weather. There are so many factors to consider. You have to be ready to stop working five minutes after you started.
You started with Holon, but in last few years, you were invited to do murals in Portugal, France and Poland. The first one, called “Saudade,” you painted at Loures Arte Publica Festival in Portugal, in 2016.
It was a big opportunity for me. My first big mural. 20 meters high, 10 meters wide. When I was starting with graffiti, I was dreaming of a big wall like that. I painted for five days, 10 hours a day, all by myself.
In that case, I assume you did not improvise?
I had a sketch. When you are doing first big mural like that, you cannot improvise. You are in a different country – you don’t know the language, people.
Did anyone have to accept your project?
No, they gave me a freestyle, so I could paint whatever I wanted.
So, again, people had a lot of trust in you.
Yes, unlike in Israel, where there is no trust given to muralists and street artists. In Portugal, it was a project featuring 100 artists, and we painted the whole neighborhood. I painted a woman with hands. It had the atmosphere of longing, her hands looking back to the past, but she is looking forward.
What inspired you to paint it?
A situation that I was in my life in that moment. In my murals, I am never straightforward. I usually paint women, hands, models. I did not paint a specific woman, but some locals, during the process of painting, said that she looked like Amalia Rodrigues. This was absolutely unexpected. And this is beautiful about street art. I did not know who Amalia was. They told me she was a famous Portuguese singer.
A singer of Fado music.
Yes, Fado. Also, I wrote on the wall the word very much connected to Fado music: Saudade, which means longing. Missing something, romantically.
This mural seems to be the turning point in your career – after this mural came invitations from France and Poland. What was it like to work in Poland?
It was very cute.
Yes, the people who hosted us were very warm and caring. It was also a very unique experience, because my friends Dede and Nitzan Mintz and I were invited to paint in the area of Lodz Ghetto. Hosts of the event thought it will be important that we, as Jews, will work in this specific place. And it was very natural to me to dedicate this mural to my grandmother, Anutsa, and other silent Holocaust survivors like her. My grandmother, although she was not from Poland but Romania, was a Holocaust survivor. We often hear about heroes. We are educated by big stories, but my grandma did not have a big story, she did not run away through the forests. Like most survivors, she made it through the war and continued her life after – silently.
Last year, I painted a school facade in Bayonne in France, as part of Points De Vue street art festival. It was also a very good experience, but completely different atmosphere. And in Portugal, it is like in Israel – balagan [chaos].
In Israel, everyone who comes to EXPO Tel Aviv can admire your mural on one of the buildings. During Eurovision 2019, probably a few thousand people took a picture next to it. This mural seems much more positive than your other art – how much of you is in it?
I painted one of the biggest murals ever painted in Tel Aviv as a commission for EXPO Tel Aviv’s convention center and the 10th Fresh-Paint art fair anniversary. This, of course, was a matter of compromises… But still, I enjoyed doing it. And there are my characteristic motives.
This wall is very happy. Your personal style, I experience, as very dramatic. In your tattoo designs, there is a lot of pain.
You experience them as pain? Cool! I am happy you feel that, that you feel something. I am not making happy flowers tattoos. Art should motivate ideas, should make people think, make their eyes shine. Like during concerts, when you dance, cry and are happy.
What are your plans for this coming year?
To open a school. This winter, with Katya Bariudin and Ben Kaufman, I am opening the “STYLEFOOL,” a design school that will teach artists how to find their personal style and way. I think I can help young artists find their way faster. It took me about 10 years to find my style. I will use my knowledge and experience to help them develop themselves without this 10-year journey.
But maybe it was an important journey?
Yes, but I wish I had someone. I wish I had a guide like that who would tell me earlier to leave my job and focus, for example, on tattoos. Someone who would guide me, or a teacher at the university who would tell me to do this, not that.
It is a big responsibility.
Yes, but I like it. This is now my main goal now. In 10, 15 years I want to be a teacher and to do murals and tattoos just for pleasure.
I also hope you achieve this. Did I speak to Boaz or UNTAY? And what does UNTAY mean?
UNTAY started as “Untitled” but it was too long and recognizable with many other art forms, so I made it shorter to “Untie,” with all the extra meanings to it – to untie, not connected, on my own, etc. But I didn’t like the look, the flow of the letters, so I changed it to “UNTAY” with a proper spelling mistake. Today, I use both UNTAY and Boaz.
The observant Jew  and the tattoo taboo
Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:28 seems to be pretty explicit on the matter: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, nor incise any tattoo marks upon yourselves.” The Talmud examines the issue and its context in greater detail, and several centuries later the Rambam authoritatively confirms the ban on tattooing. Accordingly, observant Jews who indulge in tattoos are hard to come by, even though some modern religious authorities believe the biblical tattoo ban applies to men only.
Individuals cite additional reasons for eschewing tattoos. 
Emmy Zitter, an observant professor from Beit Shemesh, says, “I am the child of a Holocaust survivor. My mother was tattooed by the Nazis and I will never get over that. I don’t even like it when kids write a phone number on their hands; it freaks me out. Tattoos to me are like cremation. Since the Shoah, I don’t understand how any Jew would agree to cremation or a tattoo. I had an older relative who refused even to be stamped on the hand when she entered an amusement park.”
While violations of many religious prohibitions – for example, eating something non-kosher once or turning on a light on Shabbat – inherently seem more transitory, getting tattoos can be regarded as a permanent indelible and highly visible “mark of Cain” that one carries to the grave. For people who strive to observe Torah law, this is not something they are likely to rush to do.
Not everyone is repulsed by the idea. Lorien Balofsky, also observant, an artistic graphic designer from Tel Mond, says, “I wouldn’t get a tattoo for halachic reasons, but Halacha aside, tattoos in general don’t bother me. I think they can actually be beautiful, an interesting form of self-expression.”
– Jerusalem Post Staff