The artist’s temple

An independent and ambitious project in the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk seeks to fill each empty shutter with a mural celebrating the personalities of Jewish history and culture

A crowd gathers in front of Café Mizrahi to watch Solomon Souza paint a mural (photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
A crowd gathers in front of Café Mizrahi to watch Solomon Souza paint a mural
(photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
They seemed to have appeared overnight and in a strange way, as if they had always been there. However, this series of spray-painted artworks lining the shutters of shops throughout Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market has been around for less than a year.
Those lucky enough to venture into the shuk in the evenings and on Saturdays can catch a fascinatingly beautiful and colorful transformation taking place. Passersby get a rare glimpse into a creative and spiritual world, reflecting a shared and collective history that connects Jerusalem and the history of the Jews in Israel.
The 83-and-counting (as of today) spray-painted works are by Solomon Souza, a young and gifted street artist originally from England. With the aid of a few (hundred) cans of spray paint and a vivid imagination, Souza puts a fresh, urban contemporary spin on classical biblical scenes, important rabbis, Israeli leaders, portraits of friends and loved ones, a handful of free-form abstract paintings and even portraits of the shopkeepers themselves.
The soft-spoken and focused 22-yearold Souza, more commonly known as “Sunny,” has been spray painting since he was 15. Although not formally trained in painting or drawing, he comes from a strong artistic background. His grandfather, Francis Newton Souza, was a well-known painter from India, and his mother, Karen Souza Kohn, is an established painter in England. Souza says that having a painter as a mother comes with its advantages – she often critiques his works and provides him with constructive insights into making each work better than the previous.
At 17, Souza went to study in a yeshiva in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. Located just outside the shuk, the veteran neighborhood is known for its cobblestone alleys and casbah-like buildings in the center of the city. Its residents are a mix of haredim (ultra-Orthodox), secular university students, Sephardi Jews and young immigrants who practice a more laidback and “hippie” style of Orthodox Judaism. The neighborhood teems with music, art and culture.
It was there he met and teamed up with the driving force of this ambitious undertaking, Berel Hahn, a towering and burly bearded figure topped with a shiny golden knit kippa who possesses the gift of gab. Originally from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the 25-year-old New Yorker has lived in Israel for five years and fancies himself a traditional wanderer who found his home in Israel.
The two complement each other, as most classic duos in history and pop culture tend to do. Imagine Moses and Aaron combined with Jay and Silent Bob – pop-culture characters that typify a slacker lifestyle, crazy misadventures and overall, unquestioning loyalty to each other. Where Jay and Aaron are the talkers, the promoters, Moses and Silent Bob are the thinkers, the creators. Hahn is Jay to Solomon’s Silent Bob. Full of ideas and motivation, Hahn gives just the right push to Souza, who is the creative visionary behind this project.
With Hahn in the foreground, Souza is free to focus completely on transforming the pictures in his head into the stirring images throughout the shuk.
It was Hahn who had the original idea to paint the shutters in the shuk. One night, he had a vision of colors splashed all over the empty quiet market. Knowing that Souza was skilled with a spray can, he approached him about putting his vision and talent to work, and the rest is history.
According to Hahn, what Souza is doing is “basically creating a street art gallery in the shuk, with all of the universal aspects of Jewish culture, celebrating the diversity together in unity.” (There are 300 shutters in the shuk and their goal is to paint all of them.) SOUZA BEGAN to work when a friend gave the two a donation of NIS 700 to help cover the expenses of paint and supplies. The donor, who wished to remain anonymous, was so pleased with the initial paintings that another NIS 2,000 was relayed to the duo, a muchneeded donation as each can of spray paint costs about NIS 50. The donor wanted to dedicate the collection of paintings to his parents. In a small alley off the main outdoor drag of the market stands – commonly referred to as the Georgian shuk – a painting titled In Loving Memory shows imagery of the destruction of the Second Temple with a dedication to the donor’s family.
Souza and Hahn started their project in January 2015. For Souza’s first mural, the duo approached a friend, Ettie, who owns a fruit and vegetable stand in the Georgian area of the shuk. They asked if they could paint on one of her shutters; Ettie responded that they could paint on three.
The first painting was a simple abstract portrait of an old man with a blue face.
The next day, after seeing the paintings, shopkeepers and shoppers alike were curious about these creations. Ettie pointed their attention to Hahn and Souza, and the following night they had one more request for a painted shutter, the next night another one, and then a few days later they walked into the shuk and nearly every shop owner they came into contact with was making requests for customized shutters.
Many of the shop owners requested portraits of famous rabbis, and Souza has painted 11 to date. They include artistic renditions of portraits of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, first Chabad rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.
“Sunny enjoys painting portraits of rabbis and the shopkeepers have portraits already inside the shops, so it was a win-win situation that Sunny got to paint portraits. The shopkeepers get a fresh and original portrait of a rabbi, which they claim gives them the proper mazal and kavod [good fortune and honor] that come with honoring their rabbis.”
The two started to feel their work was accepted in the shuk and began painting without first asking permission.
They’d simply find a plain shutter, and start painting.
In addition to rabbis, shopkeepers with interesting stories have been approached and their portraits painted on their shutters, a testament to the important role they play in the personality and history of the shuk.
“Overall the idea was to create a gallery where people can walk out with something educational and inspirational,” Hahn offers.
The first round of paintings for the Jewish year of 5775 yielded over 70 original works. Each mural takes two to four hours to complete, depending on the level of intricacy, and depending on their energy level or momentum, Souza can create up to three works in a night, but usually he sticks to about one at a time. Working primarily at night, Souza and Hahn spend much of their time turning these often dirty and neglected shutters into vibrant visual stories and portraits.
PREPARATION IS key for these guys, as they are almost always bouncing ideas and plans off one another for upcoming works. Hahn is constantly researching people and stories connected with the history of Israel, while Souza either pulls up an image from the Internet on his phone and uses it as a visual guide, or comes prepared with a sketch made in advance from which to work.
All of these paintings take on a life of their own and evolve into something completely different and unexpected from the original idea. This type of room for imagination and interpretation makes these works all the more compelling and exciting for the viewer.
The shuk has proven to be a world unto itself. It takes on one persona during the hustle and bustle of its peak shopping hours; the night brings out its own characters and personality.
Hahn and Souza have clearly established themselves in the nighttime world of the shuk. They are familiar with not just the people who work there, but also with the locals who tend to hang around that spot at night. Even the cats there seem to be well aware of these two and the time they put into transforming the look and feel of the shuk.
Naturally, when Souza paints, a crowd tends to draw. Passersby stop and watch, ask questions, shake his hand and offer encouraging words. And at this point, he is already known for his paintings and people whisper under their breath “Is that Solomon?” before approaching him as if he were a celebrity.
Perhaps now he is.
Souza takes all this in stride. He enjoys the act of spray painting in a public place and being part of this transformation and is happy about the response that he’s been getting from his works.
AN IMPORTANT thing to note about this work is that it was an entirely independent venture: “A lot of people are surprised that this has nothing to do with the municipality or the owner of the shuk – that it’s just a couple of kids painting shutters,” says Hahn.
After several months of painting nearly every night, the guys took the summer off and returned for the second round of works shortly after the High Holy Days. Although the new work has only begun, these paintings have clearly evolved from the previous ones, applying more details and a narrower color palette. The level of refinement and restraint transcends what had been achieved in the previous works.
As of press time, there are nine new works that can be seen at various locations throughout the shuk, each of them featuring portraits of notable figures in contemporary Israeli history.
When Jonathan Pollard – the jailed Israeli spy – was released after 30 years in a US prison, Souza painted a portrait of him from his most recent photo. Within a day, users on social media began circulating the photo of Souza’s painting – it went viral on Facebook with 15,000 views. The guys make an effort to search for the unsung heroes of Israeli history and then give them the recognition that they feel they deserve.
Hahn and Souza hope that people remember the overall meanings of these works. “I want the walls to bear testimony to what has happened here, the story of Jerusalem, the story of the Jewish people coming home,” says Hahn. “The struggle, everyone working together, I think a lot of people can learn from it.”
OVERALL, THE general consensus of reactions of shopkeepers and workers alike seems to be overwhelmingly positive.
Those in the Georgian shuk (where most of the first paintings can be found) were quite pleased with the paintings. A few of them had met Solomon, said he was very nice and that his paintings are a beautiful addition to their shops.
Hatam, who works at a fruit stand that faces the series “seven days of creation” says “the work is very meaningful and a symbol of peace.”
Cafe Mizrahi, a French-style bakery with wrought-iron tables and seating popular for people-watching, is now distinguished as the canvas for Solomon’s latest creation, a portrait of Yemenite-Israeli folk dancer Hadassah Badoch Kruger. After coordinating with the family owners, the restaurant offered all three of their shutters to be painted on.
Yoav Mizrahi, the son of the owner of the cafe, expressed his enthusiasm for Solomon’s paintings. “I was so excited to see what he did the next day and I’m really looking forward to the next two paintings.”
For some, coming to work and discovering a beautiful mural where just the day before was a blank, corrugated shutter, provided a pleasant surprise.
Others were less pleased. A handful of shopkeepers expressed dissatisfaction with not being asked beforehand for their shutters to be painted on.
A worker at the spice shop Rosemary, who declined to give his name, said that while the paintings are nice, the artists should have considered what they were painting and where. “It’s not fair to be sitting at a pub drinking a beer and look over to see a rabbi putting on tefillin or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.” The shutter on the Rosemary shop has a painting of leading medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman – the Ramban. Yet, when asked what he thinks of the mural on Rosemary’s shop, the worker didn’t hesitate to praise Ramban and share everything he knew about him.
Yaron Asoulin, the owner of the shop where Souza painted Jonathan Pollard, was upset the boys didn’t ask his permission first. “It’s a very nice work of art, but they didn’t ask permission. It’s not nice that they didn’t ask before. If they asked before, it would have been nice, but they left paint drips all over the outside of the shop. Lo yafe [not nice].”