The luck of the draw

'Dede,' 'Wonky' are 2 of TA's growing number of street artists - at times seen as a scourge, at times almost embraced by authorities.

Walls are 'a page that doesn't end.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Walls are 'a page that doesn't end.'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Come down on a weekday, and the industrial area of the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin is bustling. People teem in and out of auto repair garages and carpentry shops.
But on Friday evening, as Shabbat approaches, these back alleys and side streets are deserted. Except for two young men.
They look the part of typical Florentiners – old cut-off jeans, T-shirts, sneakers. But one wears a face mask to protect himself from spray-paint fumes. The other wears a cap and a bit of five o’clock shadow. Bottles of paints and spray cans are organized on the ground around them as they create, working on their graffiti/street art masterpiece on the outside wall of a rundown building.
A police cruiser drives slowly by, stopping several meters away.
“I hope they keep going,” one of the young men says. His friend nods in agreement. They both wait. The officers watch, and talk amongst themselves.
“Keep going, keep going,” says the second young man, repeating it almost like a mantra. He gets his wish, for a moment later the cruiser moves on. The men, who go by the street names of Dede and Wonky, continue working.
They are two of Tel Aviv’s growing number of graffiti and street artists, at times seen as a scourge, but then ironically, embraced – even if indirectly – by the Tel Aviv Municipality.
For 30-something Dede, who works in a design-related field by day and is a graduate of one of Israel’s prestigious art academies, it all began at the age of 13 with a can of spray paint rolling in the street.
“It seemed logical to pick it up and paint something on the schoolyard wall – because it was close by, and because it was what people did,” he recalls.
Unlike the notebooks in which he sketched, Dede found that he liked walls for the space they afforded, and for the ‘freedom of hand’ – as he puts it – “a page that doesn’t end.” Dede’s parents are his loyal fans, regularly inquiring about the location of his newest works so they can come by and see them.
Wonky, in his early 30s, also makes his living through an art-based profession. He says he has been drawing for as long as he can remember.
“When I was a kid, my mom sent me to art clubs, and at home, my parents were always drawing with me.”
As with Dede, Wonky’s parents know about his extracurricular activities, and support what he does.
“They believe in me,” Wonky explains. “They trust my decisions are thought out, even if sometimes they are a little different, or [even] against the law.”
The municipality is less understanding, pointing out that all artistic activity done in public areas without proper permission is illegal.
“Drawing graffiti on the walls of both public and private buildings is a criminal offense,” a representative of the spokesman says. According to the municipality, the enforcement of anti-graffiti laws falls under the jurisdiction of the police. However, the spokesman points out that the city does sanction graffiti in certain locations – including the Galit Park skateboard area in Yad Eliahu, the Strauss Garden, and the wall at the city wholesalers’ market.
But most of the graffiti and street artists working in Tel Aviv are the first to admit that illegal as it may be, they would rather be doing unsanctioned pieces on whatever wall or building strikes their fancy – partly because of the thrill, and partly because of the creative freedom.
One of these is 21-year-old Haha, a tall, thin blonde with an introspective demeanor and dreams of working in fashion as an art director, or something else with “imagination.”
It’s nearly midnight on another deserted side street in south Tel Aviv. Haha is doing a quick paste-up in which she uses transparent glue to stick a large, prepared drawing to a wall. She then hops on her bike and rides off, while her boyfriend films the process from the opposite sidewalk.
“Pasting is so quick,” she explains. “I can do it at, like, 10 or 11 p.m.” The hour is important because the earlier it is, the more chance of being caught.
But this chance of being caught is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Two years ago, when I was 19, it was my first time,” Haha remembers. “I was anxious, but it was such an adrenaline rush. I went with a friend and we waited till like 3 or 4 a.m. because we didn’t want to be seen.”
The question many people ask is: What makes graffiti/street art the real thing? Is it still graffiti/street art when officially sanctioned; done without the fear of being caught; and without the risk of having the work painted over by the municipality?
These are questions Tal Lanir has pondered.
“What happens to street artists when they come into a museum with great big white walls?” she asks. “Works on the street are usually done in an unauthorized place, and without permission – they are site-specific. So the minute the art goes into a museum, is it still street art?”
On August 26, the public will have the chance to consider this when the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opens its new exhibition, “An Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv.” The show will feature some of Israel’s most popular graffiti/street artists including Klone, Know Hope, Foma, Zero Cents, Broken Fingaz and others. Lanir is curator of the project.
In early July, some of the artists scheduled to participate in the museum exhibition took part in an art sale in an old Florentin loft. Showcasing a broader range of works than those that might typically be seen on the street, all proceeds went to the artists themselves.
Promoted on Facebook, the Florentin art sale drew a steady, young and trendy crowd, who drifted in and out of the open front door, through the graffiti-covered stairwell. They chilled to the tunes of a DJ and ordered drinks at a bar.
There were piercings, tattoos and shaved heads. The walls were hung with colorful prints, sketches, graffiti. T-shirts, books and stickers were for sale. Visitors took photos of the art with their cell phones.
“I think the people you saw there, they respect the art,” Lanir says. “They know that an artist needs to make a living, so they come and they buy their work.”
As in other sub-culture movements, the term “anarchist” is one you hear used in conversations concerning graffiti/street art culture – especially by observers on the outside who attempt to define it. And while sometimes it may seem that the motivation of those who do illegal artwork on the street is much more basic – the thrill, the love of creating – there is also, at times, a clear “fight the system” mentality. “F- -- you all, I'm not part of the twisted game,” one of the animations on the wall reads.
“Some of them start out as anarchists and then they come inside the system,” Lanir explains. “Some of them are real anarchists. They live it, it's what they do. Some of them are kids who come from good families and want to explore something illegal.”
Regardless of how they make it inside the system – whether via museum exhibition or allowing their work to be used for commercial purposes (think clothing chain Castro’s graffiti “street project”) – most of the artists admit they would sell their art if they kept creative control and believed in what they were promoting.
Says one member of Broken Fingaz, a Haifa-based crew of street artists, “We sometimes do album covers and posters.” It is not selling out, he explains, because he and his partners are given full artistic control.
“These are people who come to us because of what we do, and they say, ‘Be creative.’ We never think about what people think – if we did, we would get stuck somewhere. What we do is try to stay loyal to what we believe.”
As for the artwork itself, many note a general division between graffiti and street art. In this mindset, graffiti is usually defined more traditionally: as lettering, i.e., words or letters; tagging, which is a name or symbol left as an artist’s mark; and general characters or animations.
Street art in this case, are the kinds of works you might expect to see on canvas, or in a museum. As Wonky points out, “There are people who started on the streets because it was hard to get into galleries.”
“There is a hierarchy on the street,” Lanir explains, “and many of the street artists began with tagging.” Even Know Hope, considered one of Israel’s most talented street artists, got his start in tagging. “Then he added a lamp, then a tree….”
But whether great works of art or traditional graffiti, the majority of property owners and passersby see a very simple line between art and vandalism – and as Lanir noted, the graffiti is “site-specific.”
“If I saw it on a nice, renovated building, it would bother me,” says Tam Gryn, a 25-year-old financial journalist who attended the Florentin art sale. “But if I saw it on an old Tel Aviv building, it would be amazing.”
Sixty-year-old Moshe Yehezkel agrees, “The building is rundown, and this makes it nicer,” he says, pointing to a giant blue face painted on the outside of his south Tel Aviv carpentry shop.
This is something the artists are aware of. Says Dede, “I try to choose walls that are uglier, that need to be upgraded. I look for corners where I won’t bother people who don’t want it. That is part of knowing the difference between doing vandalism and doing art.”
Haha agrees, saying she believes good graffiti/street art can add a lot to the city.
“It stimulates you visually. Street art makes you remember the street, it makes you pay attention. For a second you stop thinking about anything, and you say, ‘What a great piece.’ It makes walking through the city more fascinating.”
“Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv” opens on August 26 at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For more information, call (03) 607- 7020 or visit: inside-job-street-art-in-tel-aviv