The handwriting on the wall

Niro Taub has made it his mission to open people’s eyes and minds and get them to realize that what they are seeing on the walls of the city, the ‘canvas of Tel Aviv,’ is a legitimate form of art

A typical wall in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
A typical wall in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Urban street art and wall graffiti is a phenomenon that resonates with me at a somewhat personal level.
I don’t do it, but I was present at its creation.
In September 1970 I left my home in a seaside city just south of Boston and moved to New York to attend college at NYU. Eighteen years old and bedazzled by the Big Apple, I spent a lot of my first year on the subways, in order to get around and explore every nook and cranny of all five boroughs of the city.
Standing one day waiting for a train at the 59th Street station of the Lexington Avenue IRT, I happened to notice that someone had written “TAKI 183” in black spray paint on one of the iron support pillars.
Four days later, I saw the same thing on station walls at the 42nd Street crosstown shuttle, at Astor Place, and at three different stations in the Bronx.
As the days and weeks went by, I began to see it everywhere, at every subway station I either stopped at or rolled through. Someone was writing “TAKI 183” in every station, both subway and elevated, of New York City’s rapid transit system. I was intrigued.
Also intrigued was a New York Times reporter, who in July 1971 managed to track down the writer of these mysterious messages near his home on 183rd Street, in the neighborhood of Washington Heights.
The writer turned out to be a Greekborn teenage kid named Demetrius, whose nickname was Demetaki or, more often, just Taki. He had started going to high school in Manhattan in September 1970 and began writing his name and street number in some of the subway stations along the way.
Taki also got a job as a messenger and delivery boy, which had him riding the subways all over New York.
Within months, “TAKI 183” was everywhere, Taki became famous after his interview in the Times, and legions of imitators began spray-painting their names, street numbers, gang affiliations, random thoughts, opinions and pictures on almost every bare wall in New York, and on literally every subway car, both inside and out.
Most people called it vandalism and defacement; others looked more closely and saw art.
That first spray-paint “shot” fired by Taki in 1970 has since echoed across the US and throughout the world – even in Israel, and especially in Tel Aviv – as has the sometimes heated debate over whether all of this writing, drawing and spray-painting is vandalism or art.
ONE MAN, Niro Taub, has made it his business, and indeed his mission, to open people’s eyes and minds to this phenomenon and get them to realize that what they are seeing on the walls of the city is a legitimate form of art.
“I want to take people around and open their eyes about Israeli street art and about Israel. I want to give them a different perspective and change their concepts about what is vandalism and what is street art.”
Asked how he came to be both an expert and stalwart defender of street art, Taub replies, “It’s been a long journey.”
A 36-year-old native of Bat Yam, Taub was an education officer in the IDF before traveling around the world and deciding to be a tour guide, at first for Israelis abroad and then for foreign tourists in Israel.
He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, where he graduated with a degree in visual communications.
Taub has lived in Greece, Macedonia, Brazil and Argentina, and spent a year as a Jewish Agency immigration emissary in New York. There, in New York, the home of modern street art and graffiti, he began to do advocacy for Israel by producing his own street art and graffiti.
“When I came back, I was very excited,” he says. “I really fell in love with Israeli street art.”
Taub fell so much in love that he formed a company, called Niro Trip, and began conducting tours that have come to be regarded as the “gold standard” of street culture tours – informative, entertaining and consciousness- raising.
He says, “The trips are designed to show aspects of Israel not seen in the world’s media, not favoring any particular ideology or point of view but street art representing many different facets of the country.”
So what is street art? Taub says, “First of all, we’re talking about a big umbrella. There are many, many streams and styles and ways to express yourself.
Graffiti is the best known. It goes back to ancient times, in Greece and Rome. It was a way for common people to share their thoughts. We see it on prehistoric caves. And it’s amazing that we can look at it and learn about the people who were there and the times they lived in. So graffiti is not a new thing. These days, graffiti is actually like ‘tagging,’ like a signature.”
When I ask Taub why New York’s teenage graffiti writers of the 1970s were using subway trains and stations as their medium, he replies, “Today we have the Internet and social media.
This is the subway of the 21st century.
But back in the ’70s, with those subway trains going uptown, downtown, east side, west side, showing the graffiti tag – the signature – the writer had his name going all over the city. This was the old ‘social media.’” But Taub is quick to add that graffiti is only one form of contemporary street art. There is also painting – both freestyle and with stencils – sculpture and different kinds of installations made from a variety of materials, as I am about to see, as Taub walks me through Neveh Tzedek and the back end of Florentin.
AS WE begin, he says, “In Tel Aviv, it started here, in Neveh Tzedek. But now it’s a luxurious, posh area. So now, because it’s so expensive, everyone has pushed south, down to Florentin – what we call ‘the canvas of Tel Aviv.’ The area is full of images. And now it’s moving into an area called SoSa. In New York, you’ve got a SoHo, which means ‘south of Houston Street. Our SoSa, is ‘south of Salame Street.’ It’s very new, very underground.”
The street art of Neveh Tzedek is a bit more above ground, however, dominated by some of the more established artists.
Our first stop is at a small shop that actually commissioned a street artist to adorn its exterior walls.
We see two works by a painter known only as Dede, whose work has come to be seen as the crème de la crème of Tel Aviv street art. Most famous for having | METRO 11 wall Many people call it vandalism and defacement; others look more closely and see art.
Florentin is a blank canvas for street art.
A recent work by Dede, who has come to be seen as the crème de la crème of the White City street scene.
painted the abandoned Dolphinarium building to look like a gigantic set of chattering toy teeth – replete with a wind-up key – he has provided this shop with depictions of both a two-headed mutant bird and a two-headed mutant squirrel, feeding from urban garbage bins.
Taub tells me that Dede is one of several street artists who now exhibit their work in galleries.
We turn a corner and see the work of another “first tier” artist, Maya Gelfman, whose installation in yarn – yes, actual knitting yarn – covers most of a large wall.
“This has been on this wall now for about a year and a half,” Taub says.
“We call this ‘yarn bombing,’ and we didn’t understand this ourselves at first. We didn’t see this style as something moving forward and having a future.
“Artists starting doing this during a period when people wanted to express messages that were warm, with feelings of being at home. It was something nostalgic, before going ahead into the hi-tech 21st century.”
As we move along, though, the art gets more edgy. A lot of the writing is about politics, and much of it is interactive.
Taub explains, “It’s like you put something on your Facebook wall and then people respond to it. But here, you’re putting your post on a real wall.
For example, there is wall art that says ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ This is totally Tel Aviv. Happy-happy, joy-joy, let’s live together. And then someone comes along, paints over three words, and changes it a bit to say, ‘Jews and Arabs… enemies.’ We then have an interactive discussion, like the comments on Facebook, but here, in the Facebook of the streets.”
Despite the somewhat anarchic look of the street art, especially as we cross over into Florentin, Taub notes that there are certain rules of etiquette among the street artist community.
There are, for example, places where you can work, and places where you should not. He points to an empty, abandoned building in Neveh Tzedek and says, “This building is not renovated yet. So people are painting over it. But this building next to it is renovated.
No one is painting on it. Why? Because this is the basic law of street artists. We are not here to destroy. We are here to add colors. And if you see a spray-painted name on a place where it shouldn’t be, you know that this was done by a child who doesn’t understand the true meaning of being a street artist.”
As we move closer to one of these not yet renovated buildings, we come to a piece of street poetry by Nitzan Mintz. She has written a poem of love in Hebrew on a bricked-in doorway of a building about to be renovated. All that is here now is the old building’s façade.
“She is one of our street poets. She was one of the first. Small, childlike, gentle. And you can imagine her taking a bag, going out at night, and spraying stencil. You must understand that for a girl it’s very dangerous to be out at night. She’s even been arrested.”
Issues of safety at night are the major reason, Taub says, that most street artists are male.
As we move through the “canvas of Tel Aviv,” we see a self-portrait in metal by an artist known only as Anton, messages in Hebrew that say “Tel Aviv.
City of Bikes. City of fashion. Lack of tact. Full of sweat,” and others in English that declare: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as well as numerous interactive messages like “Am Yisrael Hai,” which people have altered to express a variety of different messages, mostly left-wing.
There is barely an inch of empty wall space along Florentin’s Abarbanel Street, with contributions like “Box Heads” by the artist Sened, and a striking painting by a Parisian artist known simply as C215, which Taub proudly says is evidence that artists are coming from all over the world to be part of the canvas of Tel Aviv.
C215 has painted a signpost pointing to Jerusalem in one direction, and Tel Aviv in the other. An ultra-Orthodox man is holding a prayer book and praying near the signpost, facing Tel Aviv with his back to Jerusalem.
Another artist is actually ultra-Orthodox, the first of his community to appear here. Signing his work as “Ometz of the haredim,” he is, says Taub, a genuine haredi, with three children and a wife who hates what he is doing here.
Finally, there is even what may very well be the world’s first and thus far only piece of street graffiti in braille, written on a Florentin wall.
Taub frequently returns to the subject of street art as genuine art, and talks about what he tries to convey in his tours.
“I want to give these artists due respect, and I want people to respect them and appreciate what they are doing. Look, someone has taken his money, his time, he’s not sleeping, he has studied art in Bezalel, maybe has an art degree, and he is going out at night to paint on a wall because he wants to change society, make it more colorful. I think this has become the most hip way of expressing yourself in this postmodern world.
“A lot of people who don’t like street art dislike it because they don’t understand the language. In my tours, I try to be the ‘Google Translator’ of street art, to explain to people how to look at it a bit differently and also to enjoy it.
It’s free. It’s everywhere in the streets, and this street gallery changes every night with more art.”
To keep track of the nightly changes, Taub has a Facebook page: Niro Trip, which he updates often. To contact Taub, receive further information or book a street art tour: