Art or vandalism? Graffiti paints life into unexpected corners

From surfboard exhibitions to poetry on walls in Florentin, Israeli artists are exploring new media for their work. Along the way, graffiti is being accepted by the art establishment

Street art, depicting an artist graffitiing, in south Tel aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)
Street art, depicting an artist graffitiing, in south Tel aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Visual art isn’t just the stuff hanging high on museum walls, far from human interaction. Art has outgrown its canvas; it’s poked its way into cracks and crevices; it’s the pictures slapped onto garbage cans, etched onto shop walls, and plastered on bus stops.

Like elsewhere around the world, this generation of artists in Israel continues to push the envelope regarding the media they make use of. Take a remarkable recent exhibit, Surf Writers, which showcases dozens of stunning surfboards designed by up-and-coming graffiti writers and artists (they are being sold to the public Wednesday at HaRiviera, an independent beach-front gallery, in Bat Yam).

Surf Writers exhibit at HaRiviera, Bat Yam (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Surf Writers exhibit at HaRiviera, Bat Yam (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

“Surfboards are an integral part of Bat Yam; they’ve almost become part of its permanent landscape,” said curator Tali Huldai. The collection, which not only merges elements from the sea and from the street but also physically mixes concrete and sand (the gallery literally sits a few feet from the shore), represents cultural encounters, she added. “Its very name is derived from two different worlds — surfing and graffiti writing.”

Chen Balali, a young artist who took part in the Surf Writers show and who is a novice surfer herself, said it doesn’t matter what medium an artist uses. “It’s like graffiti: the surfboard is just one possible place, one of the formats, for an artist to paint on,” she said. “They don’t care, so long as they’re painting.”

Two surfboards from the Surf Writers exhibition (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Two surfboards from the Surf Writers exhibition (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

According to purists, graffiti is strictly defined as writing that is etched or sprayed on public spaces, whereas pictures and illustrations are thought of as street art. But today the two terms are used almost interchangeably.

Indeed, a large portion of the surfboards in the Surf Writers exhibit looked like bright, graphic paintings. They had a distinct sub-culture feel, but none of them looked like vandalism. Instead they seemed to be lifted from comic books and music posters, while others carried street art-inspired social messages and political tones. They were innovative and fresh.

Merav Salomon, the head of Illustration Studies at Bezalel Academy’s Department of Visual Communication, said the fusion of these varied art forms was quite natural.

“Graffiti started as an avant-garde protest type of art, coming from the people, from outsiders, who had a lot of anger and very strong ideals, which was behind the fact they they were vandalizing and forcing their messages into the public space,” Salomon, herself a illustration artist, said. “There were a lot of themes about inequality and being against capitalism and the government.”

Some of the participating surfboards in the Surf Writers exhibition (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Some of the participating surfboards in the Surf Writers exhibition (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Salomon explained graffiti’s shift toward illustration this way: Slowly, as with hip hop and rap — “graffiti’s parallel cultures,” she noted — the mode of protest became adopted by the mainstream. It’s a phenomenon repeated throughout art history, she added, that a former counterculture finds itself in the middle of the road. It’s a subtle process.

A testament to the broad acceptance of this from of art was the large retrospective “Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv,” held at the Helena Rubinstein Gallery at the Tel Aviv Art Museum last year, Salomon pointed out.

“It was devoured,” Salomon added, even referring to it as “post-graffiti.”

Colorful surfboards at the Surf Writers exhibit (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Colorful surfboards at the Surf Writers exhibit (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

“It mixed with other cultures, like anime and manga (a comic visual language popularized by Japan), and morphed with fanzine art (like the album cover of the Britsh punk band The Sex Pistols), which introduced edgy, rough typography that came after the pop art movement,” Salmon said. The boundaries between the genres became blurred, and they began influencing one another in striking ways.

Much like work by England’s Banksy or Israeli artists who popularized the field of street art in Israel — Klone, Broken fingers, and Knowhope — street art relies on such innovative methods as stencil graffiti, stickers, etchings, posters, braille, and other new media that go far beyond spray paint.

Graffiti as illustrations on the walls

Niv Bornstein, 33, a visionary Israeli artist, calls “the street” the new home for artists. Himself a graduate of comics and animation, Bornstein’s own style blurs classic art with techniques from graphic arts and comics. His paintings, colorful and fresh, meld watercolors and oil paints with new techniques, producing pieces that look like the 21st century’s version of Art Nouveau — anime mixed with Kandinsky-esque colors.

One of Niv Burshtein's works (photo credit: courtesy)
One of Niv Bornstein’s works (photo credit: Courtesy)

“In recent years, Israeli artists realized galleries are no longer the place for art, and that the street is the contemporary place for expression. It speaks to a wider audience,” he said, adding that it’s less about art for hire. “From cave paintings to the murals of Mexico’s Diego Riviera,” who painted enormous murals in public spaces, but, admittedly, was commissioned by governments to do so, “public art serves the population; it provides context.”

Guy Sharett, 41, who teaches Hebrew via walking tours throughout Tel Aviv, can attest to graffiti’s significance in the public sphere. In his graffiti tour in south Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, Sharett, using the walls of the city as his chalkboard, dissects poetry written on shacks and gives meaning to bright murals depicted on warehouses. By doing so, he provides his students with a window into Israeli society. Asylum-seekers are discussed; so is religion, and the country’s love of hair salons, and much more.

Guy Sharett on his graffiti street tour in Florentin, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Guy Sharett on his graffiti street tour in Florentin, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

Started during the social protests of 2011 when he found that his pupils couldn’t read the signs displayed along Rothschild Boulevard and were missing out as a result, Sharett started taking his classroom and curriculum on the road. (He now offers six tailored tours for students of Hebrew). Sharett, a linguaphile and former southeast Asia correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, also happens to be the grandnephew of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister.

In his signature tour of Florentin, Sharett examines inscriptions on manholes dating back to Mandate-era Palestine and translates slang written on street corners to convey to his students the ethos of Israeli society, something they “just can’t get in a classroom.” Call it Israeli culture 101.

Take a poem by street artist Nitzan Mintz — probably not the archetypical image of graffiti — neatly stenciled onto a wall. It reads:

Street poetry by Nitzan Mintz (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Street poetry by Nitzan Mintz (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

When I’m sad I go to my hairdresser
who cuts years off my hair,
and paints it with strips of gold [highlights]
so I can take on [bargain with] the world.
He doesn’t speak,
nor do I.
80s music is playing,
he knows all the words.

Another piece of street art depicts a sad face, painted over aging rust, topped with black-and-white braille. Yet another, painted on an old stone house, features a small figure, hands in the air, “Don’t deport me” painted under him — a nod to the precarious situation of many of the migrants who inhabit this part of south Tel Aviv — and a play on the seminal Holocaust image of a young child from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

A nearby temple has a religious pun written on its side — the word “God” removed out of courtesy for the house of worship — and deeper into the neighborhood, pink flamingos are wheat-pasted onto the walls. There’s also the ubiquitous band-aid tag above a science project scene, meant to be “healing wounds,” by Dede, an artist from Holland.

Street art depicting a Tel Aviv or Jerusalem road sign, in Florentin, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Street art depicting a Tel Aviv/Jerusalem road sign, in Florentin, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

Farther ahead, there’s a spray-painted image of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man with long peyos, reading from a biblical book and clenching his hand, standing in front of a road sign that points in one direction to Tel Aviv and to Jerusalem in the other — alluding to the cultural divide between the two cities.

Through color and verse, Florentin’s graffiti-and-street art-filled walls document the social and political transformations happening around the country and in this particular section of Tel Aviv.

They serve as a reflection of the life that surrounds them. Then again, that’s art.

Street art in Jaffa (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Street art in Jaffa (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel)

More details:

The sale of the surfboards displayed at the Surf Writers exhibition will take place Wednesday at HaRiviera Gallery in Bat Yam, on the corner of Nordau and Ben Gurion streets, at 8:30 p.m.

Visit Guy Sharett’s website in order to sign up for one of his six Hebrew-language and culture tours: “Wake up and Smell the Zataar: Levinsky Spice Market Tour,” “Eat, Stray, Learn: An Israeli Culinary Adventure,” “Maritime Hebrew at the Jaffa Port,” “Historic Trumpeldor Cemetery Tour,” “Kochav Nolad: American Idol, Israeli Style,” and lastly, “The Florentin Graffiti Tour.”

Niv Bornstein’s gallery, Binyamin Gallery in south Tel Aviv, which he runs with eight other artists, is located at 28 Chlenov Street in South Tel Aviv, between Wolfson and Congress Streets.

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