Tel Aviv residents are fuming over the municipality’s decision, just before Memorial Day, to paint over an iconic mural in the Florentin neighborhood depicting the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Within moments of the municipality workers splashing the first layers of primer to erase the mural, neighborhood social media lit up and the artist who painted the mural 22 years ago, Yigal Shtayim, began getting dozens of phone calls.
The city said it was an “innocent mistake,” ordered a halt and attempted to wash off the paint, but that only further ruined the mural.
The Florentin neighborhood is famous for the colorful murals that decorate the walls of old warehouses and buildings. The neighborhood used to be a run-down commercial hub for whole sellers and small industries like carpentry and metalworking. Eventually, artists and musicians discovered the cheap rents and began moving in, giving the neighborhood a funky, urban, creative feel. Dozens of talented, and less talented, graffiti artists used the crumbling cement walls of the neighborhood as canvases for riotous splashes of color in the otherwise drab city streets.
Over the past decade, the neighborhood has rapidly gentrified as new apartment buildings go up overnight and the creative class is now pushed further south. Still, Florentin’s graffiti has so far endured amidst the new construction, spawning dozens of popular “graffiti tours,” some of which are run by the municipality itself.
The mix-up over the Rabin mural on Florentin’s Washington Boulevard was a consequence of work to pave the way for a community art project, part of an 18-month initiative to support and connect local artists with the city and create 17 different public art installations. One of the art projects was a mural in Florentin, and the local community center decided that the wall on Washington Boulevard was a good spot.
“The municipality wants to do good, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Rei Dishon, an urban cultural activist and tour guide who sometimes leads graffiti tours for the municipality.
Dishon said the city does have an appreciation for graffiti as art, but the issue with the Rabin mural illustrates the total lack of communication between the different branches of the municipality.
“Calling it an innocent mistake is just insanity,” he said. “I would like to talk to the city’s beautification department and say to them, ‘let’s do a tour of art in the public arena and then you’ll know what and where we have art and we can figure out how to save that information somewhere,’” said Dishon, who is also one of the founders of iArtists, an independent group of Israeli artists.
“Right now, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. People need to work together, all the branches of the municipality need to work together. We really need to create these forums with local artists,” Dishon said.
Earlier, the municipality put a historic photo over the mural. A municipality representative said on Facebook that it was a “temporary measure” for a local art project. It was removed soon afterwards after protests from area residents.
“The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality recognizes the uniqueness and importance of street art, including murals,” said a municipality spokesperson. “The city even designates specific places in the city for this and organizes street tours [of graffiti].”
However, the spokesperson stressed that the city does not condone unauthorized graffiti and will engage the police to remove illegal graffiti.
The Florentin’s famous graffiti even inspired an informal ulpan. Guy Sharett leads graffiti tours in Florentin called “Streetwise Hebrew” and uses the colorful murals to explain Israeli culture and slang words.
Yigal Shtayim, the artist and activist who painted the Rabin mural 22 years ago, was commissioned to paint on the electricity infrastructure building on Washington Boulevard twice. He received permission to paint the building for the Rabin mural and for a previous mural at the same spot. An Israeli TV crew doing an segment about Florentin commissioned him to do the Rabin mural, and Shtayim told no one what he planned to paint until the morning of filming, when it was too late to change anything.
“It was right after the Rabin assassination, and I thought that there was a lack of graffiti about the violence in Israeli society,” said Shtayim. “I didn’t want to do something typical with [Rabin’s] face, but more about the trauma. It’s like a map of social violence.”
The mural depicts the moment of Rabin’s murder, when Yigal Amir shot Rabin from close range. Shtayim painted it as if seen through the security camera footage of the event, in black and white and a bit fuzzy.
For years, people who went on graffiti tours sent Shtayim letters and messages about how much the mural touched them, even though the message was difficult and stark. When the municipality started painting it over, dozens of people called him in alarm.
A municipality spokeswoman said the city has asked Shtayim, who still has a studio next to Florentin, to repaint the mural. Shtayim said he plans to repaint the mural, though he noted his rates have gone up in the past 22 years.
Shtayim also traced the problem to the municipality’s lack of communication, rather than its lack of appreciation for public art.
“There’s no database of art in public sphere for murals, even though there is one for public sculptures,” said Shtayim. “There’s no way for the city to fix things if they want to, they don’t know which artist did what.”
Shtayim said after he finishes repainting his mural, he hopes to work with the city to create a database for murals. “I want to map all of the graffiti so that we can make sure they are kept up, and we have info on who made what,” he said.
Shtayim noted there’s an inherent tension between cities and graffiti artists, but that many cities, like New York, have found ways for both groups to work together.
“It’s a thin line, because if it’s not Banksy, some people see [graffiti] as damaging their property,” said Shtayim. “That’s why the city needs to decide what is legal and what is not, so they can dedicate walls to artists. And artists need to help so there won’t be a huge mess.”
Dishon noted that both the city and the artist have the same goal in mind: to create a more beautiful and inviting place to live. But in order for that to happen, the city needs both.
“Culture can be a tool for strengthening social networks,” said Dishon, who recently gave a graffiti tour to Jerusalem city officials focusing on how public art can foster creativity. But he’s still frustrated the wealth of artwork already existing in Tel Aviv could be at risk due to a lack of communication and organization. “The city wanted to do good,” he said. “But they did not do good.”
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