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Israeli artist’s vast, colorful murals bring city buildings to life

Moti Shemesh uses large, bold patterns to transform otherwise uninspiring public spaces across the country

  • A mural on the Neve Raya nursing home in Petah Tikva: produced by Moti Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov, Sarit Shay, On Meir, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
    A mural on the Neve Raya nursing home in Petah Tikva: produced by Moti Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov, Sarit Shay, On Meir, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
  • A mural painted on the outside of a nursing home in Petah Tikva, September 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel Airbrush Center)
    A mural painted on the outside of a nursing home in Petah Tikva, September 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel Airbrush Center)
  • Residential buildings near the Sirkin junction in Petah Tikva, painted by Moti Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov. October 2022 (Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
    Residential buildings near the Sirkin junction in Petah Tikva, painted by Moti Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov. October 2022 (Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
  • Macabim Street in Petah Tikva, designed by Moti Shemesh, executed by Moti Shemesh with Noam Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov, Sarit Shay, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
    Macabim Street in Petah Tikva, designed by Moti Shemesh, executed by Moti Shemesh with Noam Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov, Sarit Shay, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
  • Histadrut Street, Petah Tikva, designed by Motti Shemesh with Marina Gontcharov. Shira Ariel, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israel Airbrush Center)
    Histadrut Street, Petah Tikva, designed by Motti Shemesh with Marina Gontcharov. Shira Ariel, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israel Airbrush Center)
  • Histadrut Street, Petah Tikva, painted by Moti Shemesh, Marina Gontcharov, Shira Ariel, Noam Ben Moshe, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
    Histadrut Street, Petah Tikva, painted by Moti Shemesh, Marina Gontcharov, Shira Ariel, Noam Ben Moshe, October 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)
  • Muralist Moti Shemesh at work on the wall of a school in Petah Tikva (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel airbrush institute)
    Muralist Moti Shemesh at work on the wall of a school in Petah Tikva (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel airbrush institute)

Israeli artist Moti Shemesh started painting and drawing on walls at age 11. Today, he spends much of his time using older buildings across Israel as a canvas and giving them a new life with his designs.

Shemesh’s murals are considered an alternative form of urban renewal, which the government has recognized as both popular and necessary in Israel as municipalities up and down the country contend with aging city centers and the demand for more housing.

Murals as a visual art form can transform public and private spaces. Shemesh says city centers in Israel can often feel grey or beige, and he gets commissioned by building owners and municipalities to use his talent to breathe new life into areas that look neglected and uninspiring. Often these areas have little aesthetic, a result of previous building booms where function prevailed and rectangular residential buildings were set up at scale to accommodate waves of new immigrants.

Murals, he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview, can give a sense of place in urban areas.

“Murals influence the atmosphere,” said Shemesh. “They change the building’s surroundings. Sometimes my work is seen by tens of thousands of people each day as they drive past. From time to time a car will stop while I am working on something, and the driver will tell me how much they like it. Or after I have finished a job people will get in touch to say thank you — it makes me so happy.”

“These artistic projects in the public space bring urban renewal, upgrading the city and have a positive influence on residents and visitors. The main goal is to bring art and color to life, for everyone,” he explained.

Residential buildings near the Sirkin junction in Petah Tikva, painted by Moti Shemesh, Shira Ariel, Marina Gontcharov. October 2022 (Moti Shemesh/ Israeli Airbrush Center)

He also believes that what he offers is “cut-price urban renewal” at a time when breathing life and identity back into older city centers is a major priority for municipalities.

Shemesh said he was drawn to murals at a young age out of inspiration.

“I was short as a child, and when I stood against the wall it was as if it was superior to me. I didn’t want that. When you draw on paper it is still. When you draw on a wall it is a statement, it has a life — it’s really different,” Shemesh said.

Known for his big, bold patterns, Shemesh has been creating murals across the country for over 30 years. He’s done work for both public and commercial clients, including Coca-Cola, Bezeq, Goldstar beer, amusement parks, restaurants, private homes, sports grounds, and multiple municipalities and business owners.

A Rosh Ha’ayin resident, Shemesh said he draws from a large pool of inspirations and particularly likes to bring flowers and nature back into the dry concrete centers of many Israeli cities.

The overall process of creating a mural can be long and involved, he said. The most important factor is “understanding the budget we are working [with] and after that the shape and the individual characteristics of the building [such as] windows, trees planted against it, all the elements that will have to be blended with a final mural.”

The creative process considers “what is right for this area or for the people that live or will pass through here,” he said.

“For a living space, I want the design to bring calm and joy. In an industrial space, there can be more movement and energy. One of my other important parameters is whether people will like the work. When I can, I ask them at the design stage, talking to clients, or using social media to reach out,” he explained.

A mural painted on the outside of the Neve Raya nursing home in Petah Tikva, September 2022 (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel Airbrush Center)

The preparation stage involves creating a grid to map out the design for each square of space. On a large surface, Shemesh and his colleagues will use a spray gun to paint, harnessing a tool that can cover a surface much more quickly than an airbrush. Brushes and rollers may get used in particular parts of the mural, but the spray gun uses less paint and leaves no brushstrokes, said Shemesh.

As for delivery, Shemesh says it is possible to get a design up on a wall in two days. But a more complex design and building — like the work he did on a nursing home in Petah Tikva — takes much longer. That work took around five months, he said.

Shemesh said that unlike graffiti, which delivers a statement or expression by the artist, his murals target an identified audience to transform or enhance their surroundings. His artistic expression is part of the work, but the end result is driven by the needs of a given community.

In the past few years, Shemesh established the Israeli Airbrush Center together with his partner Hay-li Shemesh.

The organization was set up to help other artists develop the skills needed for this kind of work and build a creative community where members inspire each other and work together on different projects.

Artist Moti Shemesh at work on the mural in a school in Petah Tikva that pays tribute to the late Israeli musician Arik Einstein. (courtesy Moti Shemesh and Israel Airbrush Institute)

Shemesh is hoping to work on bigger projects like taking a whole group of buildings and transforming them simultaneously to refocus the feel of the entire area.

His grand vision is for “an open museum all across Israel.”

“I want another 100,000 tourists from across the world to visit Israel each year to see my art…I want through my art to connect people from different communities. I have a dream of peace and I believe that art — my art — can play a role in that,” Shemesh said.

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