Israeli special forces vet repurposes wartime experience, training for abstract art

David Roytman fires bullets through paint to splatter designs on canvas, a creative process he says helps him deal with combat trauma

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

  • Artist David Roytman at his new gallery in New York City, March 15, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
    Artist David Roytman at his new gallery in New York City, March 15, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
  • “Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky” by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
    “Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky” by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
  • "Abstraction" by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
    "Abstraction" by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
  • "Letters of the universe," by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
    "Letters of the universe," by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
  • "Abstraction," by David Roytman. (Courtesy)
    "Abstraction," by David Roytman. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — A former special forces soldier has repurposed his wartime trauma and weapons acumen to create abstract art inspired by Jewish and Israeli themes.

David Roytman was born in Odesa, Ukraine, and grew up in the city’s Jewish community. He enjoyed art, and later studied painting and sculpture.

Roytman moved to Israel at the age of 10 and served as a sharpshooter in the army’s elite Duvdevan unit during his standard military service.

Four months after his release from the army, he was called back to fight in Jenin, in the West Bank, during 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, a major combat operation during the Second Intifada.

A few years after that, while in the reserves, he fought in the Second Lebanon War.

Roytman later found work as a Jewish educator, then in business, but sought a creative outlet that would help him cope with some of his memories from his military service.

He turned back to his experiences with painting, but with a twist.

‘Symbol of peace,’ multicolored acrylic on white canvas, by David Roytman. (Courtesy)

“I looked for all kinds of methods. I tried to improvise, and at the end I had this idea and did an experiment,” he told The Times of Israel at his new gallery in New York City during a recent interview.

He began filling sacks with paint and suspending them in front of a blank canvas, then firing bullets through the bags to splatter the paint, creating abstract designs.

“It took about six months to learn how to do it well, because it wasn’t clear at first how to do it, how to set up the canvas, how to apply the paint,” he said. “It was important for me to find my way to cope with PTSD and everything I was carrying, and this was the creative way that I came up with.”

“It’s a method to get it out in a good way, not an aggressive one,” he said. “Instead of destroying with an M4 [rifle], I’m creating with an M4.”

Some of the paintings are purely abstract, with vibrant colors splattered on white and black backgrounds. Roytman has also developed a method for stenciling, allowing him to depict Hebrew lettering, Jewish symbols and community icons, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin and the Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The bullet holes remain in the canvases, though, with around a dozen punctures in each painting.

“Painting is essentially putting paint on a canvas. How you do it — with a brush, with a finger, with your hand, or a sniper rifle — it’s up to you,” he said. He calls his painting project, “Make art not war.”

Israeli artist David Roytman, left, shows a canvas to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, right, in New York, March 12, 2023. (Courtesy)

Roytman now runs several galleries where he sells his art alongside his “luxury Judaica” products, a line he created that includes high-end kippahs, mezuzahs and other items.

He creates the paintings at firing ranges in Israel and Ukraine, where he also has a workshop producing some of his products and is involved in some community projects for children.

The opening of his newest gallery earlier this month, in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, was attended by New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Israel’s then-consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir.

“It’s a true inspiration to watch someone take military prowess and transform it into art,” Adams said.

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