Originally published in Haaretz (English edition in association with International Herald Tribune)
The Israeli graffiti scene is relatively new, but boosted by government apathy and citizens’ acceptance, prominent street artists are beginning to win renown around the world
Tel Aviv’s street artists have created a street-art scene as exciting as that of any other major city, and are beginning to earn global recognition of their work.
There are two major factors at play here: the government, which unlike any other advanced democracy, has yet to clamp down on illegal street art; and the Israeli public, which is generally apathetic to pictures that are painted illegally so long as they are inoffensive and attractive. The latter phenomenon may stem from the relaxed attitudes in the Middle East, as well as the day-to-day risks facing citizens: If you’re worried a member of your family could be dead tomorrow, you’re less inclined to be concerned by a work of graffiti, – in fact, you may even be pleased to see a pretty piece of impromptu art adorning the shutters of your local mini-mart.
Indeed, the artists apparently feel this way, too. The Israeli street art scene is still relatively young. The scenes in New York and London emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. Israel is a latecomer — this culture is less than a decade old here – but it is catching up fast.
Israeli governments have been relatively relaxed when it comes to illegal street art. In London, by comparison, the local authorities have been tirelessly chasing after these artists for two decades, even going as far as attempting to bias the public against them, by removing anything that might be considered good, and leaving only badly executed work, along with making people all too aware of the expense of the clean-up.
A crew of graffiti artists were recently charged under British anti-terrorism laws. They were never accused of physically injuring or threatening anyone, of course: They were simply guilty of organizing to create huge, colorful graffiti on the sides of trains all over Europe – something that would most likely cause commuter delays and expensive clean-up operations, but could hardly be called terrorism. In any event, the charges were later dropped.
The U.K. has dramatically stepped up its anti-street art efforts, especially since the announcement that it will be hosting the 2012 Olympics. Now most local authorities spend considerable amounts of money removing illegal artwork of this sort – including that by the hugely successful street artist Banksy, who has created paintings on the West Bank separation fence, and whose works have fetched as much as $1 million. Collectors include Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jude Law.
However, the British government initiative is not necessarily supported by all the citizens. Residents of Bristol were allowed to vote whether the municipality should clean up a work by Banksy, on the side of a sexual health clinic — a naked man (private parts covered) hanging from the window of his lover, while her husband furiously scans the area — and they unanimously voted to keep it.
Opponents of street art call it a stain on society, and say it looks messy and even leads to higher crime rates. Some governments have adopted the “broken window theory,” coined by New York officials in the early 1980s, which alleges that graffiti brings about urban decay. While some politicians have seized this theory in an attempt to make electoral gains, Israeli politicians haven’t yet jumped on the bandwagon. Illegal street art has not yet been demonized here; it’s simply viewed as a “kids” activity, which to a large extent it still is.
But there’s big money in this “childish” pastime. The plethora of Israeli galleries that represent local artists for international clientele, and the new profitable social enterprises, set up by philanthropic-minded entrepreneurs to cultivate the country’s emerging artistic talent, are now taking an interest in artists who have traditionally worked on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
Israeli dealers are beginning to embrace local street artists and give them the opportunity to carve out careers as full-time professional artists and, while the prices of their work is climbing rapidly, Banksy, and the Lazarides Gallery, London, being allowed a lot of the credit for the terrific upward trend in the street art market over the past six years (what the commercial art world calls ”positive catch-up”), Israeli street artists are doing something authentic, not just in the context of Israel, or the Middle East, but the world.
Some of the biggest street artists working in Tel Aviv at the moment are Know Hope, Ame72, Klone, and Zero Cents, who are beginning to gain international recognition. They are all young artists, with skills and commitment to what they do, and they are also starting to sell their works for substantial sums of money here and abroad.
Know Hope, 22, is an artist and a former skateboarding enthusiast. His latest work depicts a slouching, stylized character. Born in the United States to artist parents, he immigrated to Israel 12 years ago. His career is now beginning to go global, and he is represented by galleries in Israel, London, Los Angeles, New York and around Europe.
Know Hope describes his birthplace, southern California, as “distant and superficial.” “Tel Aviv often feels small and congested, but it’s great city.”and one he says he feels attached to. “It is also really easy to paint [the streets] here compared to the States,” he adds.
Know Hope tells stories through his work and by using the same character, iconography, nuances and metaphors. These features also help make his art very accessible.
“Things that happen in the series sometimes happen in my own life, only a few months later,” he explains, he does not identify himself as a Jewish artist in Israel, and tries to shy away from direct political references in his work, Not to completely deny the political situation, on a larger scale Know Hope’s work reflects the problems the people face, but the overarching notion is far more concerned with human dynamics, interaction, and how things change form: or as he sees it, “doing art in the political context in a simplified way.” He explains sullenly, “we’re in this sinking ship together, all dependent on each other”.
He prefers his art not just to address like minded people, but rather act as a collective form of communication. He believes living in Israel adds an interesting logic to his art, pointing out that posting work in Gaza is different than doing so in Illinois. While he says religious ritual and tradition influences his work, so do television commercials.
By doing art in the street, you are creating a collective reality, something you don’t get in a gallery, Know Hope explains. In a gallery you take an empty white space and create your own environment, while on the street you take what already exists and you add to it. “Art done on the street interacts with its environment,” he says.
Not surprisingly, he also believes people would rather see a painting in the street than a gray wall, and thinks people react differently whether you’re holding a spray can or a paintbrush, even though you can technically produce the same thing with both.
The Lego guy
Ame72 is also a full-time artist who does illegal street art, and is selling his work around the world. His use of the Lego-like characters in a lot of his street and gallery work has earned him the name “Lego guy.” A short stroll around central Tel Aviv reveals both illegal and commissioned creations by him.
Ame72, who is clearly enthusiastic about the value of what he does, often uses stencils in his work that are similar to those used by Banksy.
Says Ame72: “We have got the tools to send out a positive message of peace, and it needs doing – – it’s a necessity! Whatever happens there’s always going to be pain and hurt … I try to make stuff that makes people smile.”
Through the Web site (ame72.com) he and his wife maintain, Ame72 sells his work around the world. He has exhibited alongside Damien Hirst, and his work appears in several books on street art. He was recently invited to submit a piece for the prestigious DNFA urban art auction, held at Selfridges department store in London and has, what looks to be, an extremely exciting new show at the Kishon Gallery, Tel Aviv, opening October 8th.
For his part, Artist Zero Cents pushes the boundaries of street style and taste. Apparently fearless, he often paints gratuitous sexual imagery combined with religious Iconography,- both Jewish and Christian. His uninhibited style is anathema to the religious discourse of Israel, and represents the darker layers of the human psyche.
While his work is off-putting to some, Zero Cents can be considered an artist’s artist, and part of Israel’s artistic avant-garde.
Klone is another, very prolific artist working on the streets of Tel Aviv, known for his iconic “predator” character, which features in much of his work. The predators at first appear unreal, but “by looking at them deeper, you will always see something of yourself,” Klone says.
He notes that his art is not influenced by Judaism, but by everyday life and people. Therefore, he walks everywhere, in order to fully absorb the city. Klone views creating street art as providing an important service, as it is a way to expose more people to art and serves as an alternative to what he refers to as “the only graphic expression the Israeli government and municipalities provide its citizens with: – advertisements.”
The supplies used by many street artists can be found at the specialty shop Capzoola, on Tel Aviv’s Guela Street. In addition to selling various materials, it also serves as a hub where local and visiting street artists can find like-minded people, share ideas and techniques, and even exchange art with each other. Furthermore, the shop occasionally holds full-scale exhibitions, which draw collectors.
Rami Meiri, an Israeli mural artist, says artists working illegally on the streets contribute positively to the urban landscape, and adds that they are helping to expand the boundaries of art in general, as some of the most exciting local artists are now taking to the street to gain recognition.
One cannot help but feel, after speaking with these local talents, that as a progressive society, Israel should invest in its street artists, as it does its young entrepreneurs. For it is these artists, who remind us of the signs of life, that are often forgotten in our concrete jungle. Indeed, these are people who have the power to make our daily walk to work, and perhaps our lives, just a little bit brighter.