In the brutal winter of 1921, two British soldiers posed knee-deep in snow for a photograph at the Western Wall. Clearly visible on a massive stone just above their heads are Hebrew names painted in square letters.
Though the Wall was still in its pristine state in an 1880 photo, half a dozen black-and-white photos taken between 1900 and 1935 show what would be unthinkable today: name after name painted on the stones, always in square letters. By 1900, Joseph Moshe Aminoff had left his mark; Shalom Joseph Cohen Arazi had left his by 1910. By 1935, new names covered the faded older ones. The photographs are part of the collection of the Elia Photo Shop in the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
A new book, Holy Land Scenes 1906 (Yad Ben-Zvi Press), shows the names in color, in natural pigments of red and dark brown. According to author Yoel Amir, those names were like the notes stuffed into crevices in the Wall today. Jewish pilgrims were among the earliest graffiti writers in Israel.
But graffiti became a widespread phenomenon in the country only after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The Tel Aviv site of his murder became a showcase for expressions of grief and protest, says Ben Baruch Blich of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
“It was spontaneous and personal—people poured their hearts out—and it was political,” Blich recalls. “You could see different levels of graffiti, different shapes and registers of language.”
One large message was a single Hebrew word, “seliha” (forgiveness); another, in equally large letters, bore the word “nizkor” (we will remember).
Tel Aviv street artist Rami Meiri claims the outpouring began with him. “I took a big piece of wood and painted Rabin’s portrait,” he says. “I went to the square [where Rabin was shot]. There was nothing there, just journalists. I decided to attach it to the wall. People started coming over to help…. Then the graffiti began.”
The murder sparked an awareness of the power of graffiti, not only as a means of protest, but as an agent of catharsis. Today, one can see a wide range of registers—personal, social and political—though the phenomenon is neither as widespread as it is in other countries nor has it ever reached the level of sophistication of New York’s subway art. Blich, a senior lecturer in Bezalel’s history and theory unit, is quick to point out that although some see graffiti only as vandalism, he believes it is “part of the inventory of urbanism, especially in Tel Aviv.” That inventory includes stenciled, painted and spray-painted images and messages in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
On a personal level, a youngster in Tel Aviv expresses animosity by scrawling on a building, “Lisa M., you are a despicable bunch of stinky cells”; another, signing himself “Radical Surfer,” vents his anger at educators on a public wall by spray painting, “Teachers are Satan’s emissaries.” And, of course, throughout the country there are tags, elaborate calligraphic signatures.
Groups, too, inscribe their messages on walls. Let the Animals Live, an animal rights organization, spreads the word around the country in Hebrew and English that “meat = murder.” In Jaffa, a group opposed to a temporary aboveground sewage line wrote nightly messages of protest on the pipe that were erased each day by the city. Advocates of “men’s rights in the family” in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem provide a contact number.
Political graffiti runs the gamut from right to left. On the right, for example, “Jew evicts Jew” was painted in bright red on a Jewish home in the Gaza Strip during the 2005 disengagement. A recent left-wing message in Tel Aviv, on the wall surrounding Rabin Square, the Rabin assassination site, states “Food is running out in Gaza.”
Some seem to be sheer expressions of whimsy, such as the stenciled images in Jerusalem of a cat next to the words “Hi, Kitty.” Also in Jerusalem, a blue-and-black figure resembling the cartoon character Olive Oyl is depicted spray painting the word “garbage” on a trash receptacle.
But for true Israeli flavor, nothing beats the ubiquitous signs of the devotees of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.
Nahman (1772-1811), the great-grandson of Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, was a kabbalist and a teller of tales. One of his first disciples in Israel, Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser (1888-1994), found what he claimed was a “letter from heaven” written by Nahman. It contained the mantra “Na Nah Nahma Nahman mi-Uman,” based on the rebbe’s name and the name of the town, Uman, where he was buried, today a pilgrimage site.
In the 1980’s, newly religious disciples adopted the mantra and began wearing large, white crocheted yarmulkes with the words emblazoned on them. The mantra also started appearing on bumper stickers, signs and amulets. But most of all, it was painted all over the country, often in red or blue letters as high as 6 feet tall and outlined in a contrasting color, on homes, on shops, on an abandoned mosque in the Golan Heights, even on the retaining walls of Jerusalem’s main cemetery, Har Hamenuhot, where it was visible to drivers on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
According to Blich, these displays are “a means of pressure by a group that is not acknowledged by the general public or even by the religious public. They are like all other groups that want to make the public aware of their particular ‘ism.’”
But one man’s blessing is another man’s blight. Sassun Mualem, head of the maintenance branch of Jerusalem’s beautification department, takes seriously his mandate to keep the walls clean in a city he feels is a magnet for graffiti. “Everything happens in Jerusalem…so graffiti is much more extreme here than elsewhere,” he says.
Mualem’s priority is removing written attacks on elected officials or minorities from public buildings and walls. His team of three or four workers plus a vehicle is on the graffiti beat several hours a day, sandblasting stone walls and painting over stucco or concrete. “It comes at the expense of other things,” he grumbles.
Playing a cat-and-mouse game with Mualem are the graffiti writers, who come out at night. “It’s the best time not to get caught,” says video photographer Noam Kuzar, 25, one of Jerusalem’s active producers of graffiti and street art between 2001 and 2005. In one instance, instead of just spray painting a message, Kuzar, then an art student, and his friends decided to rename streets around City Hall as a counterbalance to some street names they felt were overly militaristic. With Hebrew, English and Arabic text in white letters on a dark blue background, their signs, identical to the city’s street signs, commemorated human rights and civil rights organizations. Thus, Zmora was renamed Physicians for Human Rights while Heleni Hamalka became Ta’ayush, a grass-roots coexistence movement also known as Arab Jewish Partnership.
Kuzar says he and his circle of friends in Jerusalem, many of them from educated, middle-class families, avoided defacing the stone facades that characterize Jerusalem’s buildings. “People who put graffiti on stone aren’t responding to things on the street,” Kuzar says. “It’s more like the graffiti of gangs.”
Often, graffiti can be sinister, as in the exhortations “Kill All Arabs” on a metal store shutter in Hebron, or “Arabs Out” scrawled in English near the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, perhaps by people too young to remember the equivalent slogan “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!) in Germany during the Nazi era.
On the morning of Yom Kippur in 2004, Jerusalemites in the upscale Rehavia neighborhood awoke to a disturbing sight: At the intersection of Gaza Road and Metudela, someone had drawn a huge white bull’s-eye with a stick figure in the center representing a suicide bomber. Around it were the names of the Israeli president, prime minister and finance minister in Hebrew and Arabic, with arrows pointing in the direction of their nearby residences. Scrawled on the Great Synagogue half a mile away was graffiti attacking the state and reviling then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a murderer.
The events caused a local media sensation. A photo of the bull’s-eye appeared on the front page of the mass daily Yedioth Ahronoth, and reports appeared in all the other dailies as well as on TV Channel 10 (visible on a Web site created to document the media coverage, https://nnimrodd.com/road_circle/road_circle.html). This response, Blich says, is the dream of graffiti writers: “They know they are being read.”
Police nabbed the bull’s-eye perpetrators, two Hebrew University of Jerusalem students, Nimrod Kamer and Ohad Shem-Tov; both denied any connection to the Great Synagogue graffiti. They were put under house arrest for 10 days. Kamer had to do 250 hours of public service and was on probation for a year. Shem-Tov is still awaiting trial.
Today, Kamer, 25, is a high school teacher of cinema and communications and a reporter for an Israeli business daily. He recalls that the constant wailing of sirens as the three officials came and went made the neighborhood feel claustrophobic. “It was as if the most influential people in the country had divided up the neighborhood between them,” he says of his motives.
According to police, graffiti transgressors are charged with defacing property, for which the punishment is up to one year in prison. In 2006, 487 such charges were brought countrywide.
The two intifadas have been huge generators of graffiti in recent years. The conflict has led to images and messages being superimposed on each other on the metal shutters of shops in the West Bank and Gaza.
In May 2006, Aliza Olmert, wife of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, exhibited photographs of intifada-inspired graffiti at Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam. Olmert’s images show swaths of black, white and brown on a background of blue or red, each color obliterating most of what preceded it, as if to shout, “You shall not have your say!”
The photographs reveal a type of graffiti that is “anti-creative, erasing what was there before,” notes Raphael Etgar, museum director. “This is a violent dynamic” that chronicles the spirit of the time.
Another locus of graffiti is the so-called separation barrier, which divides West Bank Palestinians not only from Israel but also from parts of the West Bank. About 90 percent of the barrier consists of fence; political messages and murals color the sections that are concrete wall.
The 25-foot-tall concrete barrier sections have become the perfect forum for protest against the barrier and everything it represents. British graffiti artist Banksy contributed an ironic series of paintings, including a living-room scene with two armchairs flanking a window looking out onto full-color alpine scenery. Another depicts two children playing in the sand beneath a picture of a tropical beach.
Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd used red paint and a marker in June 2006 to write “Tear down the wall” on part of the barrier in Bethlehem. Others have written “Support free Palestine,” “This wall must fall” and “Make love not walls.”
Considering that graffiti’s original meaning is “an inscription, figure or design scratched on rocks or walls,” Israel has some interesting ancient specimens. In the once fertile Timna Valley, about 15 miles north of Eilat, Egyptian kings between the 14th and 12th centuries B.C.E. opened mines to exploit the rich copper deposits. Laborers in the mines carved depictions of Egyptian chariots and ibexes in caves and on the mountainsides.
Closer to the modern sense of graffiti is an inscription, perhaps from the 3rd or 2nd centuries B.C.E., found in a burial cave at Maresha, a rich archaeological site outside Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. The inscription, in the main chamber of tomb 1, is a lengthy message unrelated to the tomb’s original function: “There is nought that I may do [suffer] for thee or wherein I may please thee,” one part of the inscription says. “I lie with another, though loving thee dearly.”
According to Biblical Archaeology Review, some believe it is a conversation between a man and a woman; others believe it is a message left by a married woman who used to meet her lover in the caves.
And though creators of graffiti usually remain anonymous, one in the modern era became a local cultural hero. Baruch Jamili (1923-2004) was a much-decorated soldier who fought with the Palmah during the War of Independence. In 1948, he accompanied convoys to the besieged city of Jerusalem and at one point was assigned to guard a water-pumping station in Sha’ar Hagai, a dangerous stretch of the road. Everyone came to know the huge graffiti he wrote in hot tar on the wall of the station: “Baruch Jamili, PT [Petah Tikva], Palmah, 1948”; the inscription became a memorial for his fallen comrades.
Everyone in Israel knew Jamili’s name, but the person remained a mystery until 1974, when popular singer and songwriter Shlomo Artzi and composer Gidi Koren wrote “The Ballad of Baruch Jamili,” which won first prize in a Hebrew song festival. The festival’s organizers located Jamili and brought him onstage. In 1984, the inscription was removed, and Jamili lost his suit to force the Mekorot Water Company to reinstate it.
Today, street artist Rami Meiri, 49, has become another cultural hero. He says that he has never painted on walls without permission. Yet he is perceived as the quintessential street artist, continuing, Blich explains, the medieval tradition of fresco art. Meiri feels his work, like that of all graffiti artists, must be quickly and easily grasped, while at the same time, personal. “We are the last remnant of person-to-person communication, rather than machine-to-person communication,” he explains. And, he adds, though his goal is not to attack the establishment but rather to make people smile, “if you write on a wall you are perceived as telling the truth, as one of the people….”
One of his best-known images is of a man using his fingers to hold his mouth open in a grimace. The painting, on a building on Petah Tikva Road in Tel Aviv, is based on a photograph Meiri took during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Meiri started painting walls while he was still in Tel Aviv’s Avni School of Art, he says, because the city was in “a state of neglect.” In his free time, he sketched bathers on the beach, and his first work, on a wall at Gordon Beach, depicted the bathers.
The artist has created a number of well-known Tel Aviv murals. One, on the Habima Kiosk on Benzion Boulevard, shows seven young adults lounging at a bar. Another, on the showers at Peeping Tom Beach, has two boys in bathing suits trying to look through a window.
Meiri’s Web site (www.ramimeiri.com) shows how a mural of young people relaxing around the open window of a house on busy Hayarkon Street, also in Tel Aviv, transformed a derelict building into a cheery spot. He has also painted ads for companies such as Amstel beer.
“Creating a mural gives a normal sense to a place,” he says. “So my job is to give a sense of the normal in this abnormal place.” He has even created a plan for a mural that would make the separation wall look like an aqueduct.
There are other street artists who have created murals in Israel, but none has achieved Meiri’s renown. His commissions include buildings in Buenos Aires, Fort Lauderdale, a village near Beijing and, soon, San Francisco. In painting these murals, Meiri sees himself as an ambassador for Israel. “I think I’ve done something to promote our culture,” he says. “This helps show that Israel is not just a place of war.”
True, Israel is not just a place of war, it is also a place of debate. “Graffiti is actually like talkbacks,” Blich says. And as long as there are events to react to, there will be more writing on the walls.