As you walk through the streets of Israel’s second biggest city your eyes are drawn, squinting, away from the beating sun, and to the walls. The streets of Tel Aviv are crowded with images; even the old city of Jaffa, the historical site of the stories of Solomon, Jonah and Saint Peter, is strewn with graffiti. Over the past few years, the city’s street art has been growing in both quantity and publicity: one of Tel Aviv’s grassroots artists, Dede, is now exhibiting in the Kishon Gallery, Alfred Gallery, the Rivera Gallery and the Fresh Paint Art Fair, to name just a few. His work, begun in earnest around 2008, when he was in conscription service with the IDF, marks a trend for much of the artwork around Tel Aviv: bright and bold, more like murals that graffiti, these works speak of anti-establishment, anti-war undercurrents in Israel’s people.
Eran Yashiv, speaking at a conference held back in November 2014, lamented the political fragmentation of Israel’s electorate; he warned this situation was going to get worse, as a cycle of more conflicts fuels a political apathy which will fail to give any government a mandate for radical change concerning Gaza. On March 17th 2015, the Likud party, led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gained 30 seats, whilst the other main party, the Zionist Union, gained. Israel’s political scene is now subject to frantic Likud/ Zionist coalition talks, with the rest of the available seats – 56 – split between eight smaller parties. This kind of splintering is exactly what Yashiv predicted; the Israeli voters have grown too used to conflict, too tired of a political class they see as disjointed and removed from their concerns.
It is no surprise then, that so many of these voters have taken their opinions to the streets instead of the ballot box. Near the port at Old Jaffa, I stumbled across a painting of three cartoon-like IDF soldiers, holding hands and raising fists beneath a scrawled caption, “NO WAR”. The caption is written in English: just as Palestinian artists adorning the walls of the blockade on the West Bank write in English for the news cameras, for tourists, on the other side of the blockade Israelis are joining the outcry with pictures of their own. It can be difficult in Israel to find people willing to discuss politics; even talking to IDF soldiers themselves, the conversation leans more naturally to personal stories than to political views. One woman however, told me she was contemplating leaving Israel: she had been involved in a partnership movement working with both Israelis and Palestinians. There are lots of these, Mejdi, the Roots Project, Aix Group – but despite these efforts the Israeli government still spends 23.2 per cent of its annual budget on defence, and no agreement over territory is in sight.
Yet the walls of Tel Aviv contain hope: not all these paintings are overtly political, but they all speak of a country that is not all its political class and international reputation would suggest. Dede’s most famous work is his painting of the entire Dolphinarium, a shell of a nightclub overlooking Tel Aviv beach, blown up in 2001 by a Palestinian suicide bomber, an attack that killed 21 teenagers and injured 120. Dede has turned the building into a massive, gaping mouth, its teeth bared against the horizon. This work perhaps sums up why Tel Aviv street art is worth looking at – and then looking at again. These scrawls of colour are an attempt to use the city’s ruins, its disused buildings and leftover bombs site, to make something new. Foma’s campaign in South Tel Aviv features sinister pictures of masked women, daubed with Hebrew slogans in red paint like “such legs”; work she calls “my little campaign against sexual harassment.” The artist Klone, whose work I found in the Florentin district, also in South Tel Aviv, is becoming famed for his fusing of animal and human imagery.
That most of these artists work in South Tel Aviv is significant: it is the poorest area of Israel, home to the capital’s 60,000 migrant residents. And it is here, in the most poverty stricken and derelict part of Israel, between bars selling arak and amongst stray cats, that art is fast becoming the expression of a disheartened electorate, of soldiers returned from conscription in Gaza and the West Bank who never found a cause to fight for. As the paintings spring up around the city, their messages will be loud and clear: each wall in Tel Aviv is a space to watch.
ALL PHOTOS/Eleanor Newis