A serious, bespectacled fellow has been wandering around the streets of Tel Aviv for a decade already, observing the walls, roofs, abandoned buildings and alleyways of the city. But unlike the flocks of contractors and real estate brokers who have been circulating the city streets in recent years looking for their next real estate project, this man is not equipped with a mobile phone or a list of addresses of houses to sell, restore, renovate or destroy. Instead, he is equipped with spray paint and a brush.
Real estate agents and our fellow called Klone share an interest in real estate. While real estate agents want to buy and sell in an era when the prices of apartments in Tel Aviv have skyrocketed, Klone does the opposite: the drawings he paints on buildings are not for sale, and they may be erased by municipal workers or buried under bulldozers carrying out demolition work. In fact, Klone’s art — like that of all street artists — is almost a spiritual enterprise.
Klone, 30, is one of Israel’s pioneers in street art. While this field flourished abroad back in the 1980s, it only began to receive attention from the local art establishment in recent years. Klone’s story is also an immigration tale that produced intimate familiarity with Tel Aviv and a love-hate relationship between the two.
“I immigrated to Israel at the end of 1994 from Kharkov, Ukraine,” he said in a conversation with Al-Monitor in his studio in south Tel Aviv. He continued, “I came to Ramat Gan and studied in a class without other Russian speakers, so I picked up Hebrew very quickly. I didn’t feel the immigration as a trauma, but when you are uprooted from what is familiar and become a minority in every possible fashion, then painting in the street is to paint a familiar space of your very own. A home is the place where you know where you put your things. When I painted on the streets, I felt as if I was putting down my things and remembering where they are.”
Klone's 2012 piece "Lay Down" in Tel Aviv (Courtesy of kloneyourself.com)
When he was a teenager, Klone began to spray-paint the name he gave himself, Klone, on the walls of Tel Aviv. After a few years, he stumbled upon street art “that does what graffiti does, but as a metaphor and not in writing. It leads the person who encounters it, to see it and remember the mark it made. Since then, I’ve developed. At first, I painted one figure and afterward came more figures who created a dialogue with one another. Later on, I studied academic illustration and art history, which also became integrated in my street paintings.”
Klone registered for art studies at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, but that period did not last long at all. He felt that he was not cut out for the academic world and continued to paint on the street with three other artists — Know Hope, Zero Cents and Foma — all of them immigrants, all of them outsiders to the Israeli art establishment.
Slowly but surely, even this establishment began to lift its eyes and look at the walls. “Street art developed without a need for recognition by the world of art,” Klone said. “Sometimes it seems that the art world began to understand that something was growing without its authorization and it must appropriate it for itself, as if to cover a void inside it,” he added. The gap between the two worlds was evident in a group exhibit called "Inside Job," in which Klone participated two years ago with his friends, in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum. “A proposal came up to ‘copy’ the street into the gallery, but the artists were against it. In my eyes, there’s no point to manipulations like these. We are artists. The street is just the platform [for our work].”
Since the Helena Rubinstein exhibit, Klone has put on exhibits in other galleries in Israel, the United States and Europe. In the coming weeks, he will put on a display in The Zimmer space in Tel Aviv, followed by Berlin and Munich. Among the works that will be displayed there are small- and midsized illustrations in aquarelle and ink, a "language" that Klone has been developing over the last six years when he began working in a studio. The transition from street painting to illustrations and drawings took place, Klone said, in a natural way. He grins when he hears people attributing too weighty causes for this transition. “I simply draw because I like to draw,” he said.
Klone did not forsake street painting, but today he approaches it differently. “I used to be the busiest street artist in the city. I had a need to take over indiscriminately, partly because the paintings would be erased almost immediately after I created them. Many things have changed since then. It seems as if someone in the Tel Aviv municipality understood that street art has gained sex appeal. The projects are not erased, and I am not in a tizzy. Today, when I choose a site on a street, it must be special and the painting has to relate to the street in a direct manner.”
This is just what he did a few months ago in the Ayalon stream, along Tel Aviv's highway. For six hours, he painted boats on a wall of 80 meters [87 yards] long and 4 meters [4.4 yards] high. Soon, when the stream becomes inundated with rain, the boats will look as if they are floating in the water. “This was the closest thing to a nature project that I ever created. That’s nature in Tel Aviv: concrete with ducks inside,” Klone said.
For almost a decade, Klone has been getting familiar with Tel Aviv on an intimate level and has become witness to the tremendous changes the city is undergoing. “In the early years, before I learned to ride a bicycle, I used to wander around the city by foot. I used to walk a lot, day and night, from the neglected neighborhoods in the south up to the wealthy neighborhoods in the north. I laugh at myself; I say that if I wanted to, I could be a great consultant to advertising companies. Tel Aviv has numerous empty tracts, but they continue to pay a fortune for the standard advertising sites.
“Naturally, I looked for a platform for my artwork in neglected regions. That’s how I became familiar with Tel Aviv’s underworld: the junkies, the homeless, the prostitutes. I was almost attacked a few times, and I was part of the landscape other times.
“When you get to know a city in such detail, you also see the problems up front. I see the mayor’s very specific preferences; what he chooses to cultivate and what to neglect; the places that are flooded immediately with the first rains, the massive gentrification processes underway.
“This is a city that does not give protection to the man on the street, from lack of rent control to lack of control of how people park their cars. Also, the municipality doesn’t protect the artists whom it ostensibly encourages. The rent in the building in which I rent my studio jumped to crazy levels in recent years.”
But Klone is equally in love with Tel Aviv. “As someone who paints on walls, I am in a pioneering city: I was part of the beginning of the street art wave in Tel Aviv, and to be a pioneer is something very rare in this world. Tel Aviv, unlike other developed cities in the world, allows me to draw spontaneously on every wall I feel like, while in another city there is much tighter control over wall paintings. I assume that in another five or 10 years Tel Aviv will also have more control over its walls, which will become more expensive and more renovated.”
Nowadays, Klone is creating a series of illustrations the size of postcards. He encloses them in frames that he received from a friend after the friend’s mother passed away; she had painted miniatures. Klone smiled, “From wall paintings I have transitioned to miniatures.”
I asked him whether he thinks the day will come when he will no longer be able to paint on abandoned buildings, because all of them will have become real estate gems. Klone replied, “In a short time, this will really become a completely different city, perhaps no longer accessible even to me. But I believe that I’ll always succeed in painting on its buildings. I’ll always find a wall in Tel Aviv.”
Would you want to paint on the walls of Kharkov that you left as a child? I asked him. "I have no special interest in that. Tel Aviv is my home,” Klone said.
Gitit Ginat is an independent journalist. For the last decade she has covered International stories for Haaretz Weekend Magazine, and was a culture critic for the online edition of TLV City Mouse.