An impressive mural by the Israeli artist Klone greets customers entering Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, one of the city’s most sated, rich and megalomaniacal venues, located in the shadow of luxurious upscale apartment towers. Klone made a name for himself as an underground graffiti artist in the city’s unmanicured areas, creating in the dark of night, below the radar of the establishment. The cooperation between these two seemingly contradictory elements — a graffiti artist and a prestigious real estate venture — attests to the connection developed between street art and money, marketing and branding, especially in the context of urban real estate in Israel.
Today private compounds buy street art, a paradox in itself, while cities seem pleased that graffiti artists decorate the streets and create a contemporary urban buzz — as long as it's in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods like Florentine in Tel Aviv and the lower city in Haifa. According to research on street art, a young and well-to-do crowd is drawn to this vibe and will gradually change the face of these neighborhoods. They will push out the poor and the artists who created the neighborhoods’ character and then “clean up” the street art — in other words, get rid of the very thing that drew them there in the first place.
“Possibly, 50 years from now, Tel Aviv will be a city for the rich only. There will be no street art there,” said Yael Shapira, an art researcher and founder of Alternative Tel Aviv. “But street art will always be here, I believe. It will simply move away [from Tel Aviv] to other cities, like Bat Yam or Holon, south of Tel Aviv.”
These days, street artists feel that the establishment treats them like criminals but at the same time exploits their work to promote itself. Israeli law considers graffiti to be vandalism, but Shapira told Al-Monitor that the Tel Aviv and Haifa municipalities have asked her to conduct graffiti tours for the public. The city of Netanya sponsored a huge project last year that invited graffiti artists from Israel and abroad to paint in the municipal market.
“One cannot blame the establishment for taking advantage of what the city has, as long as no artist’s rights are violated,” said a graffiti artist who calls himself EDED. “But an entity that trips you up in every possible way and then takes a photo of an artwork you’ve created and uses it as an ad can certainly be accused of immorality.” Indeed, graffiti, which by its very nature is considered illegal, is nonetheless often featured in promotional clips for cities.
“The city [of Tel Aviv] is two-faced,” Meital Perger, a designer and events director at the Zezeze Architecture Gallery at Tel Aviv's port, told Al-Monitor. “It says graffiti is banned, but uses it.”
The gallery has been holding a series of programs on street art, the last of which dealt with the connection between graffiti and money. The invitation to the last event asked, “Does the city keep ignoring certain out-of-the-way, neglected areas that attract non-establishment activity (graffiti) in order to leave them that way as a focal point of attraction?”
Perger and Zezeze owner Nadav Lasser claim that the municipality is motivated by its own interests. Thus it prohibits graffiti in some places, while looking the other way in others. Lasser asserted, “The municipality is willing to tolerate graffiti in southern [less affluent] Tel Aviv, but is not willing to do so in the prestigious north. Why is there no graffiti on the Tel Aviv Habima national theater walls? If we did that, it would be erased within 15 minutes.”
Tel Aviv city hall rejects Lasser's claim. The municipality press department informed Al-Monitor, “The initiative and decision are not based on the residential area but on aspects of art, surroundings, safety, maintenance and municipal policy. Unauthorized graffiti on the walls of both public and private buildings is a criminal offense. The entity tasked with enforcing the relevant law is the Israel Police acting in conjunction with municipal enforcement authorities. In addition to enforcement activities, city cleaners go through the streets and erase illegal graffiti.”
The artist EDED is of the mind that “the one who embraces you is preferable to the one who beats you up.” At the same time, he said, “Contact with the municipality is not at the top of the agenda. The illegality and the censorship are what make this art.”
In the same vein, Shapira claims that the graffiti project organized by the Netanya authorities was not “real street art.” She observed, “What they did in Netanya was a project for the whole family. In other words, such a project doesn’t enable discussion of politics or porn or real world affairs, the way true street art does. True street art is direct, not mediated, and there’s a price to be paid for that. The artist won’t get paid if the art work was not commissioned, and his work might quickly be erased.”
Perger is slightly more reserved and thinks that in any case, there’s a difference between today’s graffiti in Israel and the original street art that grew out of protest, oppression and a desire of the disenfranchised to make their presence known. She said that while underground, protest street art does exist in Israel, “The reason for it today is branding, in order to attract attention and audiences. It’s closely synchronized with Facebook and the social networks, seeking to create interaction in order [for the artist] to get ahead.”
EDED insisted that that is not the case for him. “Self-promotion was never a consideration,” he said. “My art stems from intuition and an internal impulse. It’s also out of protest but not only. Fun and conveying an idea and a message are sufficiently good reasons, in my view.”
Tamir Ben-Shahar, an economic-urban consultant from the firm of Czamanski Ben-Shahar, does not see a contradiction between authenticity and establishment support, and in fact, believes that cooperation between the two is a must. “Just like the city adopts a marketing strategy for a commercial center or an industrial park,” he told Al-Monitor, “it can and should plan places where street art is leveraged. True, some of the artists cannot stand the establishment, but most of them want to get ahead and leverage their abilities in order to live different lives.”