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Israeli duo takes street art to museums

Street artists Nitzan Mintz and Dede, partners in life and art, have taken their artworks from the street to museums and galleries.

Nitzan Mintz and Dede are walking a fine line, on many fronts. These include their private lives as a couple and their artistic and professional collaboration; street art and museum exhibitions; Nitzan’s verbal creation and Dede’s visual art; and commercial gallery sales and free street displays, some of which have been erased or even stolen.

Mintz started writing poetry during her mandatory military service, where she penned dozens of poems inspired by the frustration, pressure and depression she experienced. She graduated from the Department of Fine Arts and the Department of Creative Writing at Minshar School of Art, Tel Aviv, and from the Helicon Poetry School. During her studies, she started writing her poems on the walls in Tel Aviv, signing them with her own name.

Unlike Mintz, Dede protects his anonymity and is known only as Dede. What we know about him is that at the age of 13 he painted the sky on a wall at his school, and when he was doing his military service and was ordered to paint a sign saying “smoking prohibited,” he only wrote “prohibited.” He went on to study art and design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and after graduating took classes for a year at an arts school in Geneva. He told Al-Monitor that he learned the most from working in the streets and from the public feedback he received.

Mintz discovered his artwork in the streets and tracked him down in 2012; they met and got involved romantically and professionally.

Dede’s artistic signature is the adhesive bandages and giant birds he paints on city walls. Mintz’s trademark is closely written lines of poetry in square letters that usually overlap one another. Protest is not the main thrust of their work, but social criticism often finds its expression in their art. For example, in 2015, Mintz spray-painted in acrylic a poem on the wall of a rundown street in southern Tel Aviv frequented by hookers, across from where their pimps sit puffing on hookahs and barbecuing meat. She wrote in giant letters, “Where was Daddy’s fist. Where Daddy’s fist was.”

“I wanted [the pimps and the customers] to see it,” she told Al-Monitor. “They saw it and made sure someone [erased] it.”

Dede’s protest is directed at the urban and commercial establishment. He has turned the Dolphinarium, an abandoned dolphin aquarium and discotheque on the Tel Aviv beach, into an expressionist canvas. A parking lot has been turned into a giant bull’s-eye resembling an anti-missile Iron Dome defense system, and the support columns at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s central bus station have been painted to resemble giant toilet paper rolls — an allegorical reference to the facility’s filthy interior.

The artistic couple has recently started exhibiting in museums and galleries. In November, their artworks went on display at the Haifa Museum as part of a series of protest exhibitions titled “Dangerous Art” that focus on artists’ reactions to limitations placed on personal freedoms, on the right to protest and on women’s, LGTB and refugee rights.

“Shifting Dede’s giant birds and Mintz’s texts from the streets of south Tel Aviv into a museum space is designed to convey a message of protest against the way traditional art regards the urban neighborhood,” exhibition curator Svetlana Reingold told Al-Monitor. “Whether consciously or subconsciously, the art world relates to the neighborhood with a proprietary attitude that turns it into an imaginary venue. … The joint works by Dede and Mintz point to the fact that when the interest in a poor person is limited to the aesthetic aspect, the poverty itself remains outside our field of vision.”

Dede told Al-Monitor that the minute a work of art is displayed in a museum, “it is no longer street art, but art. Period. We did not domesticate it, we worked with our materials, the same materials we use on the street, like construction materials, graffiti spray, rough paper stretched on a wall and not framed under glass. As long as we can both get out and do our stuff inside, it is even inspirational.”

Another exhibition of the couple’s works opened Jan. 18 at Tel Aviv’s Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery. On the same night, they took their spray paint and other raw materials and went out to write graffiti poetry and create a street installation at one of Tel Aviv’s main intersections, at a corner of King George and Dizengoff streets.

Mintz said the street art has a life of its own, as well as an end. “I want the city to come and erase my artworks from the walls,” she explained. “That way I will have the hunger to write the next thing. If the text stays on the wall, the hunger will dissipate. The erasure prompts new creation.”

Art historian Miri Krymolowsky told Al-Monitor that most graffiti artists dream of gaining recognition and seeing their artworks displayed in museums. She said that both Mintz and Dede are street artists who also have a formal education in the arts, and “their collaboration gives birth to something far more interesting than each one separately — and that’s part of their success.”

Success and recognition has its drawbacks. One of Dede’s street artworks, where he painted a metal fence surrounding a construction site, was stolen in August. In November, the piece was discovered at an art auction, where an Israeli dealer paid more than 10,000 Israeli shekels (roughly $2,800) for it and donated it to the children’s department at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center.

Dede was upset, but he also understood that the theft was a type of recognition. “The artist cannot control his street art,” Dede said, noting that he is happy the stolen artwork found a worthy home and will cheer up sick children, “even if the thief is the one who eventually profited.”

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