“Anything is better than those old crumbling walls,” says Yaron while I stop him at Herzl Street in Netanya.
“So, you just think that anything is better than the old walls, but you don’t actually like these graffiti?”, I tried to press for a proper answer whether he likes how the 12 international artists under Artists 4 Israel transferred one of the darkest streets of the city.
“No, I don’t really like graffiti, they are not my thing, you know. But they are still nicer than those damn walls.”
I nodded and farewelled Yaron, who was heading to the beach, just a few meters from our first graffiti on view.
Nobody knew that I was on a mission. Not even my own guys, who spent weeks in Netanya to create something hip and vibe, which, of course, has something much more to it. (I promise I get there, too). But on that Wednesday morning, I was on a mission. I decided to walk by all the (back then) 14 giant artworks (yeah, I like to call them this way over graffiti that still doesn’t seem to get a positive connotation) and stop locals (people who seemed local at least) randomly to discuss how they feel about that bunch of artists, who came to their city with some colorful sprays and left giant paints on buildings.
I face no challenge when it comes to talking to strangers. But it was certainly challenging to stay objective and ask questions without exposing my relation to A4I and without showing that secretly, I hope for a one-voiced answer: ‘we love them’.
But, of course, they didn’t all just loved them. And after all, they shouldn’t. I talked with 20 people that morning. I talked with people of all walks of life; teenagers and veterans, women and men, orthodox and less conservatives. I talked with people who were in a hurry and with people, who were enjoying their fresh shawarma. What stroke me the most that morning is not whether they happened not be into graffiti – we can’t just all like vanilla ice cream either -, but that not one of them refused to talk to me, and not one of them showed any reluctance towards a stranger, who does not even speak Hebrew.
This was striking experience number one. Experience number two was that nobody wanted these graffitis off the wall. Not even that Orthodox man in his 50s, to whom, out of respect, I sent my fiancé to talk to.
“I don’t really care about these things, and I have seen nicer art forms, but no, this is not vandalism, and it certainly doesn’t make the city ugly”, said our Orthodox man, as we were seeking an answer whether a graffiti is still considered as something ugly and a form of vandalism.
“I don’t know these graffiti, I moved here only five months ago,” comes the next answer from a modest French lady, who just made aliyah. “Great, so now as you see them for the first time: what do you think of them?” I persisted, since what is better than a fresh eye that didn’t see the paints before?
She liked them. As she said, they cheer her up and make a better view of this street.
I agreed with her. But, of course, I already sold my heart to A4I and their mission. And before I would reveal experience number three, in which an 11-year-old girl tells me why these artists could have used better colors, here is what I promised, a glance to the behind-the-scenes of these projects.
The 12 artists, from Spain, Portugal, USA, Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany, and Israel, did not just gather in Netanya to beautify the city. Of course, that is a pleasant visual outcome. But they came for a higher truth. These artists came to express their support for Israel’s artists and cultural freedom through their art. They came to see the real face of the country, whose right to existence is questioned each and every day. They came to get a first-hand experience of Israel. And they left as Israeli advocates motivated by artists’ rights.
Just a day before my secret reportage, I was asking my relatives in the city, whether they know about these new graffitis and if they know the story behind them. To my biggest surprise, they either did not see them (yet) or they knew anything about why they were made and by whom. The only person, who actually did read something was rather ambivalent with this whole project. As she said “I don’t know why the mayor invited Americans when local artists could have done the same.”
I told her why. And that settled her question. The next day, she sent me some pictures: she checked the graffiti herself.
So now you know: this is what happened in Netanya. This is how and why the city’s municipality invited these artists and allowed them to do something that most of the cities are still fighting against.
“What do you think of this graffiti here; do you like it?” I am echoing my question over and over again. He is in his 70s, talks with manner and care, and then his answer formulates: “Depends on what kind of glasses you use”. And we laugh. As he says, when he was young graffiti was something to punish, and it was truly a vandalism by gangs. Today he looks at it with a different glasses and thinks that these guys made something nice in his city.
I am not naïve. I know that graffiti is rather a love or hate form of creativity, and it is still very often considered as the secret gigs street kids do when dark comes. So, I wanted to see how a kid today feels about the paints. I asked an 11-year-old girl what she thinks of these walls, and she just blew my mind:
‘I think they could have used some better colors. It is too dark. It does not make me happy. Cities need light and joy!
Overcoming my first shock by her confidence and boldness, I quickly showed her another graffiti from my phone screen.
“Yeah, you see, this one has the right colors, this gives joy.”
I thanked her honesty, and though, paintings have a lot to say apart from its colors, her firm opinion was refreshing.
Three hours passed when I arrived at the corner of Herzl and Smilanski. Just under the work signed by They Drift (a collaborative work by Carlos Aguilar and Ksra) stands a shawarma place. It was lunch time; they were busy.
“I love it! Vandalism?! Of course, not. There are graffiti with bad taste and with good taste. And this is a very good taste”, says the owner while filling that pita with a giant piece of meat.
“It was made by those American guys.”
“So, you know who made it?”, I asked happily that finally someone knows something.
“Yeah-yeah, They were fun.” It was clear that he knew of them, but he still didn’t know about them. But at least that.
“Have you ever tasted shawarma?”, came a sudden turn in our artsy discussion.
And before I could answer, I was eating his giant pita bread, and they were happy to talk, to entertain and feed me.
This is where my Tour in Incognito ended that day. And though nobody said that these graffiti were vandalism to the city, and the majority of the people I talked to liked how theses buildings transform, what bothered me was that there was no common knowledge about why and how these graffitis got there.
Would it change anything if these locals would know that these artists came to their city with a mission? Would it make them prouder and more aware of these works should they know that these artists stand up for Israel when many choose to boycott it? Would they change their view on graffiti once and for all if they would know that these walls are made with care and preparations, and not in a dark, but when the sun is up?
I don’t know.
But what I know is that I was proud to walk through the once-so-dark Herzl Street, and I am proud that today, there are 20 more people out there, who know what Artist 4 Israel stands for.