The Cambridge dictionary defines graffiti as “writings or drawings made on surfaces in public places.” Many of us think of vandalism and destruction when we hear the word, perhaps urban decay, but in Israel graffiti has been elevated to an art form.
Take Solomon Souza’s spray painting the shutters of the shuk. When the shutters are down, it’s a veritable Who’s Who of the Jewish world: Stephen Spielberg rubs elbows with Golda Meir, Judah Macabee gazes at Chana Senesh. I remember the first time I saw his work. It was Simchat Torah of my seminary year. A friend and I were using the shuk as a shortcut to our lunch host’s house. We were stopped in our tracks by Souza’s arresting images. To walk through the shuk that yom tov was an enchanting experience, full of color and vibrancy. Souza makes Jewish history come alive and made me proud to be part of the Jewish nation.
Another positive use of graffiti is the work of Artists4Israel, a collective of Jews and non-Jews from around the world. They are a non-profit that, among other projects, has been decorating bomb shelters in Sderot, a southern community plagued by rocket attacks. Angels, flowers and doves now decorate these concrete boxes. They take symbols of terror and turn them into beautiful places, driving away the fear, one mural at a time.
Then there is the Hebrew Wallpaper Project, which sends street artists to underserved communities around Israel and the world to create murals. These are communities where there is a lack of public access to art. The murals are based on their history and culture. The first resident artist for the program was Souza. He said, “Art should be accessible to everyone. It shouldn’t be hidden behind walls, it should be on the walls.” Last year he did Rosh Hashanah murals full of pomegranates. He added, “Art has the power to inspire and we feel every Israeli, no matter where they live in the country or how much money they make, should be able to walk around their neighborhood and be inspired by art.”
So what is graffiti? Inherently evil or beneficial? The answer: it’s all about intent. If the artist is negatively minded and intends to destroy with his work, then that’s just what he’ll achieve. But if someone reaches out his spray can for good, wonderful things can happen.
Dassie Okin is from West Orange. She is a rising junior at Stern College and was a summer intern at The Jewish Link.