“Unfortunately, people here have to live with bomb shelters. We’re here doing a little something to bring some color to something that’s here for an ugly reason,” said American graffiti artist Cycle, summing up perfectly the aim of the Artists 4 Israel mission to Israel.
Tuesday was the group’s third day in Sderot, where urban artists from the United States, Spain, Mexico and Israel have been busy beautifying the bombarded city’s public bomb shelters.
The “Murality Project” is all about sending a message of support to the residents of Sderot.
Bus stop bomb shelter in the center of the city. (Photo: Seth Wolfson)
“We couldn’t be here to build the bomb shelters or fight in the war, but we can help the people fight the debilitating effects, which are just as bad,” said Craig Dershowitz, president of Artists 4 Israel, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We can step in and help reignite the city that has suffered for so long, with our artwork.”
Participating in the project are 25 artists, including some of the top names in New York City’s urban art scene. In Sderot, the group of non-Jewish, American and international artists joined Israelis to contribute their talent to beautify the city.
“Some of the artists here are used to being flown first-class and housed in five-star hotels for commissioned work. Here they sleep on the floor, six people to a room at the local yeshiva building,” said Dershowitz. “They contributed valuable time and art that can sometimes be sold for as much as $10,000, expressing their support for Sderot and Israel.
“There tends to be a misconception that the arts community is liberal and as such doesn’t support Israel. The truth is that those who do are oftentimes silent,” said Dershowitz.
“The graffiti community is never silent,” he continued. “Israel as victim doesn’t resonate with the machismo mindset of graffiti artists, but Israel as a strong, proud defender of its freedoms does… The message of ‘don’t f*** with us!’ sits well with the graffiti mindset.”
Sderot spokesman Shalom Halevi said that the artists’ “can-do” attitude was apparent from the start.
“On the first evening after their arrival, once we’d welcomed them, they were eager to hit the streets. At 10:30 at night, after landing from a nine-hour flight, they were roaring to go and immediately went to work on nearby walls. They painted into the night and only finished at two o’clock in the morning,” said Halevi.
“That’s the kind of attitude you can’t help but admire. Their work here is extremely welcome, both for the aesthetic benefit for the city and the moral support.”
Halevi said that ever since the rockets stopped falling regularly, Sderot has been neglected by both the government and many of the philanthropic organizations that had assisted the city in the past.
“It feels good to see that people in faraway countries are still thinking about us,” he said.
Keeping Sderot in the headlines is the main goal of the Sderot Media Center.
“We’re constantly on the lookout for creative initiatives and the Artists 4 Israel Murality Project was a perfect fit for us,” said Jacob Shrybman, an activist with the center.
Shrybman said the media coverage that the project generated was a throwback to the days of Operation Cast Lead and the months leading up to it, when Sderot appeared in the papers daily.
“It’s important for us to let people know that as the world fixates on Gaza, in Sderot, 3,000 new bomb shelters are being constructed in anticipation of the next round of combat,” Shrybman said.
“You can still feel the tension in the air. People aren’t at ease,” said Saul Schister, a graffiti artist from Texas, who is currently in Israel as part of a Young Judea one-year program.
“One of the artists was working with headphones on, listening to music, and a resident came up to him and yelled at him. He told him that it was dangerous because with the headphones on, he wouldn’t be able to hear the sirens,” said Schister. “I guess that for them, these bomb shelters on every street are a constant reminder that they live in a war zone.”
Even for the Israelis in the group, the visit to Sderot was a first. For the young man working under the moniker Psycho, painting public buildings with the permission of the municipality was something of a novelty.
“I used to paint illegally, but then I was caught by the police. Since then I’ve been doing commissioned work,” he said.
“I don’t really care about the politics. For me it’s more about the art. But I know that the people here have had a rough time and if my work can help, I’m happy to do it. So far people’s reactions have been really positive. Some people have even asked if we can come paint their house.”
Dershowitz said he hoped that after their time in Israel the artists will be able to go back to where they came from as strong advocates for Israel and with a better understanding of the reality on the ground.
“After spending more than a week working side-by-side with Israeli artists – living with them, eating with them and traveling the length and breadth of the country with their Israeli peers – the New Yorkers are going to have a lot of positive experiences to share when they get home,” he said.
“We hope they will then tell people about a different side to Israel than usually gets reported in the media, a country not defined by past conflicts but filled with a vibrant youth culture looking towards a bright future for everyone in the region.”