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Tel Aviv street art reflects war

By Sarah Mann

TEL AVIV — Life changed dramatically for millions in Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 and one of them was Inbar Haiman, a young student attending a Peace Festival in the Negev desert that weekend.

A mural in Tel Aviv painted by Rotem Zamir.

Caught up in the attack, and then kidnapped and hauled off to Gaza on a motorbike, she was one of the 240 hostages taken prisoner by Hamas that day.

Amongst those campaigning for her release was a group of artists who knew her very well. That’s because Inbar was a visual communications student in Haifa, with a passion for street art and graffiti, so much so that she’d already established a reputation and name for herself — Pink.

“Free Pink” immediately became a rallying cry amongst street artists across Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, where many graffiti artists picked up their brushes and spray cans and headed out to the streets, determined to highlight her plight and keep her name alive in peoples’ minds.

If you take a street art tour in Tel Aviv these days, you’ll see plenty of works on the walls, all with the same subliminal message — bring them home now.

The horrors of war impacted the walls of Tel Aviv: creators started filling them with large artworks dedicated to the fallen, the taken and the heroes of Oct. 7 and these challenging times.

The Tel Aviv street art and graffiti scene is notoriously fast-changing — new pieces are regularly appearing overnight, bold, colorful, and sardonic creations, often with subversive undertones and social and political messages.

There are two particular neighborhoods in the city in which you’ll stumble upon particularly unusual pieces — charming Nahalat Binyamin and hipster Florentin.

Nahalat Binyamin — Bustling and Bohemian

Nahalat Binyamin is a Tel Aviv street not far from the beachfront. Partly pedestrianized (perfect for strolling), it’s full of beautifully renovated buildings, many with lovely balconies across which you can gaze at the city. The main street is lined with cafes and restaurants and each Tuesday and Friday it’s home to a thriving arts and crafts market where you can buy original handmade pieces.

Nahalat Binyamin is packed with brightly colored art, graffiti and murals at every turn.

Some of the most popular pieces include “Who’s Your Daddy Now” (starring Mickey Mouse), Theodor Herzl, the “Bubble Girl” and “In Complete.”

There’s also a stand-out mural by Rami Meiri, picturing two friends standing on the balcony with flowers, one playing the accordion and the other the violin, and, around the corner, a group of girls dressed in 1930s attire, initiating a cabaret scene.

Florentin — Hipster and Subversive

Twenty minutes’ walk south, bohemian and charming is replaced with gritty and working-class in Florentin.

This neighborhood in south Tel Aviv is gentrifying fast, but when you wander its streets, it’s easy to pick up on the hipster vibes and the “subversive” feel it has.

Packed with small bars, cafes, and eateries, it still has a whiff of underground culture that’s reflected in the pieces you’ll see on walls and doors of local buildings.

From the main drag of Florentin Street itself, through tiny backstreets and past garages and workshops in the industrial area, it’s a feast for the eyes — and whether it’s hearts and flowers, partying animals, animated vegetables or in-your-face political commentary, there’s no better way to see it than as part of a Tel Aviv graffiti tour.

The whole area is full of eye-catching local art, whether it’s Miss K’s “Lady in Fur” or “Wise Owl, Alice in Wonderland” (in Banksy style, courtesy of Jonathan Kis Lev), or “Musical Greats” (a montage of many who died too young, including Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison).

Hearts, the five-fingered “Hamsa” (a Jewish good-luck symbol) and the girl with black hair (who seems to be on every other street corner) spring out at you. And then there’s the political commentary.

‘Don’t Panic!’

Signs of the surprising effect Israel’s war with Gaza has had on the art scene here are everywhere. From a simple heart, with “7.10” emblazoned on it, and Superman telling the public “Don’t Panic — the IDF Will Protect You” reminders of the situation pop up constantly.

Another that’s just appeared shows a soldier hugging a young girl in a pink sweatshirt. Signed by Rotem Zamir, we’ve no idea what the backstory is but still, it’s hard not to feel touched.

If you’re curious about the Tel Aviv street art scene, just remember that the guides and magazine articles telling you what’s new are aren’t bad, but by the time you read them they may already be outdated — things are changing constantly in the City that Never Sleeps, so what you’ll see one day may well be gone the next — an apt reflection of how fast our lives and the world around us keep spinning.

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