TEL AVIV—What happens when the grimy surfaces of the street meet the sterile white walls of the museum? The question has had the art world talking since street art first started going mainstream in New York City in the 1970s, but the conversation only more recently arrived in Tel Aviv, the contemporary art hub of the Middle East and a new go-to destination for the street art enthusiast.
“Inside Job: Street Art in Tel Aviv,” an exhibition now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is putting the spotlight on the city’s epic street art scene at the same time that it's breaking down the barrier between “official” and unofficial spaces for art. “Bringing street art inside somehow contradicts itself. People do not think it is art,” says curator Tal Lanir. With the mission to prove that street artists are indeed “real” artists, Lanir gave eight of the city’s most celebrated street artists blank walls and free reign inside the museum. “Street art is not vandalism. I want people to know whose hands are behind what they see in the streets, and to realize that they are artists,” she says.
Anyone who's been to Tel Aviv in the last five years knows just what she's talking about. Walk in any direction in this city, from the industrial alleys of South Tel Aviv to the wide tree-lined boulevards in the city’s affluent center, and you'll be confronted with the reality that street art has become nothing short of a phenomenon here.
“Free art for everyday people,” as Ame72, one of the city’s top street artists, describes it. A founding father of the Tel Aviv street art scene, Ame72 moved to Israel from the U.K. when street superstars like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Space Invader were wreaking creative havoc in London, Los Angeles, Paris, and beyond. Armed with cans of 10 shekel (less than $3) spray paint, he and a small group of fellow taggers starting hitting the streets, and in Tel Aviv they found a graffiti goldmine: a blank canvas whose walls had not yet seen spray paint.
“When we started writing, back in 2001, there was pretty much nothing on the walls,” says Kip of the graffiti crew Broken Fingaz, one of Israel’s early street art pioneers.
Another thing Tel Aviv had going for it was law enforcement. “Street art will always be illegal,” says Know Hope, the most internationally recognized of Tel Aviv’s street artists (off the street and in the auction house, the price of his works ranges from $500 for a small drawing to $27,000 for a series of paintings). “But, we do have it a lot easier here.” With a security situation as contentious as Israel’s, even the local police have more on their minds than arresting wall writers. Artists are sometimes fined and rarely taken to the station, but their work is routinely—albeit selectively—erased. “They are ‘the PC squad,” Ame72 says. Overtly political work doesn’t stand a chance, and beyond that, “they choose what they like. They decide which ‘illegal’ is pretty and which is not. Then they erase.”
Not only do city officials unofficially tolerate street artists, they're now technically supporting them. The Tel Aviv municipality provides about 40 percent of the annual budget for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, funding an exhibition of the very street artists they officially deem criminals. In a public statement, the city government shrugged off the contradiction: “All artistic activity in the public space that has not been prearranged and is displayed in a way that constitutes a violation of regulations and laws is dealt with by the enforcement agencies."
While the "Inside Job" artists have little to worry about from the police, they were less certain of the arts establishment’s response to their work. Never before had street art been shown in a museum in Israel. And three months before "Inside Job" was scheduled to open, the “Art in the Streets” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles came under fire by critics and members of the LAPD alike, and its scheduled appearance at the Brooklyn Museum was canceled.
“I thought it would be 50-50,” Ame72 says. “I thought a lot of people would look down on seeing street art in the museum.”
Sure enough, the public went wild with praise over "Inside Job." “I was almost shocked,” says Lanir, who had also predicted much more of an uproar. Old and young, over 1,000 filled the museum on opening night, and the crowds keep coming.
“The response has been insane. To see people experience and engage with the art was amazing. Often the art scene or art system is about keeping people out of it, the small clique who is in the know. As an artist, I believe that art’s not about that. It is about accessibility,” says Know Hope. “And the street, it’s there for everyone.”
Top image by Broken Fingaz at the "Inside Job" exhibition, courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art.