Used to be, graffiti was something you tried your hardest not to see. It covered the subway cars of the Number 1 line up Broadway to van Cortlandt Park, the train I took every day to high school and back in the dark ages of the ‘70s. Sure, the outsides of the subway cars were colorful and bright, but inside, the scrawl of names, a desperate gesture by the anonymous New Yorkers of the ghettos to be seen, to be known, were like so much visual litter thrown against he windows and the walls.
Fast forward several decades, past Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf and Banksy, and graffiti, become art, has a whole different existence and an equally contrasting place.
And that’s where Craig Dershowitz and his organization, Artists 4 Israel, come in.
This week, Dershowitz will lead an international group of graffiti artists through the danger zones that mark the border between Israel and Syria, prepared to meet the horrors of war and destruction with the power and optimism of their art. An all-volunteer mission, the self-styled art army, using brushes, cans, and markers as their weapons, aim, very simply, to change what they can to improve lives desperately crying out for happiness and hope.
This is not Art4Israel’s first such mission, however. The organization first was created in 2009, following a benefit exhibition of works by young graffiti artists in New York aimed at raising funds for bomb shelters in Israel – needed as a result of the 2008-2009 conflicts in Gaza. But while the event raised consciousness, says Dershowitz, that was simply not enough. “We became frustrated,” he says. “Our vision of this wasn’t happening. We weren’t going to stop the conflict. Children were being traumatized by bomb shelters. Even if they didn’t use them, they walked by them on the way to school every day, which was a constant, horrific reminder of what was happening.”
He decided it was time to do more – and that meant going to Israel. “We said, ‘this is where we are able,’” he says. “The bomb shelters looked like canvases to us – they’re what we paint anyway.” Artists4Israel called volunteers, pooled pennies, and headed off. Over the course of a week, from April 25 to May 1, 2010, seven artists painted fifty bomb shelters, a shelter for battered women, and a school in a low-income area of South Tel-Aviv. When not painting, they lived largely on hummus and slept on the floor of a high school gymnasium.
The current project on the Syrian border was inspired by the most recent expedition in 2011 – Dershowitz’s third. “When we saw what was happening on the Syrian border,” he recalls, “we realized how it was affecting those living there. Civilians were completely shell-shocked.Israelis have no idea why they’re the victims of attacks of what is supposed to be a civil war in Syria. This is an area where people move to live in peace and tranquility and calm. It’s the demilitarized zone. And now you have these rocket attacks coming. No one even knows if it’s coming from Assad or the rebels, either, since they hate Israel equally. So people are now living in fear of these attacks.”
For Dershowitz, this was a call to action. “We realized,” he says, “here again is a time for the art world to raise a red flag and say to the world to look at what’s happening and not be a silent voice, a way for the US to respond without militaristic means and give Syria and Israel a bit of hope and beauty in a small piece of that area.”
Among their targets during the one-week expedition: an abandoned Syrian army barracks (“you can’t get a better metaphor than art on a bare army barrack,” Dershowitz observes); the abandoned ruins of the former Quinetra Hospital; a community center for impoverished children; a center for Sudanese refugees (who face their own crisis in Israel); and several bomb shelters.
And then they’ll see what else turns up.
These are not, of course the graffiti artists of the 1970s Number One IRT. They paint images, not just their names; they paint for others, not themselves.
And they dodge rocket attacks, not the NYPD.
They are also no longer anonymous: among those making the trip, which is paid for largely through private donations and through grants from the Alumni Community, a division of Birthright Israel, are familiar names in the graffiti and street art community, including MED and CES from Tuff City, GetLostAlot,and 7th Letter.
“Between us, though,” Dershowitz admits, “I understand that this is somewhat idealistic, and that when there are lives on the line, to think that art work is going to heal the world is foolish. But what did we see happen in the rest of the world? When the Egypt revolt took place, what was looted was the history and art museums. Art is essential to life in so many ways, and it’s what we can do. Everyone plays a role. This is our role. This is what we know. This is where our power lies. “