Tel Aviv — The grungy walls of South Tel Aviv are splashed with color and visual playfulness: two-story-high monsters, fantastical creatures smoking pipes, Technicolor clowns. Punctuating the imagery are lines and lines of scrawling Hebrew text, gashes of black on dingy concrete, arresting the eye at street level.
Some of this art is whimsical; much of it is a commentary on the dynamic, often fractious socio-politics of modern Israel. Here in what many consider the last affordable frontier of Tel Aviv, young creative types have reclaimed industrial spaces — factories, auto repair joints, metal and carpentry shops — to spark a cultural renaissance in this long-neglected district.
It’s a renaissance evident in spaces like Contemporary by Golconda, a pioneering gallery housed in an 80-year-old former techina factory. This spring, Contemporary will re-open as the Ravel Museum, cementing the neighborhood’s transition from industrial backwater to creative hotspot — and the symbiosis between Israel’s institutional and grassroots art scenes.
Symbiosis, yes; tension, no, according to the local artists, a cosmopolitan lot who are as comfortable in the halls of museums as they are in their under-heated garrets. “There is no high and low,” opined Ronald Fuhrer, Contemporary’s curator and a seminal figure in the Israeli art world. “One cannot exist without the other, and both are completely necessary to create something interesting.”
In Fuhrer’s view, the area’s erstwhile industrial spaces are not mere buildings, but essential ingredients in the current artistic ferment:
“There needs to be a sort of tension within a space, a back story if you will, that adds a weight as an ode to the past.”
Indeed, this is a neighborhood just hitting the sweet spot — on the cusp of gentrification, yet infused with a singular energy. If Florentin, the bohemian district celebrated in an eponymous ’90s TV show, long ago attained iconic status — Thrillist recently put it on a list of hipster ’hoods along with Williamsburg, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and Madrid’s Malasaña — then South Tel Aviv, just below Florentin, is the current nexus of creative evolution.
Stretching roughly from Salame Street south to Jaffa, the district often referred to as SoSa is a place to take in the sculpture, painting, light installation, and street and graffiti art of more than 150 working artists. Many of them are native-born Israelis; others, like the American-born street artist Zero Cents or Ukraine-born muralist and installationist Klone Yourself, immigrated to Israel but are firmly part of the Tel Aviv scene, rapper monikers and all.
The richness of this aesthetic output also informs the so-called “high” end — the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where the $55 million Herta and Paul Amir Wing, named for Los Angeles philanthropists, opened four years ago to showcase homegrown Israeli work.
But Tel Aviv’s grassroots energy is most evident on these streets far to the south — in places like the Feinberg Projects Gallery, where exhibitions juxtapose established and emerging artists to offer a vibrant, here-and-now discourse. This winter, Feinberg is showing the multilayered paintings of Maya Israel and the African-inspired sculptural shields of Shay Id Alony; both artists were born in 1974.
At Contemporary by Golconda, visitors can explore the mixed-media art of Lior Modan, a Tel Aviv-born, New York-based artist who mixes wood, paint, fabric, resin and paper. Another current show features works by Killy Koren, an Israeli who studied art at Parsons in New York, and whose paintings explore Nordic and European mythological landscapes. There’s an edgy fluidity to all of this art, a sense of the blurring of boundaries — between one country and another, sidewalk and interior, poetry and visual art.
Perhaps no single artist embodies this aesthetic as much as the street artist Oren Fischer, a sometime poet who owns a gallery called Meshuna in the Florentin district. Fischer’s murals incorporate Hebrew and English words, commenting on the changing face of South Tel Aviv – Meshuna, lively as it is, will eventually be torn down to make way for luxury apartments. But Fischer is no outsider: He recently collaborated with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on a series of outdoor murals, even as Meshuna hosted an election party for left-wing artists critical of the Netanyahu administration.
Walking these tattooed streets, visitors not fluent in Hebrew vernacular may find it difficult to decode the semiotics of Israeli street art. One solution is a street-art tour through a firm such as Eager Tourist (eagertourist.com), which arranges English-language walks through the district with local artists like Fischer.
Or you can wind up your day at Kuli Alma, the nightlife hotspot that opened in 2014 as both refuge and showcase for the city’s art-makers. Located just north in the Levontin neighborhood, Kuli Alma spins the beats of Tel Aviv’s buzziest DJs, rotates street art murals on its walls, and hosts nightly parties for the city’s scenesters in its open-air courtyard.
But don’t wait too long. Like all the good parties, South Tel Aviv has a built-in expiration date.