Graffiti artists draw on Jewish roots
Over the past week, two graffiti artists have been applying layers of bright orange and blue paint to an outdoor wall of the Silverlake Independent JCC. Hillel Smith, a native Angeleno, and Itamar Paloge, a Tel Aviv-based artist, met a year ago through their shared interest in street art. Now they’re creating Jewish-themed murals across Los Angeles.
The JCC mural features a massive orange Hebrew letter, alef, which fills the wall space. Surrounding the letter are blue calligraphic lines that reference the forms of the Hebrew alphabet but are not actual letters.
“It does incorporate the styles that both of us work in,” Smith said. “My work tends to be a lot more geometric and angular, and Itamar’s is a lot more free-flowing. This layering effect really brings the two things together.”
This is just one in a series of works the artists are making incorporating the Hebrew alphabet as a design element. Their current project, “Illuminated Streets,” references illuminated manuscripts, beautifully decorated handwritten books that are part of a rich history of Jewish typographic art.
Smith said he enjoys the unusual juxtaposition of Jewish tradition and contemporary media such as graffiti. Smith grew up in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, riding his bicycle to the comic book shops on Melrose Avenue and admiring the street art of his hometown. In L.A., he said, street art is closely tied to cultural identity, and it bothered him that there was no Jewish representation in street art.
“I always felt like, growing up, ‘OK, I have a lot of pride in my Jewish heritage, and there’s all this really interesting work happening elsewhere; how come there’s really nothing interesting that’s Jewish out there?’ ” he said, pointing to Japanese-inspired murals in Little Tokyo and Mesoamerican-themed murals in Boyle Heights. “So, while not all of my work is Jewish, and not all of my work, I don’t think, needs to be Jewish, it did feel important to me. Like, I have the ability to do this, and I can represent my own identity and the identity of my community in a way that other communities have successfully been able to do so far.”
Smith first pitched the idea of doing Jewish-themed graffiti projects around L.A. at SEDER, an event where artists present their ideas, and participants pool their money and vote on which artist’s project to fund. Smith’s grant helped him purchase materials and make connections with other Jewish artists. Anne Hromadka, an art consultant, runs the SEDER events as part of her role as director of Nu Art Projects.
“Why not have spaces that are designed and beautiful and speak to the multilayered generations that inhabit areas like Pico-Robertson or Fairfax, or going to school at AJU [American Jewish University] or HUC [Hebrew Union College],” Hromadka said. “There are endless possibilities to be reflecting back on our culture in new ways that are exciting and interesting and innovative, and speak to developing a new language for us to interpret our oldest traditions.”
Smith is a full-time graphic designer and has made small-format spray paint work for a few years. He made a mural at Camp Ramah in Ojai in 2013 and met Paloge last March at Asylum Arts, a summit for emerging Jewish artists in New York. About 70 artists participated in last year’s gathering, which was supported by the Schusterman Family Foundation. The pair bonded over street art and a shared love of typographic art.
Smith and Paloge received a grant through Asylum Arts to paint in L.A. and Tel Aviv, and have since received funding from the NextGen Engagement Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. They’re creating murals at the Silverlake JCC and at AJU through the month of March. They plan to paint a mural at the Venice Art Walls and will present at the Conney Conference for Jewish Art at USC, March 24-26. The second half of their project will be in Israel, where they will make murals this summer.
Josh Feldman, director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity and assistant dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at AJU, said Jewish-themed murals are “sorely missing from the landscape” of Los Angeles and praised the collaboration of various community institutions in supporting Smith and Paloge’s work.
Paloge is no stranger to collaboration. From 2011 to 2012, he hosted live art parties every other weekend at his warehouse loft in Florentin, a Bohemian Tel Aviv neighborhood famous for its vivid graffiti. The series, called “The Dining Room,” brought together dancers, musicians, painters, video artists and others as part of an experiment in artistic fusion. “It was like a lab of creation, combined with a nightlife party,” he said.
Paloge goes by the street name Faluja and admits to having far-ranging artistic interests. He’s studied conceptual jewelry-making in Germany and India, marble sculpture in Italy, and his art-making materials include wood, leather and paint. He said he views street art as a political act, even if the art itself doesn’t convey an overtly political message.
“Voices should be heard, especially artistic people and people that have something to say,” Paloge said. “The way I see it, it’s connected to freedom, and it’s something very important to happen in the Israeli atmosphere today.”
Plus, Paloge said, it turns drab, boring walls into public art, perhaps inspiring passers-by to think more creatively. On the first day of painting the JCC mural, Smith said, a woman stopped to ask about their project.
“She looked up and said, ‘Has that wall always been here?’ I thought that was so funny because, this wall, as far as anyone is aware, has been here as long as the building has been here. But it’s just so white and square and completely unremarkable,” Smith said. “And having this insanely bright piece here that immediately draws your attention as soon as you walk into the parking lot shows that this is the power of art and creativity in bringing color into your life and into your neighborhood.”