From murals to tchotchkes, Banksy’s shop attracts crowds

He may not know it yet, but the fiercely anonymous and anti-corporate British street artist known as Banksy has his very own gift shop in the walled-off West Bank.

On a recent Sunday, while Pope Francis was passing through Bethlehem on a peace-building mission, Hamud “Moodi” Abdalla, part of a tight-knit pack of Palestinian friends and family that runs Banksy’s Shop, hopped out to greet a couple of drifting tourists.

“You know Banksy?” Abdalla called to the tourists. “Welcome! This is the store of Banksy.”

Banksy’s Shop is tucked in the shadow of Israel’s separation wall in Bethlehem, right around the corner from the spot where the pope famously stopped and prayed on his trip. Despite its discrete location, it has grown into what could be the West Bank’s most-trafficked souvenir shop: After opening in 2011, its quarters had become so cramped by 2013 that the owners had to knock down a wall and expand into the space next door.

“Everyone knows about it,” Abdalla said, flipping through photos on his phone of various tour groups and journalists stopping by the shop.

Inside, visitors can buy magnets, mugs, candles, T-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, posters, stickers, pins — all printed with photos or re-creations of Banksy’s nine pieces around Bethlehem. 

In a 2005 trip that secured his spot as the world’s most talked-about street artist, Banksy descended upon the small biblical town of Bethlehem and coated its surfaces in visual statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Banksy documentary ironically titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — a reference to the commercialization and gallerization of street art — shows him from behind, stenciling a bunch of balloons onto the separation barrier. Hanging from the balloon strings is an image of a small Palestinian girl hoping to float over the wall. 

“WEST BANKSY,” a Daily Mirror headline blasted at the time. A Spanish-language newspaper declared: “Banksy wants to change the Gaza wall into the largest gallery in the world.”

Asked if Banksy is aware of his namesake tourist shop in Bethlehem, Abdalla said, “He doesn’t care. He has a lot of money, so why would he care?” And anyway, he added, “Where is Banksy? London? I don’t know. No one knows where Banksy is.”

According to Abdalla’s cousin The’er Abulabid, who works the cash register, the No. 1 seller in Banksy’s Shop is a small photo of a stenciled Palestinian resistance fighter hurling a flower bouquet as if it was a stone — perhaps the artist’s most iconic piece in Bethlehem. (Also popular, though not Banksy-related, is a wooden carving of a classic nativity scene with a twist. Thanks to a separation wall splitting the scene, the three wise men are blocked from reaching baby Jesus.)

Large-scale Bethlehem tours such as those run by the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem make regular stops at Banksy’s Shop. Tourists can even use the store’s stock of spray paint to create their own art on the separation barrier; after they’re gone, the Banksy’s Shop team re-covers the area with white paint to prepare for the next tour bus.

Abdalla and his best friend, Yamen Elabed, whose father is the shop’s official owner, also run their own special Banksy tours as an offshoot enterprise. In a recent news short for the German public television station Das Erste called “How Palestinians Benefit From the Wall,” Elabed could be seen driving a pair of European tourists around Bethlehem in his six-door Mercedes “limo.” He describes to them the devastating effects of the wall on Palestinian society, but also its unexpected benefits for the local tourism industry.

In the past few years, Abdalla and Elabed have become the go-to interviewees for international news crews passing through Bethlehem — propelling Banksy’s Shop to even greater fame.

On the day of the pope’s visit, TV journalists from California and Spain ducked into the shop to get some quick commentary on the conflict from Abdalla, a rowdy personality sporting a muscle T-shirt and Ray-Bans.

That same day, the Banksy aficionado volunteered to zip this reporter across town to a bus stop, just in time to catch the pope’s impending arrival in Jerusalem. On the way, he revealed that he also oversees his own “secret team” that puts up most of the non-Banksy art on the separation barrier.

Abdalla produced a smartphone photo of his team working on one of the wall’s largest and most recognizable murals: a looming abstraction of a man apparently hunched over a trumpet, located several hundred feet from the shop. In Abdalla’s photo, an Israeli soldier sticks his head out of a window atop the wall’s built-in watchtower, smiling at the guerrilla artists below. 

Abdalla remembered of the soldier: “He said, ‘Can I join you?’ … I didn’t say anything, I was just so laughing.”