September 18, 2019

For Graffiti Artist Solomon Souza, Israel Is a Blank Canvas

On the day I sat down to talk to graffiti artist Solomon Souza, the police took him into custody. After we wrapped up the interview at a Georgian Khachapuri joint in Jaffa, Souza headed to Tel Aviv’s beach road and sprayed up a storm — and a blue female figure — before police caught him and detained him for three hours.

The experience was par for the course for the 24-year-old who has what he calls an “interesting relationship” with Israeli law enforcement.

“I’m extremely rowdy and confident with the police. I scream and shout and dance and laugh. I basically just confuse them,” he said of previous late-night, often alcohol-infused, brushes with the law.

So what does it for him? Being an artist or racking up a police record for vandalism?

“I enjoy painting and I enjoy doing crazy s—. And sometimes the two go together,” the British-Israeli said.

Souza’s bespectacled baby face and peach fuzz belie his hardy, devil-may-care attitude.

Still, rebellion, like art, runs in the family.

His maternal grandfather is Francis Newton Souza, arguably the most recognizable Indian artist in the West, who also was known as the Indian Picasso. F.N. Souza arrived in Britain, where he met Souza’s grandmother, a Jew who had fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The elder Souza often quipped that if he ever met Hitler, he would thank him for giving him his wife.

According to his grandson, F.N. Souza’s work was that of a “rebellious child.”

“His work is a lot freer than mine — it’s not contained. But the content and the composition [show] he was tormented,” said Souza, who himself is unschooled.

Souza’s mother, Keren Souza Kohn, is also an artist living in the northern Israeli town of Safed.

Souza earned a name in his own right when — with the help of his behind-the-scenes partner, Berel Hahn — he transformed Jerusalem’s main marketplace, Mahane Yehuda, into an outdoor street art gallery by night.

It took Souza three years to complete the project, which saw him painting influential personalities on close to 200 market-stall shutters. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gussies up a bric-a-brac shop while her neighbor, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, adorns a halva store.

The market’s newly minted jungle of color has attracted tourists from all over as well as its fair share of graffiti tours, a growing trend that infuriates Souza.

“Some of these people are profiting from things they have no idea about,” he said. “I overheard one say that I’m a kabbalist.”

He added: “We’re not animals in a zoo. It’s the street. It’s meant to be mysterious, you’re not meant to know every last detail behind the artist.”

He also said that such contrived tours take away from the organic nature of street art.

“It’s [supposed to be] a personal experience. You stumble across a little treasure that wasn’t there before — just like I stumbled on it and decided to paint it,” he said.

Souza has little patience for anyone who purports to know more than they do about a particular subject. One person he puts in that category is Banksy, a fellow British street artist who adopted the Palestinian cause as his “pet project.”

“He’s talented and he knows how to make beautiful art but he’s skewed,” Souza said of the artist, whose work has included painting provocative, politically charged imagery on Israel’s security fence.

While the question of how much of a role art can play in politics is one that Souza hasn’t quite worked out (“I’m very confused by politics”), the move to Israel was a no brainer.

“Israel is a blank canvas. I feel free here, like I’m able to soar. Whereas in England, I felt small in a big place, here I feel big in a small place. This is still a baby state. It’s learning how to walk but we’re going to teach it how to run,” he said.

Nowadays, Souza’s art is enough to earn him a living. He has flown all over the world to paint commissioned work, from a mural commemorating late local leader Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler at Los Angeles’ Shalhevet High School to a sprawling 400-foot depiction of the story of Genesis at Moriah College in Sydney.

When asked if he’s achieved his dream, he cocked his head whimsically and said, “I don’t know what my dream is. I have lots of dreams. Life is a dream.”

Follow Solomon Souza on Facebook and Instagram @solomonsouza.