April 19, 2019

Shuk art: Two 20-somethings are changing the face of a Jerusalem landmark

Solomon Souza, looking bored, stretched out on a mattress lying on the floor of the apartment he shares with Berel Hahn in the artsy Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachalot.

“So, should we paint something, bro?” Souza said.

“A man, a woman or a dog?” Hahn replied, barely glancing up from his cellphone.

“Not a dog,” Souza said.

A few minutes later, they were out the door, ducking through a series of narrow alleys until they arrived at Machane Yehuda. 

During the day, Machane Yehuda is a labyrinth of vegetable stands, spice vendors and all manner of specialty shops and restaurants. By night, when metal shutters come down on most of the businesses, it becomes a hotbed of nightlife — and, for Hahn and Souza, one giant canvas.

One shutter at a time, the pair has turned Machane Yehuda — known as the shuk — into an art gallery, using spray cans to create vibrant murals of everything from rabbis and biblical scenes to Israeli prime ministers and one of their roommates.

The images are both historical and contemporary. One recent subject — actress Roseanne Barr, a vocal supporter of Israel — dropped by the shuk in March to take a look at her likeness.

“I kind of see [the whole shuk] as one big painting,” Hahn said. “Each painting is just a pixel.”

Souza, whose friends call him Sunny, is the one who actually wields the spray cans, while Hahn is the dreamer, the big thinker. Their project was originally Hahn’s idea. 

Now, he acts as Souza’s informal manager, obtaining permission from shop owners to paint their shutters, fielding calls from reporters and standing by Souza while he paints so that curious passersby won’t break his focus. Hahn has made himself a familiar face among the mostly Sephardic, mostly middle-aged men who run the vegetable stands.

Souza, 22, grew up in a suburb of London until his mother “realized she was a Jew” and brought him to the West Bank settlement of Efrat, about 20 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem. After returning to London to complete his high school education, he moved back to Israel for good.

Standing over 6 feet tall with a large, reddish beard, Hahn, 26, grew up in the Chabad movement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His Chasidic roots are apparent in his soft-spoken and sincere manner, as well as in his propensity to speak dreamily about his artistic vision and his love of Yiddishkeit.

The idea for the murals first popped into his head when he was wandering through the shuk on a Saturday, when the market takes on a funereal quiet.

For a while, he let the idea stew. At the time, he was working a night-shift job applying carbon fiber strips to the ceilings of parking lots for structural support. His crew would pick him up at Machane Yehuda for the jobs.

“It began to haunt me — it’s almost as if the shutters were screaming,” he said.

The only things standing between him and a project that would fundamentally change the character of the market at Jerusalem’s cultural epicenter were a few cans of spray paint.

“A friend of ours was like, ‘You know what, I’ll reimburse you. Go spend a few hundred shekels on paint and just start,’” Hahn said. “So we got permission [from a shopkeeper], and after the first night, there were requests for more and more.”

Souza was living in the artistic mecca of Tsfat in Israel’s north when he got a phone call about the idea from Hahn, whom he’d known from their time as a yeshiva in Nachlaot.

After a few trips down to Jerusalem, Souza decided to stay.

“I said to myself, ‘I should be there, I should be there,’ ” he said. “I got back to Tsfat, and I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ ”

While Souza seems content simply to paint, Hahn waxes poetic about his vision of awakening an artistic movement centered on Jerusalem’s diverse cultural heritage. 

“The true character of Jerusalem is a festival ground,” Hahn said. “When the Temple stood, people came three times a year to party.”

Their immediate goal is to paint every shutter in the market. But Hahn hopes to eventually to reanimate Jerusalem’s roots by organizing a Shabbat festival to showcase the city’s kaleidoscope of indigenous influences.

“Imagine a Shabbat where you can really taste all the flavors of the Jewish culture — each community within the Jewish nation represented, all of their unique traditions represented as authentically as possible,” he said.

There are still more than 100 shutters to go before the painting phase of the project is complete. A trapezoidal loop off the main alley known as the Iraqi shuk is totally devoid of murals, perhaps because there are few nightlife spots there. (“There would be if I was painting there,” Souza said.)

But before heading out on this Wednesday night, lying on the mattress in his living room, Souza looked content to remain where he was. Hahn was insistent — perhaps because there was a reporter present — and his enthusiasm eventually won out: The reluctant artist stuffed some spray cans into a tote bag and the two were out the door.

Arriving at a shutter on the outskirts of the market, Souza rolled a cigarette and lit it, while Hahn retrieved some cardboard vegetable boxes from the day’s commerce to place underfoot for any errant paint. 

The topic of the mural that night was close to home: Rabbi Gershon Avtson, head of Yeshiva Beis Menachem in Nachlaot, where the two first met.

“He definitely brought us together,” Souza said.

Finishing his cigarette, and then another, Souza opened a picture on his iPhone of the rabbi gazing off into middle distance. The artist then pulled a mask over his face to filter out paint fumes and went to work.

Souza’s painting sessions regularly draw a crowd, and even on this midweek night, people passing by a main traffic artery bordering the shuk stopped to watch, take photos and ask questions.

“Does it cost money?” several passersby asked Hahn, seeming surprised by the fact that the entire project, Jerusalem’s latest artistic sensation, is the work of two guys with a big idea and some spray paint.

“It costs a lot of money,” Hahn said. “If somebody offers you coffee at their house, it’s not free.”

Hahn estimates the project has so far cost upward of 20,000 shekels — about $5,000 — in paint alone, funded by a friend of theirs who prefers to stay anonymous. That figure doesn’t account for the time Hahn and Souza donate.

“It’s a gift to the city,” he said.