Art in Palestine: Graffiti on the West Bank Side of Israel’s Separation Wall
by Mikaela Maalouf
Forced separation among peoples of a nation brings emerging paradoxes to life, between oppressing and suffering occupied territories, to emerging creativity through determined self-expression. One of the most famous fixtures of separation was the Berlin wall, which separated East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. This wall separated Berliners between a western capitalistic society, and an eastern communistic society. It separated families and neighbors, and left many with an extremely lowered quality of life. Another example of state run segregation was the aparthied state of South Africa, from 1948 until the 1990s. This aparthied divided the country in areas where the white citizens were allowed, and areas where the black and brown citizens were allowed – with most all resources being funneled into the ‘white areas’. Resemblances of the Berlin wall and the South African aparthied state are seen in Israel and the Palestinian Territories today. Israel restricts movement for Palestinians, funnels the majority of resources away from Palestian cities and into Israeli cities, and does not give Palestinians the same rights as Israelis. One of the ways Israel accomplished this separation was through the creation of the separation wall in the West Bank.
Separating many Palestinians from the rest of their country, the 8 meter tall Israeli separation wall disconnects the land of the western Palestinian Territories. It runs along the 1949 Green Line (the boundary line dividing Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories after the Armistice Agreements of 1949) and through the West Bank. The largely concrete wall stretches 708 kilometers, isolating over 100,000 Palestinians from the remainder of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and other Palestinian territories. Being built mostly of concrete, the wall is colorless, in some ways resembling a blank canvas. In 2011, the wall in its entirety was completed. Since this time, the Palestinian side has been covered in works of art and graffiti that reflect everything from Plaestinian daily life, struggles, history, and hopes, to political cartoons and portraits. As such, the Palestinian side of Israel’s separation wall is a grand exhibit of modern art in Palestine, and a manifestation of the Palestinian narrative, history, culture, and innovation.
What is the purpose of these artistic expressions? And how did it start? In the Palestine-Israel Journal, Dr. Christine Leuenberger writes that the wall has served as a ‘message board’ for Palestinians, on which they could (and can still) dissipate information and encouragement, while affirming their identity. In large, this is the reason that Palestinian residents created art on the separation wall in the West Bank. Basil Ibrahim, a resident of Beit Sahour (a city outside of Bethlehem), states that art and graffiti first emerged on the wall because:
“[…]they [the Palestinians] didn’t accept the wall, because it separated us from our people outside the wall, and the wall itself is scary, huge, illegal, and ugly to see. So, it started as a way to express our emotions towards it, and then it turned into art! And we started having fun with it.”
In an essay by Craig Larking, titled “Jerusalem’s Separation Wall and Global Message Board: Graffiti, Murals, and the Art of Sumud”, this form of artistic expression is called ‘resistance art’. Larking writes that this art has been around in Palestine since the 1960s, and often combines icons of land and notable figures, with some kind of abstraction. ‘Resistance art’ can be seen across the wall, and continues to visually represent the Palestinian cultural and political realities of the past and present.
Due to the wall’s massiveness, and what it represents (such as oppression and segregation), the wall not only serves as a canvas for Palestinain artists and residents, but famous graffiti artists as well. One of the artists, who goes by the name of Lushsux, is an anonymous graffiti artist from Australia. They painted one of their most well known and iconic pieces on the separation wall in October of 2018: a huge illustration of former American president Donald Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing. Above their heads, it is written, “Thanks for the wall Trumpy pumpkin [over Netanyahu]… Bebe, your country and you will always come first my love [over Trump].” The critical political commentary this piece invokes has made it a popular tourist spot.
Another famous artist who has used the separation wall to create art is Cake$ Stencils. Most of their known work (especially most of their notable work) lines the separation wall in the West Bank. Cake$ Stencils creates stencils of profound imagery, and sprays them on the wall with black spray paint. Popular street art blog and Inspiring City describes their art as:
“…very much about a loss of innocence. Of creating a playground in a dangerous world. The children he portrays play with barbed wire and chain. They may be shown shackled or in imminent danger. Yet with their childlike imagination they only see the positive. “Kids don’t understand things like race or nationhood” he [Cake$ Stencils] tells me. “It’s a distinction made by those in power… adults (interview with Cake$ Stencils, 2019) .”
Many examples of their art are featured in Bethlehem and the surrounding cities, as well as in projects by Banksy. Banksy, is a world famous and anonymous graffiti artist based in England. His first works on the separation wall emerged in 2005. Since then, he has created internationally iconic images on the wall, including a little girl being carried by balloons over the wall, a man throwing a bouquet of flowers like a grenade, and a white dove holding an olive branch and wearing a bulletproof vest caught in the crossfires of a sniper. In 2017 Banksy financed the Walled Off Hotel, a hotel in which every room faces and has a view of the separation wall, in Bethlehem. He, along with several other artists, decorated the hotel, and today it is an extremely popular spot to visit.
However, it is hotly contested whether international graffiti artists who create art on the separation wall uplift or stife Palestinian voices. With so many ‘big-name’ artists attached to its art, the wall itself has become a tourist attraction throughout the West Bank. Some residents praise this international wall art, as it has brought many tourists to Palestine and its territories who may not have chosen to visit and learn about Palestine without a ‘street art’ experience as an incentive. Since tourism is such a large part of the Palestinian economy, this increase in visitors contributes positively to the economy of Palestine, and raises awareness of the political reality the residents live in. Conversely, some residents dislike the influx of tourists the wall’s art brings. Larking writes that some Palestinians: “[…] direct criticism at Western artists and international activists whose protest artwork monopolizes global media and scholarly discussion (Larking, 2014, 143).” Additionally, some have argued that what is a symbol of pain and suffering for Palestinians, has turned into a fun and modern tourist spot for the rest of the world. Arguably, therefore, the popularization of graffiti and art on the separation wall has shifted the focus away from Palestinian artwok and narratives, and has been co-opted by western visual artists and tourism.
With this said, alongside these international artists, there are well known Palestinians (or Palestinian based) artists who have left their mark on the wall. One of these artists is Majd Abdel Hamid. Hamid was born in Syria, but relocated to Ramallah, Palestine. His most notable feature is an enormous (over 117 meters long) spray painted visual of letters and words from the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, written by Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish.
Another well known Palestinian artist is Taqi Spateen. While not exclusively a street artist, he has several murals featured on the separation wall. He has not only painted a large portrait of George Floyd on the wall, but also of Iyad Hallak. Hallak was an autistic Palestinian man killed by Israeli Police in Jerusalem. The two portraits serve as commemoration of two men in two different countries (the United States and Palestine), who were murdered by police brutality.
While this article is by no means a complete overview of the art and artists of the West Bank side of the Israeli separation wall, it can be seen that the wall has attracted a diverse group of artists and tourists, and serves as a canvas to a multitude of art forms: be it cartoon art, portraiture, word art (etc) and serves as a way to disseminate news, opinions, emotions, encouragement, and narratives. Whether the emergence of ‘big-name’ Western artists attaching their names to art on the wall has helped or hurt the Palestinian people and artists is still debated. However, the wall does serves as an enormous storyboard that reflects the Palestinian narrative, history, and culture – things that are hugely important for the international community to learn about and understand.