By Nechama Winston
I encountered the street art scene in Tel Aviv in late summer of 2014. It had similarities, but noticeable differences to the street art I was more familiar with seeing around in New York. With the vibrant colors and complex compositions and subject matter, I found it impossible to ignore, especially in the southern parts of the city – it was everywhere.
The graffiti tells the story of Tel Aviv’s new generation. It symbolizes a bubbling life force that pulsates throughout the urban landscape. The art is extremely diverse as it ranges from simple tags to beautiful murals and elaborate pastes, and it is a way for artists to integrate their city into their art. Some of the work reflects views on war, internal and external politics, housing policies, love, and everything in between. After a number of days of wandering I was able to recognize signature styles by several key members.
Whenever I encounter a piece, it’s like meeting the artist to me. Maya Gelfman’s work is whimsical and waits to be discovered. She and I first met as I stood and stared at a flock of her woven BlackBirds against an old, crumbling building on a small street in Neve Tzedek, sometime in the late afternoon after buying coffee with friends in a nearby cafe. This work is still as vivid in my mind as the first moment I saw it over one year ago.
Maya is one of the most exciting and well-known members of the street art scene in Tel Aviv. She is best known for her unique technique of drawing with wool on walls to create energetic compositions of flocks of black birds or hearts. Her street work can be found in cities across five continents – from Israel to the USA, Canada, Germany, France and the Netherlands, to China, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and even to orphanages in Kenya.
In the last several months, Maya and I have been corresponding through email, where she shared what it means to work as a street artist in Tel Aviv, and how participating in this world runs parallel to her involvement with the gallery circuit and museum world. Her reflections on street art as a form, the scene in Tel Aviv and abroad and her own practice are as powerful and inspirational as her pieces, if not more. This is a glimpse of our ongoing conversation.
Street Art in Tel Aviv and Beyond
What do you think about the street art scene in Tel Aviv and how it compares to other street art scenes in different cities?
I love Tel Aviv. Its streets are a buzzing beehive of creativity. Its walls are an intensive and embracing canvas for my work and for many, many others. There is something here that drives artists to search for new alternative ways through which to express themselves. Tel Aviv encompasses a range of diversities – the history, different cultures and ideals that built it – are all evident and densely mixed together. Their tracks are apparent in the streets. The contrast between the new, orderly parts and the run down parts, intertwine into a wild, beautiful urban mass. Moreover, it’s a modern metropolitan but it also feels like a big neighborhood.
One can literally go by foot from one side to the other, in a leisurely day’s stroll. All of this is reflected in the street art scene, that though being relatively younger and smaller than others, is a very vibrant, active and prolific one. Also, there is something very casual and welcoming about the way the city and its residents accept my work.
I feel very much at home in the street context and tend to work in daylight while accompanied by my amazing crew – my beloved partner, Roie, and our super dog Sophie. Every time leads us to interesting encounters and conversations with curious passers-by. Even the police actually ended up talking to me about colors and composition rather than detaining me…
Which is your favorite city to work in outside of Tel Aviv and why?
First of all I have to say that I see my work as an ongoing process so naturally I’d pick a city that I’ve worked in for a while rather than a one-time experience – beautiful and impressionable as it may be. I’m a street wanderer and this is a characteristic that is very present in my work. I walk around my city, experience it, and react to it. To me, it is not only an urban grid, but a network of life in a given space – buildings, people, routes and gestures. In that spirit – I’d say Haifa. I’ve recently moved to this fascinating city, after living for more than a decade in TLV. There is no comparison between the two. They are very different in style, vibe, energy, architecture and more, but I love that Haifa presents me with new challenges and different triggers.
Can you share one meaningful encounter while working abroad?
I received a message from a volunteer that was working with orphans in Kenya and Uganda, saying she was inspired and touched by my Mind the Heart! Project. She asked me if I would be willing to send some stickers for the children. I was so completely awed and humbled. I sent posters, stickers, and T-shirts to hang in every room and give to every child.
This moment was something I can’t really put into words. It may sound a little cliché, but ever since I was little my biggest dream was to touch someone’s heart. I mean to create something that could possibly reach into the darkest corner and light a small fire in someone’s soul and hopefully make them feel, even for a brief moment, that they are not alone. I wanted to be there for someone, somewhere – what Frida Kahlo, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, and so many others were to me… a voice, some words, an image that I can relate to even though we are miles, centuries, and circumstances apart.
In part 2, we’ll talk more with Maya about her own work and artistic process.
About Maya Gelfman
Maya Gelfman is a graduate of Shenkar Academy, BA (B.des) in visual communication and has exhibited in five solo shows, and participated in numerous group exhibitions at Tel Aviv & Haifa Museums of Art; Herzliya Biennial; Art Basel Miami; Tama University of Art, Tokyo; and Ward Nasse Gallery, New York.
Throughout 2012, her works were exhibited at the Culture & Arts Department of Tel Aviv Municipality. In 2013, Maya was invited to speak at a TEDx talk regarding the exhibition Spark. In August 2015, she created a large installation at the 2015 KOBE Biennial, Japan, and has an upcoming exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Her work has been published in print and online magazines, films and TV networks.
About the Author
Nechama Winston is a photographer and assistant curator who graduated with a double major in art history and behavioral neuroscience from CUNY Hunter College. As an avid people watcher and observer she loves to get lost in the traffic of commuters on city streets, in narrow alleyways, and while riding on trains and buses – waiting to see what will happen and unfold. She is currently working towards her MFA at ICP-Bard, a program in advanced photographic studies at the International Center of Photography. Follow what she is up to on Instagram at @nwinston.