Jerusalem: Public Art and Cultural Revival


by Benji Lovitt, SDM

When you think of Jerusalem, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Holiness?  Conflict?  The nexus of multiple cultures, religions, and peoples?

While these might be the most common answers, don’t be fooled; even one of the most antiquated cities in the world can undergo a makeover.  There may not be eyeliner or an Armani suit involved, but in response to the city’s shift in recent years towards a more religious identity, the young and secular are coming out of the woodwork to return diversity and culture to the streets of Jerusalem.

In an effort to put a stop to the exodus of people who had begun to flee to the perceived non-stop party and job market that is Tel Aviv, Mayor Nir Barkat tripled the culture budget in recent years, helping to revive a somewhat sleeping city and begin what people hope is a long-term renaissance.

While any innocent bystander can with minimal effort witness the street parties and festivals going on weekly, there has been an even more subtle cultural addition to Jerusalem that requires a short departure off the beaten path.  In a few neighborhoods which bridge the divide between populations, public art has taken hold and has slowly begun to transform the city.

On a street called Shushan, in the shadow of the city’s municipality building, Ido Levit runs a bar and performance space called Hakatzeh.  Moreover, he has helped beautify Shushan Street by spearheading an effort to turn it into an evolving outdoor, public art gallery.  What makes this different from graffiti or typical street art?  Because the pieces are all curated; artists are actually invited to create works.

As you approach this back alley of a street, you gradually begin to notice them.  Sculptures made of recycled items, and walls, doors, and even dumpsters covered with paintings, accompanied by plaques identifying the creators, all invited to collaborate and add their unique tastes.

What these pieces may lack in beauty or groundbreaking features is made up for by their organic nature, bringing artists to the center of town to reclaim their city in a grass-roots, bottom-up fashion.  Voting and paying taxes may be how most civilians fulfill their civic duties, but these individuals have chosen to also improve their city literally with their own hands.

Located smack in the middle of Arab East Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim, and the municipality building, the neighborhood of Musrara presents another example of this public art with the outdoor exhibition called Muslala (no, that’s not a typo.)  According to their website, Muslala is “an-urban journey between gardens to alleyways and walls, through works of art located at various points, corresponding with a violent history that has left scars on the surface, struggles that can be still felt…. Variety of distractions, unexpected encounters and surprising reality turn such roaming into a one-time experience.”

Come to Muslala and witness authentic-looking street signs dedicated to formerly oppressed minorities, a community garden, paintings, and more.  Unlike a an conventional art gallery which may not be accessible or attractive to everyone, this outdoor art space brings together random passersby from the surrounding neighborhoods who just might find themselves standing next to someone from a very different population or background.  If a conversation happens to break out, Muslala has succeeded in bridging a gap and creating communication.

Whether you’ve been to Jerusalem ten times or never at all, you’ll want to be sure to hit the streets and explore the new urban art culture.  You just might find that there’s more to the city than meets the eye.