The world of contemporary art has an ambivalent relationship to walls. In 2010, the international graffiti artist Blu painted a mural of coffins covered in dollar bills on one of the outer walls of the Geffen Contemporary Building of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Within a single day, the museum painted over the mural, with its clear antiwar message. Just a year later, in August 2011, the museum opened a large exhibition about street art and graffiti, curated by MOCA’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, which displayed works by 50 street artists from all over the world. Museum officials reported that the exhibition was the most viewed in its history.
This tension, between embracing the establishment and tweaking its nose, also typifies the work of the members of Broken Fingaz, four young people from Haifa who have become stars in the graffiti world. They have already been invited to participate in exhibitions in Berlin, Amsterdam, Los Angeles and particularly in London, the undisputed capital of street art.
A walk around Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood with Kip, Deso and Unga (Tant couldn’t make it) shows that they are kings of the street, local celebrities, in Haifa’s lower city. They are wearing black clothing with knitted caps or baseball caps and sunglasses. They do not reveal their real names and do not allow themselves to be photographed even though everybody in Haifa, at least, already knows who they are. Deso, 26, born in the suburbs of St. Petersburg, came to Haifa when he was 11. Unga and Kip, both 29, were high-school classmates in Haifa.
A Haifa joke says the municipality pays them to paint on the walls at night just so that the city will not lose the artsy-hipster image it is trying to cultivate. But the members of Broken Fingaz say that being a street artist in Haifa is a really bad business because the city quickly erases every new painting that appears – the ones it did not order, that is. A wall painted under the municipality’s sponsorship is covered in sex scenes starring skeletons and nude women. But around it, Broken Fingaz show me lots of gray spots – evidence of illegal paintings that they created in the area and that were covered over immediately.
“For many years, we just went out to paint at night. It doesn’t look like something we’re going to do all our lives,” Unga says. “I thought that to make money, I would have to do other kinds of work, like maybe comics. And then, suddenly, they told us, ‘Come and do that at the museum,’ and we realized that it could be called art. To this day, there are people who tell us, ‘You’re not artists; you’re designers.’ I don’t mind. As far as I’m concerned, that distinction doesn’t exist.” Later on, they studied painting privately with a legendary artist named Gennady who moved to Israel from Russia. Gennady died two years ago.
One of the most prominent elements in their work is the use of provocative images. “Recently it’s been sex and death because it’s fun and interesting,” says Unga. “In London, we started a series of skeletons having sexual relations. We’d never do something like that in a village in China or in Mexico. But we wanted to remind people that graffiti is still supposed to be punk and be a bit irritating, and there are some things you can do only if they’re illegal, so we started doing stuff that borders on pornography. But that’s changing. We’re don’t get too stuck on an image.”
The nude women and their sexual acts with the skeletons caused the provocation in London that the group had wanted. Most of the opposition came from feminist quarters, and some people quickly erased portions of the graffiti with gray paint and wrote “Kill all men” in English. The members of Broken Fingaz were not surprised. “All art is full of nude women,” they say. In Berlin, they tried to cause a scandal by invoking the memory of the Holocaust in a provocative manner. They painted a work entitled “Shoacid” on the wall of a gallery that had ordered a painting from them. “These were stickers of the Holocaust that one might buy in a souvenir shop,” says Kip. “There were all kinds of images that had to do with the Holocaust in a general and specific way, such as a politician’s hand in a handshake with Death and shoes like one sees in the piles [at the camps]. We had Hitler dressed as a woman, burnt books, a train.”
Unga says the gallery owner who had ordered the work is fond of drama and thought their painting was fantastic. “Everybody talks about Hitler all the time in the context of Berlin, but you walk around there and you don’t see him anywhere,” he says. “That’s why we did it. We wanted to say: It’s possible to talk about everything, and let’s get it out. It doesn’t have to be taboo. And if it doesn’t make you laugh, then that’s your problem. The responses were pretty calm. People weren’t all that upset about it. But the responses from the Germans are pretty calm in general.”
Besides the work in Berlin, the members of Broken Fingaz are trying to avoid dealing in an obvious way with politics. “It has to do with the fact that we live in Israel, and everything here is so full of politics in such a gross way. The chances of touching anyone in that kind of way are almost nonexistent,” Unga says. “Graffiti is very political in the sense that we go and do what we feel like on the street. It’s much stronger than putting paintings up in a gallery. Politics are also the fastest ticket abroad. If we were to go in that direction, it would be really easy because that’s what people would expect of us. Maybe that will happen, too. On the personal level, it’s not urgent for us. We live in Haifa, which is a mixed city of Jews and Arabs, and we live that.”
Deso and Kip agree. “We also have to talk about the political things,” Kip says. “Last summer was extreme. But there’s a difference between what we think and the mega-populism that we’ll feel if we go in that direction. It’s a place we need to be careful with. If you do something like that, you have to do it precisely.” “We’ll focus on that one day,” Deso says.
Rumors say that Broken Fingaz charges thousands of dollars per meter when they’re invited to do a mural. Although they make their living completely from their works, they insist on keeping to the fringes of the law and painting only at night and illegally so as to avoid becoming gentrified and corrupt.
You still live in Haifa despite its lack of fondness for graffiti?
Unga: “We still like Haifa. We have a movement of people who do things, and we’re part of it. But if we didn’t travel in the world a lot, we might be stifled. When you come to a city and it has no graffiti, then you say right away: There’s something dubious here. The places we went to where there was no graffiti were all kinds of shady cities in Russia and China. Young people and art and bars and graffiti on the walls are a sign of life. On the other hand, that shouldn’t be embraced too much. In London, graffiti has lost most of its charm precisely because it’s such a big thing there.”