Written in large, black, all-capital letters (in English) on the wall of 27 Eilat Street is the message “FUCK UR TOURS.” The 15 tourists participating in this graffiti tour of in south Tel Aviv excitedly take pictures. But this conflict between street artists and tour guides is just one of many points of friction caused by the growing tourism industry in the trendy neighborhood of Florentin.
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Over 20 companies and private tour guides now offer graffiti and street art tours of the neighborhood. Yael Shapira, who founded Hasayeret Art Tours, is an art historian and one of the earliest to enter the urban art tourism business.
She says graffiti is a major driver for Tel Aviv tourism. The city is considered a leader in urban tours, and many people make the trip specially to see the street art.
Every day, hundreds of tourists and visitors walk the neighborhood’s streets. But in contrast to the smiling visitors, it seems not everyone is enamored by their presence.
In addition to the artists, many local residents are unhappy with the battalions of visitors crowding their streets and sidewalks – along with the tour guides using loudspeakers to broadcast their talks.
Veteran local street artists, meanwhile, are not pleased by the growth of young street artists, graffiti and mixed-quality work.
And as per usual, city hall wants to have its cake and eat it, too: The municipality encourages graffiti tourism, while seemingly simultaneously grappling with the problem of how to deal with the artists’ illegal works and the increasing volume of graffiti in the neighborhood.
During the 90-minute tour I took recently, guided by the energetic Darya Aloufy, we saw six other groups on street corners – all with a guide equipped with a compact loudspeaker system strapped around their waist, enabling them to speak to a rather large group in the middle of a bustling thoroughfare.
The only other neighborhood in all of Israel where I have seen so many tourists marching in groups and endlessly taking photographs is the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Like animals in the zoo
Florentin was founded 90 years ago by new immigrants from Thessaloniki, Greece. The only reason for someone to visit the neighborhood in the past was due to a burning desire to reupholster their living room sofa.
In 1991, though, the city began an urban renewal project that drew young people to the neighborhood. The difference in real estate and rental prices from the center of the city gave the neighborhood a different character.
The mix of garages and homes attracted graffiti artists, who used the neighborhood’s walls – some of them crumbling – as a canvas for large works.
Exactly 20 years ago, Channel 2 broadcast the drama series “Florentin” on television, which offered a taste of neighborhood life. This was the moment when Florentin was unofficially labeled “young and vibrant.” Of course, popularity and television chic have never caused real estate prices to fall anywhere, ever: Today, Florentin is a young and vibrant neighborhood filled with bars, restaurants and cafés – but the old squalor has remained as it was in the 1990s.
“The lack of authenticity that is now spreading on some of the tours concerns me a lot,” says architect Yonatan Lebendiger, who lives in the neighborhood and has been active there for the past seven years. “The tours may be keeping this area alive, but the large amount of dense graffiti creates a sort of layer of makeup on an area that is actually dead. Something about the tours causes me, as a resident, to feel like an animal in the zoo,” he observes.
“The thing that annoys me the most are the tours that end in a graffiti seminar – in other words, they pass out colorful spray [paint] to the participants and put them in front of a wall so they can ‘experience the experience.’”
Lebendiger calls this a despicable phenomenon and vandalism.
The neighborhood has been undergoing an accelerated process of gentrification in recent years, and city hall is not doing anything to improve the situation, says Lebendiger. It may be embracing the neighborhood, but at the same time it is allowing the construction of huge numbers of housing units, three or four times the number that previously existed in Florentin – and at high prices, he adds.
“These are projects that appeal mainly to investors and say to them: ‘Come buy an apartment in cool, arty Florentin.’ This means the beginning of the end. The unique culture of the neighborhood will disappear soon,” he warns.
Locals are divided
In the narrow Chelouche Street at the far end of the historic Neve Tzedek neighborhood, a poem by street artist-poet Nitzan Mintz is written on a peeling wall. She and other veteran artists (although she is only 25) are not interested in official contacts with the city, she says.
“There are a lot of important walls in the city I would love to work on, but it isn’t happening in Tel Aviv,” she says. “It is totally clear to us that if the city embraces the area, it will kill it. Already we feel that the entire field has become mainstream, and, as far as we are concerned, that means it is about to die.”
Mintz says the deluge of tourists “is suffocating Florentin. The graffiti has become too commonplace. The veteran artists left the neighborhood and are now migrating to the center. We are also abandoning Florentin because of the tours that have taken over everything and are killing our desire [to create], and also because of the general feeling of suffocation.”
Local residents are now divided about the neighborhood, says Mintz. They still love the place and the people, but hate the growing number of artworks, as well as the masses of people moving into the neighborhood because of its bars, graffiti and perceived “coolness.”
Artist Zipa Kempinski has lived in Florentin for more than 20 years. Over the past six years she has devoted herself to a project documenting the art of the neighborhood. At the same time, she writes a popular blog about life in Florentin.
She says she can’t understand why the guided tours are so popular, because the best thing about graffiti is discovering it for yourself. Graffiti is no longer anti-culture, she adds, so there is no real problem in presenting it on a tour as if it was art in a museum. The edge has been taken off so much that it’s no big deal when it becomes a tourist attraction, she notes.
Can’t stop it
Eytan Schwartz is CEO of the city hall-owned company Ir Olam (Tel Aviv Global), which is charged with developing tourism in Tel Aviv. He points out that the neighborhood tourism trend is thriving in many places around the world.
City hall has identified the huge tourist potential in Tel Aviv’s old neighborhoods, says Schwartz. What is surprising, he adds, is that it has also attracted many Israelis.
“Israelis come to Florentin to see an anthropological phenomenon, and we didn’t expect that,” he says. “True, no one likes to feel they live in a zoo, but we all go there.
“Anyone who represents an interesting phenomenon in Israel has become a tourist attraction,” he continues. “After that, two things happen: either it becomes too commercialized; or it is a passing fad. It is possible to compare the resistance of the neighborhood residents to the opposition of the residents of the Old City [of Jerusalem], but we can’t prevent this development in the city,” says Schwartz.
Florentin has developed some of the city’s most prominent assets, adds Schwartz, citing restaurants (including vegan ones), nightlife and the art scene. “The neighborhood has an attractive character and tourists come for the cool, lively vibe,” he says. “In two hours, you pass through a time and geographical capsule. It’s great for tourism.”
It’s important to work with the artists and allow them to make money from the burgeoning scene, he says. “It is important that the tourists contribute to the neighborhood, but there is another aspect to it: A visit to Florentin allows tourists to see the range of people and opinions in the city. Anyone who comes to take a closer look at the ‘Tel Aviv bubble’ gets a huge variety of faces,” he concludes.