Perched high on a platform overlooking the hip Florentin neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, Mexican street artist Libre is hard at work on what is said to be the city’s largest graffiti project ever – a five-story-tall mural on a dilapidated former clothing factory.
Libre (full name Alfredo Libre Gutierrez) is an internationally known street artist whose work often deals with refugees and migrants, themes linked to his Mexican hometown of Tijuana.
“I have friends, neighbors and family members who crossed legally or illegally to the United States; wonderful people who just wanted to live a better life,” the 36-year-old tells Haaretz. He had no problem linking these themes to the local Israeli environment, he says.
Now a resident of Mexico City, Libre travels the world creating socially conscious art projects. He has worked with UNESCO, painted on the Athens subway, with children in South Africa, and created artworks that help aid migrants traveling through Mexico.
The mural on the walls of the old Honigman factory on Salameh Street is part of a project that partners real-estate groups, Tel Aviv City Council and artists, turning this abandoned building into a public art space.
Libre wears a paint-splattered hoodie over a T-shirt depicting four cartoon rabbis. Soft-spoken, he says his artwork tries to be “very careful with words” and to highlight everyday people: “The people sweeping the street, who serve you food, who clean up after you,” he explains.
His south Tel Aviv mural, a collaboration with British-Israeli artist Solomon Souza, features a gigantic portrait of a man modeled on the janitor from the nearby Bialik Rogozin School.
The school comprises mainly children from low-income families, including the offspring of migrant workers and asylum seekers. Libre visited it earlier this week and painted a mural there. The school's janitor was such a cool guy, he says, that he decided to “create a composition with him as the main character.”
The mural also includes a wolf and a lamb, a biblical peace reference from the book of Isaiah. “The other elements are from around the city – like the flowers I just saw walking in the streets of Tel Aviv. And some other flower patterns from Mexico,” he says.
Libre visited Israel for the first time last April. “This place, I really enjoy it,” he says, adding that this is what he tells his friends “when they have this pejorative reaction about Israel. I ask them, ‘Have you been there? If not, you don’t know. Go see and then decide.’”
Interest in borders
The Salameh Street work is his fourth mural in Israel. He painted the first two on his first visit in April. He also painted a mural on the West Bank separation barrier during that initial trip.
“I’ve always been interested in borders,” he says. “Being from a border town, of course I wanted to see the border and the situation” firsthand. “I wanted to paint in both Israel and the West Bank, to create a dialogue.”
He recounts how he painted two hands clasped in a traditional Mayan gesture, known as “In Lak’ech,” high up on the separation barrier. (The gesture means “I am you, and you are me,” or “Soy tu otro yo” in Spanish.) He admits to feels of discomfort at the barrier, as artists continually cover up the work of other artists. “It’s a violent structure [and] the way of painting over is violent in itself,” he says.
“It’s a conflict and it’s a heavy subject, but you need to talk about it,” he continues. “You can’t close yourself [off] to those sorts of things.” He also admits to feeling more scared “of being shot by an Israeli soldier than by someone in the West Bank,” where he received a warm welcome. “That’s what makes a country amazing – the people,” he adds.
“Just by existing, by communicating, by bringing a subject to the table and talking about it,” he argues that art becomes a political tool. “I like to make people think,” he says, discussing his own work. “Whatever I paint, it leaves you with something. You keep it and you try to resolve it and analyze it. It’s a dialogue without the happy ending.”
The project’s curator, Orit Mizne, met Libre at an exhibition she was curating in April, and says she was determined to bring him back to Israel to work on another project. Libre creates art “that’s functional, incorporates the community, [as well as] refugees and migrants,” she says, adding, “It inspired me to do the same.”
The south Tel Aviv project is sponsored by the groups Trigo and Cityel Real Estate. The building, along with several around it, is set to be demolished in June 2019, to make way for the upscale Florentin Square residential complex – an indication of how this previously rundown thoroughfare is now the center of regeneration.
The real-estate groups commissioned Mizne to use the best local and international street artists to paint the building as it awaits destruction.
She began curating exhibitions to “showcase artists – unknown artists alongside established artists,” she says. The exhibition features local Tel Aviv street artists, including recognizable names like Souza, Michal Rubin and The MisSk, and also sponsored Libre’s visit.
Trigo co-owner Gal Peer says that preserving street art in the neighborhood was one of his most important considerations. “The heart of Florentin is very colorful and full of graffiti. This is the DNA of the neighborhood,” he says, adding, “It is a way to remember where the neighborhood is coming from and where it is going.”
Until its demolition next June, Peer says that over 2,000 square meters (21,500 square feet) of the disused building will be artists’ studios, with up to 60 writers set to use the facilities. He says it’s part of the city’s initiative “to take some of the buildings that are going to be destroyed and make use of them as cultural centers.”