Orange County-born Street Artist Puts the Writing on Tel Aviv Walls

With a new exhibit at an established Tel Aviv art gallery, Know Hope reveals a bit more about himself, but still keeps his name a secret.

After seven years of an impressive presence on the streets of Tel Aviv, the street artist known as Know Hope has mounted an ambitious two-part exhibit in the new branch of the veteran Gordon Gallery. The transition from a random meeting on the street to a deliberate and intimate meeting at the gallery allows visitors to take in his prolific work and examine his journey in crystallizing his artistic language and his desire for content that is increasingly local.

“My decision to do a two-part show was conceptual,” the artist said in an interview as his first gallery exhibit in Israel was about to open. The first part of the exhibit, which opened in late February, was entitled "Things That Stand Between." (The second part, which opened in late March, was entitled "Things Left Standing Behind.") It included works of photography, painting, collage and ready-made that presented variations on images, including flags, walls, fences, borders and the way they affect human and spatial situations. To emphasize the subject’s theme, the artist created various compositions, diptychs and triptychs from his work.

Know Hope, 27, says that for many years he agonized over political subjects and always had a hard time figuring out where he stood. The same goes for his creative work.

“Many times, I stepped away and tried to create images that were as abstract as possible to make them accessible to the viewer. One reason was that was done in the public space, and I wanted to create an accessible language using the images and the characters. I wanted to create a long-term system, and I feel that enough time has passed and I’ve succeeded in establishing that language. I’ve created a certain logic, identification with the missing heart, the empty space, the feeling of longing that I dealt with. Now I can go into things that are more specific.”

Flags in the trash can

He was born in Orange County, California, and moved to Israel with his family when he was 10 years old. The move at that age evidently sharpened his characteristics as an observer from the sidelines and shaped his ambivalent attitude toward concepts such as nationality and homeland.

“People are born into a charged reality in history and into a specific agenda. After all, you don’t choose where to be born. There are many habits and ethical systems that we adopt in a completely arbitrary manner. Being a patriot has become something completely natural. I think it’s really weird.”

In his new exhibit, he shows a white flag again and again: not as a sign of surrender, but simply to avoid showing a specific nationality. He began including the flag in a series from Independence Day two years ago entitled “Littered Flag,” in which he created a pile of white flags, scattered them in trash cans throughout Tel Aviv and recorded the responses, or disregard, of passersby with a video camera.

He began working on the streets of Tel Aviv around 2005. Since then, he has acquired an impressive presence and a large community of supporters, including admirers who have taken his work from the street and into their homes. He has self-published two books of his artwork and several fanzines. In addition to the exhibits he has mounted with colleagues in abandoned buildings, in 2007 he began showing in galleries and various institutions, mainly outside Israel, and running a studio in south Tel Aviv where he works every day. His work has been shown in the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art, the Herzliya Biennial of Contemporary Art and the Carmichael Gallery in Los Angeles. In less than six months, he will be mounting a one-man exhibit in the gallery owned by Steve Lazarides, who for years was the business partner of Bansky, the most famous street artist in the world.

He says that “Know Hope,” the name he chose, came from a conceptual decision and not from any desire to create a sensation. “I started creating street art even before I started using that phrase, but at a certain stage I wanted my work to be seen through the lenses of ‘Know Hope’ as a concept. I wanted to take myself out of the equation.”

The interview with him took place in his studio near the garages of southeastern Tel Aviv, in an impressive industrial space between two spaces filled with all kinds of good things, raw materials, works in progress and photographs. During the interview he is open, answering each question with patience, generous in his answers. Over the past few years he has agreed to be interviewed, but refuses to give his real name and avoids the camera.

“I started working on the street because it was logical, not because I came with a specific agenda,” he says. “Even for the simplest reasons -- let’s say, a poster I finish creating in the studio and go out to put it up on a wall in the street: that poster gets new meaning when I choose the location. It becomes something ‘sight-specific’ that holds a dialogue with the new context, the texture of the wall and more. It’s one layer. Another layer is the meeting with people. Everybody comes with his own baggage -- a person who was fired from his job, a woman who realized she was in love and other day-to-day situations provide a different prism through which the work can be seen.”

Now you spend long periods of time abroad. Also, you use only English in your work. Where does that place you? Where do you feel you belong?

“I don’t feel any belonging. Tel Aviv is my home base, where I choose to live. I don’t feel I belong to Israel. I feel more that I look on from the sidelines, both in the context of day-to-day interpersonal interaction and also in larger contexts that change with time. I think it may have something to do with the fact that I was born in the United States and grew up there for a time. When we moved here, I wanted only to go back there. Everything I was interested in as an 11-year-old boy were things I never found here: the skateboard culture, punk-rock music -- things that no fourth-grader ever heard of.”

So what keeps you in Tel Aviv?

“First of all, I know it well. It’s convenient for me to keep my system here in the day-to-day sense -- a studio, an apartment and the places where I do the framing, order materials and such. Maybe I’ll move one day, but mostly what I love about Tel Aviv, beyond the cliches, is that it’s a city people use. If you go to L.A., you don’t see people in the streets. Here, there’s much more interaction on the street than in other cities, and that allows the creation of a kind of incubator, a greenhouse. It lets me develop a certain relationship with people. It’s easier to be part of the urban fabric here than in other, larger places.”

He spends about 10 hours a day working in his studio. He no longer does much artwork in the street, but always walks around with a marker and pastels in black and white. About two years ago, he worked very differently. 

“I had no routine, really," he says. "I’d work for hours in the studio, painting all kinds of things, and about twice a week I’d go out to do rounds on the street with works in cardboard and stickers. I’d draw all kinds of projects for myself outside. It came from a desire to create a presence that now I don’t want or need as much. The quantity, or being in people’s awareness, isn’t important to me. I’d rather things happened more organically.”

Kobi Kalmanowitz