When Hen Macabi sits at his desk and dives into his illustration work for a new song or album, he is used to playing the music from the disc in the background over and over. But when he was asked to design the cover for Netta Barzilai’s new single, which will be released on Friday, he had to adapt.
“The secrecy around the song was more of an issue than the design. The [request to do the] design happened two days before we had to send it. They’re keeping the song so secret that they weren’t willing to send it to me. They were afraid it would be leaked or that someone who wasn’t supposed to would hear it," he said.
Barzilai attained international stardom last year when she won the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Israel with her song "Toy." As a result, this year's competition will be hosted by Israel in Tel Aviv in May.
“They brought me to the place where they were working on [the single], and it was in the week when it was raining cats and dogs. Luckily I was in the area, because in that kind of weather, you don’t leave home. The song still lacked finishing touches and the video clip was being edited. It was hard without hearing it again at home, so I used the videos they sent me. The design relates directly to the clip. The letters and the illustration and the colors — everything corresponds to the clip and the video itself that they sent me.”
Macabi, 32, is considered one of Israel’s best up-and-coming illustrators, and he has worked with other Israeli vocalists in the past. Now his portfolio will include the single that has had everyone biting their nails in expectation for more than six months — Barzilai's “Bassa Sababa.” Macabi is one of the few who has heard it at this point.
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Macabi called the song "just so Netta!" It's a real bombshell, he said. "In short, a hit."
In addition to working with musicians, his portfolio includes well-known Israel brands, including Café Louise and the Hishgad lottery. “All kinds of entities come to me with requests for designs, from high-tech firms and startups to musicians, restaurants and fashion labels," he said.
"In recent years, there has been more awareness of the field. At one time, people didn’t know that it was a profession that you could earn money from, but now people know that it makes no difference what kind of business you have. You need a graphic designer. Today there’s a battle to catch people’s attention, for what catches the eye most and what does it the fastest," he said.
"Design provides a package for the business. If you have a good designer, it can also sell merchandise, like Nike and Adidas. At every high-tech event nowadays, there are shirts with logos."
Macabi has been drawing since the age of 3, when he began sketching characters from movies and television series. He also began drawing people whom he knew. When he was older, he started working with Photoshop computer software, but his first real connection to the field came when he was 15.
“As a teenager I was exposed to the world of hip-hop, which became popular all of a sudden in Israel. The more I looked into it, the more I discovered street culture and graffiti, and it excited me. I liked the fact that you could take something that’s so closely identified with American culture and suddenly introduce it into Israeli culture too," he exclaimed.
"When I was in the army, I used to make covers for friends' work. Nechi Nech had a band, and I did a design for them," he said referring to an Israeli rapper's band. "Those are things I did for fun. It was only later that people really wanted to use [the designs]."
"When I was older, I studied at Shenkar," he recounted, referring to the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat-Gan, "and towards the end of my studies, I discovered calligraffiti, which is more play and movement within calligraphy that doesn’t maintain a tight and calm writing style.”
His integration of cultures and styles is apparently what makes Macabi unique in the field. “I like to mix genres. In the culinary world, I try to introduce graphic language identified with a specific kind of music. For example, using graffiti in a logo for a hummus restaurant. I like creating something new from it, not looking at other hummus companies and saying that’s what it looks like and that's what I have to do. It attracts the eye when you create an unusual combination.”
A sketch of Barzilai that went viral
Macabi watched the broadcast from the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon last May in which that Barzliai concluded her performance by exclaiming: “Thank you Europe, kapara aleichem!” a Hebrew expression referring to atonement, but which has become a term of affection. Instead of going to sleep after that, he sat down at his desk and drew a picture of Netta. The intensity of the reaction to his drawing surprised him.
When Barzilai returned to Israel after her Eurovision victory and performed in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, T–shirts were already on sale with the design. And that has now been followed by the commission for the cover for her forthcoming single.
“I’ve never designed a cover for a single on such a scale. She’s an international figure. When you’re part of something like this, it's more exciting than even things that you've worked on for months," Macabi noted.
“[Netta] is one of the most talented singers there is. She’s innovative, she’s fascinating, she represents something that I believe in, but had it been a song that I didn’t like, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t have done it,” he admitted, adding that he has turned down graphic design jobs for music that he didn't like. But even when he connects with a song, he says, working with musicians isn’t simple.
“It’s artist versus artist, and it can create an explosion of ego. You try to walk between the raindrops when it comes to a musician. For the most part, he is more inspired than the ordinary client. He has fantasies in his head, as opposed to a client who doesn’t really know what he wants. So you plan together and try to come to a happy medium. If someone has certain requests, I listen and I try to produce something that he will be comfortable with, but if he's making a mistake, I tell him to his face. I think maybe the work is even more important to me than it is to the client.”
When he was working on the rap singer Tuna's album "TunaPark," Macabi became involved in an artistic dispute. “I had to be drawn into my imaginary world," Macabi said, but he and Tuna did not see eye-to-eye.
"When I tried to depict fun and joy, Tuna quickly took me in another direction. I think we took a journey together until we reached a result that I could feel comfortable with. We formed a partnership. We walked hand-in-hand. I put aside what I was used to and put myself in his shoes.”
In the case of Netta Barzilai's “Bassa Sababa,” there was less of a problem with design. “The work was with her manager and her producer. It was done under great pressure. I didn’t even have time to meet Netta. I don’t think she was involved. They make her run around from one country to another and one performance to the next. It’s so exhausting that I don’t think she has time for that. I assume that they did show it to her, but it was mainly people whom she relies on who were there.”