LONDON - On Friday morning, as I walked through Shoreditch in eastern London, the white paint was still wet. Previous graffiti scrawled over the mural in recent days hadn't been enough to hide the message and someone had done a more thorough job and the main offensive image had been totally covered over in thick paint still congealing. Anti-Semitism or Censorship?
In an ongoing dispute over the limits of artistic expression, an elaborate mural in the old East End of London has been repeatedly vandalized and finally covered over by anonymous hands. The mural was painted over a 5-day period late last month by Kalen Ockerman, who paints under the pseudonym of Mear One, a Los-Angeles based artist has been painting large graffiti-style murals on city walls around the world.
The painting on Hanbury Street depicted six men elderly white men, some with, for lack of a better description, what seemed like noticeable Jewish features. They were playing a game of monopoly using real money, their giant board laid on the naked backs of downtrodden naked human beings of different color. Over them hung an image similar to the Freemasons symbol on the Dollar bill and the Illuminati, much beloved of conspiracy theorists. To bolster the global conspiracy message, Ockerman had painted a man holding up a sign saying – "The New World Order Is The Enemy of Humanity."
Not surprisingly, Ockerman had barely completed his work when local residents and politicians began complaining that the mural was offensive and controversial for the anti-Semitic image of Jewish bankers living off the poor working class and at the heart of a shadowy global cabal. Many residents though had shown enthusiasm for the mural and encouraged Ockerman during the painting and were opposed to its removal. In recent years, Hanbury and other streets around Brick Lane have become a popular venue for street artists and a number of intricate designs, many of them with political themes, adorn the walls around.
A century ago, this was the heart of Jewish London, with tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants pouring in from Eastern Europe and the neighborhood was dotted with synagogues, kosher stores and workshops where Yiddish was the main spoken language. Most of the Jewish families and businesses are gone now, the synagogues nearly all closed down and it has become a largely Muslim area, with immigrants from South Asia opening up dozens of curry restaurants. As cost of living is rising in the city, more young professionals are buying up houses and apartments and the gentrified neighborhood is becoming a trendy place for clubs and restaurants, with the murals lending it an edgy ambience. But did Mear One's message go a bit too far?
Lutfur Rahman, the elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, the London borough in which Hanbury Street resides has past links to Islamist groups and was seen so controversial that the Labour Party decided not to field him as its candidate and he was instead supported by the far-left anti-Israel Respect Party. But even for him, the mural seemed to be a bit too much and in a statement he wrote that "whether intentional or otherwise the images of the bankers perpetuate anti-Semitic propaganda about conspiratorial Jewish domination of financial and political institutions. I am of the view that where freedom of expression runs the risk of inciting racial hatred, as for example when the EDL (English Defense League) attempted to march in Tower Hamlets last year, then it is right that such expression should be curtailed. I have therefore asked my officers to do everything possible to see to it that this mural is removed." But long before the council's officers acted, Marxists slogans were scrawled over the mural and then in blue, someone painted a Star of David and "No to Anti-Semitism." And then came a blanket of white paint.
But was it intentional? Ockerman himself seems to have an interesting take on the nature of anti-Semitism. In a YouTube clip on his personal website, he says "I came to paint a mural that depicted the elite banking cartel known as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, the ruling class elite few, the wizards of Oz, they would be playing a board-game of monopoly on the backs of the working class." But he strenuously denies that was an anti-Semitic statement saying on his Facebook page that "a group of conservatives do not like my mural and are playing a race card with me. My mural is about class and privilege. The banker group is made up of Jewish and white Anglos. For some reason they are saying I am anti-Semitic. This I am most definitely not... What I am against is class."
What did the local residents make of it? Some were immediately offended, others didn't realize there was something wrong about it until the media began dealing with it and others still think it's fine.
"It was certainly offensive," says Daniel Tropez, a designer who lives and works nearby. "It is clearly anti-Semitic and it's a pity because there is so much lovely art on the walls around. Everyone I know just looked at it and said 'what the hell?'." Another resident who didn't want his name to appear looked approvingly at the paint covering the mural and said "I can see why it was painted over."
Gary Means, a tour-guide for Alternative London Tours, a company which specializes in taking groups to see London street-art was livid at what he sees as vandalism. He blamed "militant Jewish group" for painting it over. "I organized this wall for the artist and it is absolutely not anti-Semitic," he said. "There is nothing whatsoever to do with Jews. They have just aggressively ruined a well though-out piece of art." Means probably hadn't read Ockerman's Facebook post in which he admitted that Jews were depicted in the mural.
Not all the locals seem to have understood the controversy though. Said Ali, who works at the real-estate office next door, says that "I watched the artists at work, he was very impressive. A big crowd stood around looking and since I'm not Jewish, I don't see why it's offensive but as a member of an ethnic minority, I can understand that it should be taken down if someone feels that it is." His colleague Namir Bokhari even thought that it was complementary to Jews – "I want to be sitting around that table one day, ruling the world" he smiled.