The Tel Aviv light rail is not operational yet, but a crucial part of the city’s subterranean fringe culture is ready: Over the last two months, the concave walls of the Red Line tunnel have been covered with freshly painted graffiti. The man responsible is a lean blonde fellow known as Stra, one of the two founders of Insomnia, Israel’s first print graffiti magazine, which has just come out with its second issue.
Stra had been trying for a while to sneak into the light rail tunnels, fantasizing about the blank cement walls. He happened to find his way in while randomly strolling with a couple of friends in the city center.
“Suddenly we spotted a small opening that anyone could enter if they wanted to,” he relates in a heavy Russian accent; he made aliya from Saint Petersburg three years ago, in his twenties. He prefers not to reveal this entry point’s location.
“It wasn’t guarded. We went down the steps and went right into the tunnel. There are no sensors and at night everything is well lit.”
The adventurous trio walked along the track and wandered between stations in the heart of the city, finally emerging in Jaffa, through another opening. The idea for the cover of the magazine’s latest edition was born during that stroll: Not long afterward, Stra snuck in through the same breach with another group of friends, this time with plentiful cans of paint, a guitar, an inflatable pool, swimsuits and a camera.
In the first issue of Insomnia, Stra and his partner Zars assembled what they consider the finest examples of graffiti in Israel from 2010-2017. The new edition is devoted to selected works from 2018-2020. It includes interviews in Hebrew and English with graffiti writers (the term for graffiti artists) who present their works, including “two from Jerusalem who do street art, veteran artists from Haifa who originated graffiti in Israel, and there’s an interview with a Spanish writer who did work in Jaffa.”
The pair also decided to devote half the issue to the Dolphinarium building – “the legendary spot where every tourist always painted. Everyone painted there at least once,” Stra says. “So we did an article in memory of the building that was torn down that of course also addressed the tragedy of the terror attack there, in which many Russian-Israeli young people were killed.”
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The decision to start a magazine devoted exclusively to graffiti came about not just because Tel Aviv was lagging way behind other major cities, which have had such magazines for years, but also as a response to the relentless and indiscriminate flood of images on social media.
“On the Internet there is so much material that everything blends together,” Stra says. “Things lose value in your newsfeed. We’re only producing a print magazine; we have no presence online except for a landing page where you can buy it and an Instagram page that doesn’t reflect what we’re printing.” The circulation is small so far: Only 100 copies were published of the first edition, and 300 of the second.
The two editors make a clear differentiation between graffiti and street art, and although their magazine also contains a few street paintings, the focus is on contemporary graffiti – which is primarily about font design.
“Graffiti is lettering. Maybe people who aren’t from the field see less of a distinction.
“Graffiti is also called ‘style writing,’” Stra explains. “A lot of people start learning to sketch, they see which lettering works the best for them and they use that. The thing is to invent something and do something that is as unique as possible, that sets you apart. You play with colors, shapes and letters; it all revolves around the fonts. There are styles and lots of people copy them, but the idea is really that people want to build their own style.”
Consequently, and surprisingly, in its contemporary incarnation, graffiti is detached from political messages. “The whole idea is that it doesn’t have a message. No message,” he says. “Just a word. Just a name, or letters that you like. Classic graffiti has no message, it’s design of letters. It’s a work of art that stands on its own.”
One of the artists interviewed in the magazine alongside his works is Sedr, from Poland, who created graffiti in Tel Aviv and Bethlehem. “The truth is that we’re looking for Arab artists for future issues,” Stra says. “In Egypt there’s a very strong movement, and there are lots in Turkey. But here we’re still looking for Palestinians who create classic graffiti.”
How do you decide which are the best works?
“It’s my taste and my partner’s taste. You have to build your taste and your understanding about graffiti. You have to start to develop your taste.”
A graffiti artist himself, Stra likens his involvement to an addiction.
“It’s a very weird thing. It’s hard to explain why you do it. I got into it when I was still a kid and it just works like a drug. I used to think you could compare it to a deal with the devil. Sometimes you don’t feel like doing it but you feel like you have to continue, even if not for yourself. As if you committed to keep on doing it. Basically, you boost your ego every time you make graffiti.”