United Colors of the Man Who Redesigned Israel

From the iconic logo for 'Peace Now' to upsetting posters evoking Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the great Israeli graphic designer David Tartakover has always given his unique twist on Israeli reality

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Tartakover's 1999 work 'UNITED COLORS OF NETANYHU.'
Tartakover's 1999 work 'UNITED COLORS OF NETANYHU.'Credit: Upi David Karp
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“You’re now entering the Holy of Holies,” said David Tartakover in the middle of our second meeting, when he allowed me to go through his bedroom to reach an interior room in his house. In this room the graphic artist and Israel Prize laureate, known to his friends as “Tarta,” stores his books of sketches from the past 40 years, containing his own visual history and that of the State of Israel. These are materials that have never been on display at an exhibition or in the press. “They’re a seismograph of what’s really happening to me and what’s happening around me,” he says.

Tartakover, 77, recently packed up a part of his huge collection and sent it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He sent his Israeliana collection – objects, toys and additional items identified with the state, as well as his collection of posters, sketches and drawings. He also sent several crates to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. “I haven’t sold anything from the collection, because it was important to me for the things to be preserved. And they can only be preserved in a museum.”

For now he is keeping his books of sketches – his so-called “black books” – which are filed and organized chronologically, in his home. “I’m leaving it to my daughter, Ellie, to decide what to do with them,” he says, but at the same time he invites representatives of the National Library of Israel, or any other public organization, to come and scan the books so that they will become public property.

Strangely, as yet there have been no books, theses or doctorates about the person considered the most important graphic artist who worked here – in contrast to other artists of his stature in the plastic arts, such as Igael Tumarkin, Menashe Kadishman or Dani Karavan. In 2011 he himself initiated the publication of the book “Tartakover” (Am Oved), which he calls “The Red Book.” To date 5,000 copies have been sold, a relatively high number.

A photo of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Tartakover's 'Crime Pays.'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

In recent years Tartakover has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which requires him to live at home with a caregiver who “does everything,” as he puts it. “Jenifer forced me,” he adds, referring to his former partner, artist Jenifer Bar Lev. “I noticed while driving that something was wrong,” he says. “It’s been with me for several years already. My handwriting changed a lot. I had a nice handwriting and now I can barely decipher it. Before the illness I also walked around all the time with a small book, now I do so less.” In recent years he has done little. “I didn’t really create anything. I had a block. But I’m hanging in there.”

Last week in the Jaffa Theater he was awarded the Shulamit Aloni Lifetime Achievement Award. Aloni also shared his political philosophy. In the theater’s foyer 19 of his posters will be on display. The members of the prize committee wrote that they “would like to mention in particular his exceptional contribution as a creative artist and a social activist who engages in ethical and political battles against warmongers and the injustices of the occupation, against moral crimes and contempt for human dignity.”

The curator of the exhibition, the multidisciplinary designer Nofar Hatuka, has been Tartakover’s assistant in recent years. Despite the difficulty, she says, he continues to create, with her help. For example, together they painted ceramic urns that were displayed in an exhibition of the Broken Fingaz group of street artists, in which he participated, and they are also working on additional books that he plans to publish.

Tartakover's 'Happy New Fear' from 1995, which he created following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Oded Klein

A Netanyahu puppet

Tartakover began to create his series of black books about 40 years ago. One of the interesting books begins on November 5, 1995, a day after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It opens with a collage, and pasted in the book after that are a number of small copies of his famous “Shalom” poster, which uses a biblical font on the background of a blue sky and white clouds. Tartakover submitted it to a competition in honor of Israel’s 30th anniversary – and didn’t win. But then it was learned that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was planning a visit to Israel, and this poster, which perfectly expressed the yearning for the upcoming peace with Egypt, was declared the winner.

While we are enjoying leafing through the books, he mentions historical anecdotes. For example, that he is the one who dreamed up and designed the name and the logo of Peace Now in 1978, as a sequel to the Shalom poster. That was the first time that a political sticker was designed in Israel. “At the time an organization of peace lovers including Telma Alyagon and Tzali Reshef was formed,” he recalls. On April 1, 1978, 30,000 Israelis attended a demonstration on Malchei Yisrael Square in Tel Aviv – long before it became Rabin Square – with a demand to evacuate Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt. Awaiting them were thousands of posters that Tartakover had printed, with the words “Shalom Akhshav” (Peace Now). That how the iconic name and logo were adopted.

Tartakover didn’t ask for payment for the political posters he created. “They were my initiatives and productions that had a great influence on the street and on the audience. It was part of ideology. These aren’t wealthy companies. The very fact that these NGOs and organizations were willing to print a poster of mine – that’s good.”

'Today the designer executes only a small part of the design. It all belongs to a new world, a world of technology, that I, from the vantage point of my advanced age, can only look at and enjoy'

David Tartakover at home in Tel AViv, next to his work 'Flag' which was created with an Israeli army cleaning rod. Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

His involvement in politics continued for 40 years: In the 2002 black book there’s a poster that marks 35 years of occupation, as well as a lot of free sketches in shiny Magic Markers, which are intermingled with invitations to events, and reminders that he wrote to himself. The book covering 2016- 2017 is an associative creation: collages of boarding passes and tickets for leaving Ben-Gurion airport, pictures of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former U.S. President Donald Trump, a sketch for the poster marking 50 years of occupation, a eulogy for journalist and art critic Galya Yahav written by poet Yitzhak Laor, a kind of portrait, perhaps a self portrait, inspired by tortured Austrian painter Egon Schiele; and a large number of cactuses – the sabra plant – which are always present in his works. “Kadishman made sheep, I make cactuses,” he says.

The books also contain many references to Netanyahu and his family. And not only the books. On the table in the work corner there’s a biography of Netanyahu, not much of which is left – Tarta drew skull-like faces on all its pages. But he insists that Netanyahu is not the issue. ‘He’s only the platform here. This is a book that I bought in a bookshop and I drew on it. I enjoyed doing it from beginning to end.”

And when I try once again to ask about Netanyahu, Tartakover, who has a satirical puppet of the man (in the vein of the British “Spitting Image”), says with some annoyance: “Why are we talking about him? That pollutes the conversation.” In another context he notes that the present opposition leader knows how to do campaigns by himself. “He doesn’t need any designer campaign. Bibi transmitted what he believes in. In a deceitful manner of course.”

The opening pages of a sketch book Tartakover created after Rabin's assassination. Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv
David Tartakover looking at a drawing of New York City he made during a visit to the U.S.Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

Not only the black books have yet to be exposed. There are also many sketchbooks in the house, some of whose content was published by Tartakover in the Haaretz culture and sports section (in Hebrew). They depict Tel Aviv, New York and other places he visited. In the past he used to sketch on big notepads, but after too many “What are you drawing?” questions on the street, he switched to small, palm-sized notepads, which are suitable for roaming around Tel Aviv.

“I like to see the city change. To see the contours change,” he says, pointing to a drawing of high-rise towers, buildings with tiled roofs and untamed greenery. The urban ugliness and the visual changes don’t bother him. “It bothers me that when I walk on the sidewalk with a cane I have to circle around it because it’s full of construction material. But no, the change in the city doesn’t bother me.”

The head of a Netanyahu doll used in the 1990s political satire TV show 'Chartzufim,' on Tartakover's desk.Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

A pioneer of Neve Tzedek

Tartakover was born in Haifa in 1944 to father of Austrian descent and a mother of Egyptian descent who met in Vienna, where his mother was studying German. When he was 4 years old the family moved to Jerusalem because of his father’s work in the Justice Ministry. He studied in the high school adjacent to the Hebrew University, served in the Paratroopers Brigade and did periods of reserve duty in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War (when he also made many drawings that became a book he published with lyricist and journalist Eli Mohar).

In the 1960s he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and later taught there for many years. In London he studied graphic art and typography, and upon his return he moved to Tel Aviv.

As a young graphic designer Tartakover was a member of the team that started TV’s Channel 1. Another place where he worked briefly was the women’s magazine “At,” when it was edited by Tommy Lapid (the father of politician Yair Lapid). “I was appointed graphics editor and within three months I quarreled with Tommy Lapid and resigned. The quarrel was about a matter of principle – I said that the choice of photos couldn’t be left to the secretary of the editorial staff.”

Articles about him reveal the changes in the profession: Over the years Tartakover was described as a graphic artist, an applied artist, a graphic designer or a designer of applied art. The contemporary name for his profession – designer of visual communications – didn’t really suit him, and he himself prefers the title “culture designer.” He is totally aware of his importance as the person who in effect invented local design.

The logo of NGO 'Peace Now,' created by Tartakover.Credit: David Tartakover

“Until the 1970s and the 1980s design here was the same as it was abroad. I realized that we had to engage in the local culture. I said that we have to look at what’s happening around us and retrieve the things that were important and use them. To recycle them. To give them a second round. That’s why I called my work ‘Produce of Israel.’ Before that nobody had touched local materials.”

In the early 1980s he moved to his legendary house in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv. “I’m one of the founders of the new Neve Tzedek,” he declares. “When I arrived there people looked at me and didn’t understand. The wife of Chich [Shlomo Lahat, then-mayor of Tel Aviv], Ziva Lahat, came to visit and asked: ‘How can you live there?’ And I showed her the wadi, where the train to Jerusalem used to pass and where Park Hamesila is now located. I told her that this area would become the path leading to Jaffa.”

What is his opinion of the fact that the place has now become a neighborhood for the wealthy? “It’s a natural process that happened all over the world. First come the artists and then comes the money.”

The 1980s were his peak period. Tartakover had two exhibitions in the Israel Museum, an exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and many exhibits worldwide, in which important works, such as his version of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, gained prominence.

A wall in the Jaffa Theater covered with Tartakover's creations and items from his Israeli memorabilia collection.

Although he believes that the occupation will end some day, he says that the political left in Israel has stopped dealing with it. “Where have you seen a campaign of the left? They’ve all become ministers. There are no campaigns. A campaign has to be fed all the time and not only before elections. The messages are important, and so is visibility. The campaign in 1992 was the only one that worked,” he said, referring to the election campaign that led to the formation of a Labor government led by Yitzhak Rabin.

His friend’s Uzi

During the period of COVID-19 he moved to a relatively small apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv, which looks like an exhibition. In the glass cases he keeps parts of the collection of Israeliana, including portraits of David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl and many items such as a genuine Uzi rifle that he took from “an army buddy,” former police commissioner Assaf Hefetz.

A 1984 clipping from the now-defunct Davar newspaper reveals a surprising political collaboration. “At the time I did the advertising campaign for [right-wing politician] David Levy in the election for the Histadrut labor federation. And then I realized that I’m not a professional. Professionals can do anything. Provide service to anyone. I can’t,” he said at the time to reporter Oren Neeman. “I understood that at the start of my work with David Levy, but I had already promised, that’s why I continued and I worked for him until the end.”

Posters, says Tartakover, have lost their status. “Historically, the public bulletin board was the place for providing information to pedestrians. In the present era they aren’t relevant. What is there now? Billboards that are a teaser for what you’ll see in the television commercials. Today the designer executes only a small part of the design. It all belongs to a new world, a world of technology, that I, from the vantage point of my advanced age, can only look at and enjoy.”

David Tartakover at home. 'Why are we talking about [Netanyahu]? That pollutes the conversation.'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Weren’t there designer posters in the demonstrations against Netanyahu on Balfour Street?

“There were unique posters on Balfour that were very attractive. They were made by private individuals. But those are not posters that were duplicated. So today there’s no left and no bulletin board. It’s sad but that’s life.”

As part of his artistic activity, Tartakover also created design exhibitions, including “Herzl in Profile,” which deals with Herzl’s image in applied arts. “I don’t see anyone who does that,” he says, referring to political and social exhibitions. ‘In my opinion that’s one of my most important contributions: Curating those exhibitions and turning to a new direction.”

Tartakover is one of three artists who received the Israel Prize for Design. The other two are Dan Reisinger and Yarom Vardimon – who were involved in totally different fields. But he is angry that designer and typographer Zvi Narkis, who died in 2010, didn’t receive the prize. “Narkis’ contribution to Hebrew fonts can’t be compared to anyone else. He’s responsible for the revival of Hebrew fonts. I recommended him with [graphic designer] Adi Stern for the Israel Prize, and they gave it to someone else.” (He is referring to Vardimon, who received the prize in 2007.)

The exhibition in the Jaffa Theater will focus on the political posters. “What guided me,” said the curator, Hatuka, “was the relevance to the time and place. The posters that were chosen express the social-political place and deal with Israeli-Palestinian content. It was important to me to place posters that have become icons, such as the peace poster and the erased Declaration of Independence.

“There’s also one different poster in the exhibition, that I insisted on and that is particularly dear to me, and that of course is the Tolerance poster,” she says, referring to the poster that features a photo of Tartakover wearing red lipstick, against a sky-blue background, with the word “tolerance” printed along the bottom in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Left: Tartakover's 'Stain.' Right: Self Portrait.Credit: Carl Lorne Liesenfeld/Gadi Dagon

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