Street artists spark conversation about Israel with graffiti artwork

By Andrew Shull

In Andy Warhol’s hometown, three street artists set out to pay homage to the iconic painter….

Claire Deah, Staff Photographer

Students and graffiti artists spray-paint a temporary wall on the lawn of the William Pitt Union to demonstrate Israel’s support of the arts.

In Andy Warhol’s hometown, three street artists set out to pay homage to the iconic painter.

But this wasn’t a typical art show.

While reggae music blared over speakers and the musty smell of spray paint hung in the air outside of the William Pitt Union from noon to 6 p.m., the conversation centered around Israeli and Palestinian relations. The event was sponsored by Panthers for Israel, a Pitt-based pro-Israel advocacy group. The event featured three street artists from the organization Artists 4 Israel — two from New York and one from New Jersey — who spray-painted their individual takes on Warhol’s famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” on the side of wooden boards in the style of modern street artists.

Sam Mellits, the president of Panthers for Israel, said the event was all about opening up a dialogue.

“We wanted to reach a new group of students who might not come to an event or a lecture,” he said.

An example of that open dialogue happened when Karim Demian, a freshman finance major who emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt, approached the group’s table and questioned them about a point in Panthers for Israel’s literature.

“You say that Israel has always been willing to give up land for peace,” he asked. “What do you mean by that?”

The resulting discussion on a wide range of topics that have divided Israelis and Palestinians for centuries, turned quickly from the historic borders of Israel to security fences to citizenship for Palestinian refugees living in Israel.

Aharon David, an Israeli fellow working with Hillel, a Jewish student organization, jumped into the discussion and provided a unique perspective when it turned to the Gaza Strip, the tiny sliver of land between Egypt and Israel where Palestinians live in some of the worst conditions in the Middle East.

“I was with the [Israeli Defense Forces], on the ground in Gaza,” he said. “I know what it is like there.”

David, who moved from Israel a month ago to work on Pittsburgh campuses, acknowledged that “Israel is not perfect” but drew on his experience to find common ground with Demian.

And while the discussion was passionate, Demian ended up exchanging email addresses and pats on the back with members of Panthers for Israel.

Mellits said such dialogue was the reason for the event.

“We’re lucky enough for that to be the norm,” he said, adding that even in Israel, where sectarian tensions are high, “it happens much more than the media would have you think.”

But members of Students for Justice in Palestine were upset over what they viewed as the wooden boards’ symbolism.

Both Mahmond Yacoub, a Pitt junior and vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine, and Ryan Branagan, the group’s president, thought the display was reminiscent of the barrier Israel is constructing along the West Bank.

That barrier, which also features graffiti, is seen as one of the biggest impediments to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Nonviolent and violent protests occur along the roughly 440 mile-long barrier.

“My parents came from a village, Malha, which doesn’t exist anymore because of that f*cking wall,” Yacoub said.

Branagan expressed similar frustration.

“Logically, that wall shouldn’t be there,” he said. “Walls aren’t for peace. They’re for division.”

But Mellits said that parallel wasn’t intended.

“It’s just meant as a canvas, to get people to come and start talking and ask questions,”

Cole, a Brooklyn artist, and one of the three artists putting his own spin on Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” said that while the front of each board was an homage to the artist, the backs of the boards were available for anybody to paint anything.

He said he attended the event because he feels “Israel gets a bad rap,” and wanted to present another side of the issue.

“It’s a chance for us to unite under art,” Cole said.