Arofish was probably the first Western artist to paint on the contentious wall between Palestine and Israel. He’s been in some really dicey situations… He has larger cojones than you.
You were the first Western artist to paint on the wall but you said there were local artists who’d painted on it before you – what was their work like?
Most of the local graffiti art that you see in Palestine is probably not by independent artists, it’s more sort of party based or at least in support of a particular big group such as Fatah or Hamas or whoever. It uses a lot of the traditional symbols like keffiyah, kalashnikovs or, back then, Yasser Arafat’s face – it’s probably somebody else now – and traditional iconography and imagery. It’s not exclusively that – you have got some Palestinian artists doing original stuff but most of the graffiti you see on the wall and around the towns is very traditional, statement-based, sloganistic sort of stuff.
How did your stencil work go down?
Yeah, they liked it and gave me a lot of support with it.
The wall was still being constructed when you painted it right?
Yeah, parts of it were. The place I painted was a place called Abu Dis, which is in Jerusalem and on the Palestine. The worst place I’ve ever seen the wall was a place called Qalqilya because it goes all around the city. I was going to paint on that but the day I chose to do it there was a massive demonstration as well. I wanted to use the demonstration as cover to get up close to the wall because there was always tanks and troops around the wall. Unfortunately there was tear gas, rubber bullets, stones and probably a few live rounds flying around all over the place so in the end I painted what I wanted to paint in a sort of sewer very, very nearby the wall. It was a picture of Ariel Sharon’s head, so I literally put his head in the sewer. I wanted it on the wall but it just wasn’t going to happen on that day. I was half-blinded with tear gas while I was painting it as well.
Why did you do the wall?
I was involved with the Palestine thing anyway, I was an activist. I went there on three different occasions between 2002 and 2004, I got involved in different things like riding in ambulances, negotiating at checkpoints, monitoring things, blocking tanks in the street sometimes, you know. There was something called the International Solidarity Movement, which you couldn’t really call an NGO, but they were a group – a movement – of activists with quite a high turnover. Most of the body of their members were people that would go on short trips and do something and then be replaced by new people. I was part of that. I started off as an activist and then the graffiti took over. Within the graffiti itself, it’s funny because I started doing political graffiti and then sort of arty graffiti and then I ended up just doing art and not wanting to do obvious stuff. It seems to me that political artists cheat a bit sometimes because they’ve always got a ready made fanbase – I didn’t want to do that. You can push the right buttons and you’ll always get applause. Within activist circles, feminism and anti-war and stuff, as long as you’re saying the right thing, you’ve got a right on audience.
Is it a stencil of Joseph and Mary looking through a window?
It’s not Joseph and Mary – although it could look like that! I’ve never really thought of it like that. It’s a man and a woman in traditional Palestinian dress so why not?! It was just supposed to be a typical couple looking through the wall at essentially their own land with bars on the window. That’s the view they’ve got, which is the ‘peace’ that the Israeli government are selling. Not a terrible subtle piece to be honest with you, in fact, I put the word peace in quote marks just so nobody would be mistaken, because obviously not every member of the flock would benefit from subtlety. That picture was the only thing I put on the wall – I did other things in Palestine but the only thing I put on the wall was that.
Was the wall heavily guarded at that point as they were still building it?
Not the spot I chose – there were still Israeli troops everywhere but we found a little space and I had a couple of people around so they could drop a bag on the floor or give me a signal if there was anyone approaching. It was a very quick stencil to knock up, quite frankly!
How long did the piece take?
Not long – it was a quite a simple one; probably 20 minutes. It’s not a great piece of work to be honest – none of the ones on that trip were great drawings. It’s a shame, it was a wicked opportunity but my drawing wasn’t up to much of a level. Also there weren’t many supplies there, just making the stencil in a hostel room and using whatever bits I could find, and there were no shops to go choose different colours of Krylon paint. I just used whatever basic spray paint I could find. If I did it now I could do really good work. I can draw a lot better now because I’ve put hundreds of hours of practice in. It’s a shame that sometimes things don’t line up properly, do you know what I mean? It was a wicked opportunity. But then again, I had the opportunity to do it on my recent time in Syria but not the will. There were times when we were sat around for long periods in relatively safe areas when I could have done something and perhaps should have, I just didn’t feel it.
Did you paint solo?
Yeah, I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf. I prefer to do graffiti by myself because unless someone else is really, really experienced they’ll usually mess it up. They’ll shout “CAR” every 10 minutes and you’ll be running up the road tearing your stencil and it’s just a random car.
You’ve also painted in Beirut and Iraq – were they before or after Palestine?
Beirut was a couple of years after Palestine so around 2006. That particular trip to Palestine where I painted on the wall was the last of my Palestinian trips and was in 2003-2004. I actually started off that trip in Iraq in 2003; I was in Baghdad and I bumped around there for a bit, doing graffiti and getting arrested by the American troops. They put me in a cage for three days and then the Iraqi police nicked me after that as well and held on to me for a couple of days. They were cool and thought it was funny but they didn’t have the power to let me go, but they were alright with me. So I was in Iraq and then went into Palestine, which was supposed to be the focus of that trip – I went to Palestine to do graffiti essentially but I got side tracked and somehow ended up in Iraq. Six weeks later I made it to Palestine.