Broken Fingaz’s Graffiti Art
Can a gritty Haifa street-art collective bring its wild Israeli style to the chic London galleries inhabited by D*face, JR, and Banksy?
To launch a slideshow of images from the current exhibition at the Old Truman Brewery in London, “NO WAY presents Broken Fingaz Crew,” click the link at left.
Governmental bodies still remain frostily supercilious toward the ideology of street art, a term that carries connotations of anarchic vandalism and has become, paradoxically, restrictive, when considering the expansive practices of most artists working within it.
Broken Fingaz Crew (known as the BFC), a collective hailing from Haifa, is spearheading this new wave of the genre coming out of Israel: young, local artists who are contributing to a changing face of the urban landscape and simultaneously redefining the boundaries of their medium.
From their first endeavors just over a decade ago, tagging on the streets of Haifa, and later Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Broken Fingaz has expanded into a tightly organized unit whose works encompass graphic design and artist promotion, facilitated by today’s hyper-connectivity. Having already presented technically complicated pieces for shows at the Haifa Museum of Art at the end of 2011, Bat Yam’s Riviera in 2011, and Art Beijing in 2010, the BFC is now enjoying its first experience of Europe, with a solo exhibition through the end of the month at East London’s renowned Old Truman Brewery, an area that has become a kind of hall of fame for a host of celebrated mainstream artists: Banksy, D*face, Shepard Fairey, JR, ROA—many of whom inspired the BFC to start working in the medium.
Broken Fingaz Crew began in 2001, when two of its now four members, Kip and Unga, were still in high school in Haifa. “We always painted comics and cartoons, but growing up in Israel, you couldn’t see any graffiti, so it took us a while to understand,” Unga said. “At the beginning, it was really hard to get better ’cause there was no one to learn from. We didn’t even get the idea that you need to come up with a name, and just wrote random words each time like SKATE, BABYFACE, COOL. … It looked like shit.” It was only after Kip returned from a trip to London with a copy of the street art zine Graphotism that the group of young artists found their calling.
Deso, who moved to Israel from Russia with his family as a child, and Tant, one of the most prolific of the unit, joined the crew in the years that followed. Their core remains the same, but their creative network is continually expanding, yielding new ideas. BFC is now ensconced in a studio in downtown Haifa, shared between the four members of the crew and a band of fellow self-styled gypsies who drift in and out of the space. The BFC’s practice brings together the ideas, aesthetics, and methods of all the members and includes graphic design, painting, animation (their stop-motion debut has been shown around the world, from San Francisco to St. Petersburg), illustration, and installation—the most recent of which, “Vadi Niceness,” exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum. Their professionalism and vision, both commercial and artistic, are palpable in their output. Their method usually begins and ends with a central image, built around a color scheme and developed by all four artists to produce a colorful, psychedelic, zany, yet visceral narrative—a kind of three-dimensional, sensory comic book.
Elucidating the importance of this unconventional group of homegrown artists in the context of the Israeli scene, the Tel Aviv Museum presented a new exhibition, at a key moment in the institution’s modern history, as it unveiled its breathtaking new development, the Herta and Paul Amir Building. The exhibit “Inside Job,” curated by Tal Lanir in 2011, brought together a group of street artists whose work adorns the cityscapes of Israel. Though the exhibition perhaps failed to convey the feeling of a cohesive movement, it demonstrated the scope of Israeli artists and succeeded in marking what Haaretz called an “unprecedented” step in presenting an accomplished movement of artists that is spreading beyond the Jewish state.
The BFC’s work has naturally built up an often complex, symbiotic dialogue with Haifa. The city provides them with a canvas and has helped launch their careers; they have created their own community here, running music nights, pop-up stores, and opening up a graffiti shop and gallery—FingaPrints, now named Bardo. “We love Haifa: the land, the food,” Unga said. “So, of course the fact that we grew up here and still live and work from here is something that comes out in our work in one way or another. Most of our works aren’t political, probably because Israel is such a politically charged country, that art is kind of our escape to normality.”
“Vadi Niceness” was a mixed-media recreation of the skyline of their native city, recalling the distant murmur and twinkling lights of Haifa—a kind of leitmotif in their installation work, and the point of departure in the creation of the BFC fantasy world. It was also a utopian vision of the city, subtly highlighting the ambition of the BFC to be recognized as artists beyond the borders of Haifa and Israel.
In her foreword to Street Art in Israel, Tel Aviv Museum curator Doron Lurie draws analogies between street art and ancient art forms, citing the Book of Daniel, in which the Babylonian King Belshazzar is made to face “the writing on the wall.” Lurie also recalls that during the first decades of Israel’s independence, graffiti writing was often a frustrated outcry against the politics of the day. Street art in Israel remains important, but it has also progressed from crude political commentary to raising more enduring questions, exploring the rapport between the artists and the physical spaces around them.
Whether Broken Fingaz can beguile audiences in the United Kingdom, where street art has long since moved into an exhibition context—and where sentiment is not necessarily pro-Israeli—remains to be seen. Try to get any of the crew to dwell on anything politically polemical and they’ll give you a sense of exasperation. They are more interested in talking about what inspires them, more than their personal views. “It’s sometimes frustrating that we work more hours than everyone around us and we’re still always broke,” Unga, the crew’s unofficial spokesperson, said. “If we earn some cash, we’ll use it to buy more paint and materials for our next project.”
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