Field Work Summary and the Questions Begged by Jerusalem’s Graffiti

I’m back from Israel (have been for a while, actually, though I’m really nervous about blogging). All in all, I captured nearly 1000 photos of the graffiti of Old City Jerusalem. Researching abroad was a thrilling, life-changing experience, and I am extremely grateful to the Nathan P. Jacobs foundation, who funded the grant the made this research possible.

Now that my field work is done, I have been working on synthesizing my findings in Israel with scholarly books and articles to create a paper. I am looking at a wealth of sources related to this, including the prevalence of Haredi Judaism in the Jewish Quarter, the rhetoric of PLO and Hamas, books on the Hajj, and the psychology of graffiti.

Here is a very, very cursory summary of my findings about the graffiti of the four different quarters, some of which is repeated from previous blog posts. The Jewish quarter had very, very little graffiti of any sort. The Muslim quarter, which had a ton of graffiti, and I realized early on that a lot of the graffiti is actually painted by the owners of the property, in celebration of returning from the Hajj, hence all of the stencils of the Kaaba, etc. There was also graffiti about prisoners, and a lot about freeing Palestine. And Arabic poetry, which was cool. And then there’s the Armenian quarter, which had relatively little. But all of the land in that quarter is owned by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and then rent it to families. Lastly, the Christian quarter had a fair amount of graffiti. It was interesting to see the overlap between the Christian and Muslim quarters. Because the Christian quarter is home to Arab Christians, there was a lot of the Palestinian motif seen in the Muslim quarter (especially the Palestinian flag)m but none of the Muslim themes, for obvious reasons. I’m so enthralled by how utterly different each of the quarters is. It’s truly remarkable. Before I began my research, I thought the only difference would be the ethnic makeups of the quarters’ inhabitants, but I was blown away at the diversity crammed into such a small place (the Old City is only 0.35 square miles).

Yet another cultural divide exists in Jerusalem, between the Old City and the New City. This is evidenced in the apparent insulation of the Old City. This is obvious when just walking around the two areas, and the graffiti of the areas is further evidence of this. While stencils that reference pop-culture are never seen in the Old City, just outside, graffiti becomes much more western, and stencils abound. Shown below are a stencil on Yafo St. of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski (with a screenshot for comparison) and one of Idan Ofer, the richest man in Israel.

the_big_lebowski Walter

17d62ff6985899fcc6be7fe318e24575-150x150   Ofer

After figuring out that it was Idan Ofer (my first guess was Alfred Hitchcock, but luckily, the painter was courteous enough to label his work) I couldn’t help but wonder if it is a statement about the 1% vs. the 99%? I witnessed (up-close and personal) a demonstration against government policy (you can read about it here: and it felt a lot like the occupy Wall Street protests. This raises questions about why the residents of the Old City do not share those sentiments in their graffiti. Are they uninformed, or maybe they’re favored by the government, and have no reason to voice objection? I believe that what could contribute to this is the detachment of many Orthodox Jews from the western aspects of Israel’s society. To quote a recent article in The New York Times titled “Israel Prods Ultra-Orthodox to ‘Share Burden’” : “When Binyamin Yazdi, an employment counselor, asks ultra-Orthodox clients their e-mail addresses, many respond, “What’s that?”

So, that’s just a brief, and belated summary of where I was after returning from Israel, and the questions I had. I went to Swem a few weeks ago, and have been churning through a large stack of books related to the subject. I hope to start putting my notes into an outline very soon.


  1. nvhudsmith says:

    I think documenting graffiti is interesting, especially as its a form of expression that gets ignored/washed over/lost very often. I’m excited to see what sort of trends you can find correlated to the age/location of the works.

  2. Robin Crigler says:

    I agree that graffiti seems like it would be a fascinating way to take the pulse of a community, especially one as complicated as the old city of Jerusalem. I would be interested in seeing how you end up classifying your findings, because it seems to me like many factors are at play. When I was in Spain last summer walking the Camino de Santiago, I was enthralled by the graffiti that I saw, both because in Spain it was far more prevalent than I’ve ever seen it in the United States (D.C., anyway), and also because it was interesting to see what graffiti was directed at me as a pilgrim/outsider/English-speaker, and what seemed purely for local consumption. It strikes me that in such a highly visited place as Jerusalem, the same factors may be at play. Culture also plays a role perhaps; I think of “graffiti” primarily as a Western/European invention, but it sounds like it has an important history in Arab communities, which might not be the case for Jews (or different sections of the Jewish population). Best of luck on your paper!