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Israel's Broken Fingaz Graffiti Crew Have Spent Their Career Appalling People

Their fluorescent sketches are counted as among the first examples of graffiti culture in Haifa, a city known for clamping down hard on street art, despite its reputation as Israel's liberal culture Mecca.

by Jack Mills
Aug 14 2014, 5:00am

A page from Sex Picnic

Last night, Broken Fingaz Crew—one of Israel's only existing graffiti collectives—launched a new hand-drawn zine at the opening night of Kartel, an arts space in downtown Haifa. Sex Picnic shows lusty girls locking lips with cave-eyed skeletons, amphibious women with reptile heads holding their legs apart, and bony figures fingering a kneeling woman. It’s not really the kind of thing you’d stick up on your wall ahead of, say, your grandparents coming over.

“I have all these tripped-out, psychedelic dreams and kind of bring them alive in the work,” says 28-year-old BFC leader Unga, whose surname remains undisclosed for good reason (police generally aren’t fans of people spraying paint all over public property). “This one's literally a picnic that everyone’s invited to.”

BFC have spent their career appalling people; their fluorescent sketches are counted as among the first examples of graffiti culture in Haifa, a city known for clamping down hard on street art, despite its reputation as Israel's liberal culture Mecca. “To this day, as soon as our work goes out, within two or three days in gets painted over,” Unga explains. “You learn not to get too attached to it.” 

It’s not just the city council the four-man clan have come up against. When they formed in 2005, an event the crew were organizing in Tel Aviv to launch a set of art pieces was shut down because the flyer depicted a black woman performing sexual acts—scenes deemed blasphemous and too explicit by venue owners. It’s likely BFC would have felt far less opposition in Tel Aviv than they do in Haifa; in 2011, City Lab reported that the Tel Aviv municipality was providing 40 percent annual funding for the city’s Museum of Art, an institution known for propping up homegrown street artists.

“Haifa buffs everything,” says David Hevion Melech, co-owner of Kartel. “Nothing lasts more than a few weeks. It sucks, because there are so many good artists here, but as a visitor you can so easily miss it all.”

Despite that setback, Melech and Ghost Town Crew—the 20-strong music and installation art collective he belongs to—were able to convert an old port-fermenting factory into the vast arts and live-music venue it is now. Opening today, Kartel aims to become the Haifan creative community's first and primary meeting place. “Everyone in the area’s arts scene knows each other here,” says Melech. “It’s a small and local crowd. We want to host exhibitions for three days at a time every two weeks, and screen films from nearby emerging artists.”

I met Unga under the arch of an abandoned railway in London. Like the rest of the collective—who all bounce back and forth between London and Israel’s third-largest city—I'd been finging Unga almost impossible to keep track of. “None of us own mobile phones. I haven’t had one for about three years,” he said. “People can’t really reach any of us, but that’s how we like it. I hate Instagram and the selfie culture, too. It’s disgusting because it teaches 16-year-­old girls that it’s OK to be fake.”

Unga met BFC co­-founder Tant when they lived as children in a tiny, 40-person­ commune in the foothills of Mount Carmel, northern Israel. With their artist parents, the pair stayed in small pods once occupied by the British Army during the First World War’s Battle of Megiddo. After ten years at the camp they took over a squat in Haifa with fellow BFC members Deso and Kip.

There, inspired by copies of influential France-based journal Graffiti Art, art nouveau printmaker Ephraim Moses Lilien and painters like Albrecht Dürer and Gustav Klimt, they began peppering the city’s back­-alleys with the doodles they’d cultivated from childhood. “I think we were the first generation [of graffiti artists in the city],” says Unga. “Or at least we took over directly from NRC [Nuclear Rabbit Crew], who started slightly before us.”

A page from Sex Picnic

“When we started writing back in 2001, there was pretty much nothing on the walls,” Kip told City Lab. Nudity, comic book gore and liberal use of color were staple traits; in one mural there was a scalped, bearded man with lasers for eyes sitting next to a luminous pink-skinned cross dresser with a Hitler mustache. “I was going out in the night and seeing the drawings from the bus on the way to school the following morning,” Unga remembers. "No one knew what I was up to the night before, and it felt good. As a teenager, you have this urge to do something illegal.”

In 2012, after a stint in the Israeli army at 18—“I wasn't a fighter or anything; I made sure I wasn’t. And yeah, I hated it”—Unga and the rest of BFC were contacted by London curator Charlotte Janson (of independent arts label NO WAY) about putting on a retrospective in London, their first ever show outside Israel. “It’s generally a nightmare to find them—no­ one has a phone and everyone has multiple names,” says Janson, who was introduced to the crew’s work by a friend.

Ahead of the show later that year, Janson rented an apartment in London's Bethnal Green for the four main members to stay in. “Fifteen of them showed up,” she says. “They all got sick, and this tiny place turned into a kind of refugee incubator, with friends from their hometown sleeping in the bathroom and on the kitchen floor.”

“When we came to London, we wanted to draw everywhere,” remembers Unga. “But there’s a feeling of acceptance here; graffiti is safe and part of the furniture. Where we’re from, graffiti is a punk movement, and we wanted to bring that energy to the show.” How did they do that? “By showing orgies, frogs raping fat men—that kind of thing.”

Since then, the collective have shown in galleries around the world,­ from Vienna’s Inoperable Gallery to the annual Art Beijing fair. 

A wall in Hackney Wick while BFC were in a spat with another graffiti crew

Flicking through Sex Picnic’s pages, it’s clear that the group’s work has gained focus over time. Gone are the scalp-less laser warriors and Hitler fetishists; its focus is now on playful sexual deviancy and pulpy necrophilia. Some of the zine's characters were first painted on the banks of the Regent’s Canal in Hackney Wick, ­the scene of a graffiti battle back in April, when the crew were visiting Janson to plan the zine’s launch.

“We had a person painting over them every night,” says Unga. “One of the spots was insanely hard to get to. You had to climb over a bridge, through a factory and then a window. We nearly got arrested a few times getting to it, but every morning it was painted over.” The back and forth was fairly sinister: Drawings (“patterns of girls fucking skeletons and people with frog’s heads”) were defaced and marred with slurs. “KILL ALL MEN” was one; “KILL YOURSELF,” the clan’s response.

Walking back from the railway arch, Unga periodically stopped to eyeball a nearby tag he recognized, or to take me through the concept of a mural we spot by a guy he knows. I absorbed as much as I possibly could, turning my voice recorder off only to change the batteries. Under a week later, he and Charlotte will fly back to Haifa on a one-way ticket.

Sex Picnic is currently available to purchase at ghostowncrew.com and will be on show for three days at Kartel, Israel.

Follow Jack Mills on Twitter.