Armed with a can of plum spray paint, Fernando Romero swiftly filled in a section of exposed gray stucco wall on an apartment building just off Temple University's main campus. Above him, another artist on a ladder added a skyline of black towers flanking huge green letters that spelled out: "Defend the Future."
To passers-by, the spectacle might look like some kind of public art project, perhaps a neighborhood beautification effort unfortunately planned for a dreary fall afternoon. But this mural has a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" political message that's intended to reach far beyond a certain block.
It's subtle and somewhat cryptic on purpose to "reach an audience that kind of turns off whenever they hear 'Middle East conflict,' " explained Craig Dershowitz, a gallery owner from New York who organized the Oct. 27 event.
Temple was the first stop on the new "Defend the Future" tour, funded by the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia. Over the next month, the nonprofit Artists 4 Israel (www. artists4israel.org) will create similar murals at the University of Pittsburgh and Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges.
While this is the first time Artists 4 Israel has come to Philadelphia, the group has been using graffiti art as a peace-messaging tool for the past three years. At first, the group staged events mostly in New York or other cities by request, said founder and president Dershowitz, a third cousin of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
With small donations from private funders, he later brought groups of volunteer artists to decorate bomb shelters and schools throughout Israel and the West Bank, including in Sderot, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ariel and Hebron. The donations cover their art supplies and travel expenses, but the artists don't get paid for their labor.
More recently, the organization has ramped up events at college campuses, including an April appearance at Pennsylvania State University. Impressed by the murals there, the local consulate decided to bring them to other schools in the state, said Deborah Baer Mozes, director of cultural programs.
"It's one thing to have someone give a lecture on campus; what they're doing is very grass roots," Baer Mozes explained. "They're daring to use urban culture and mural art and rap music and urban artists to engage students" who wouldn't necessarily be reached any other way.
Using free expression, she continued, these artists have come up with a hip and dynamic way to counter the negative messages often found on campuses or on television. Beyond the finished product, she said, the event of putting up the mural becomes a vehicle for sparking discussion.
Local artists also volunteered their support, Dershowitz said, citing the Peace Project, Fourth Wall Arts Salon and four local bands who gave a free evening concert after the mural painting.
Gregg Bruno fills in his tag during the kick-off event to a new Artists 4 Israel college campaign.
Photo by Deborah Hirsch
Of course, the rainy weather put a damper on turnout. Most of the people in the crowd seemed to be involved in the project or graffiti aficionados with sketchbooks to collect signatures, better known as "tags," from the New York artists.
Things seemed to pick up later in the afternoon when onlookers got a chance to try their hand at spray-painting plywood boards, said Temple junior Emily Green, 20, who added a few Hebrew phrases to the mix.
There's definitely anti-Israel sentiment on campus, Green said, "strong enough that we feel it," plus plenty of people who just don't care one way or the other. Green said she doubted a mural would change those minds, but perhaps it would push them to do a little research.
"I hope it opens a door," said Green, a Hebrew and Arabic major from Northeast Philadelphia who is active in Temple's Hillel and Students for Israel club.
That seemed to happen at Penn State, said Jayne Levenberg, a Bryn Mawr native who headed an $8,000 fundraising campaign to bring the artists to her school in the spring. There, they set up a freestanding wooden wall in the center of campus. The artists depicted Jerusalem's Western Wall on one side and a freestyle conglomeration of their tags on the other.
"It got people thinking and it got people talking," said Levenberg, 20, who skipped class to come all the way to Temple and see the artists in action there last week. "It was a new form of dialogue."
While connected student leaders like Levenberg and official government organizations such as the consulate have made the program possible, Dershowitz said he generally leaves sponsors' names off the murals so as not to deter a non-Jewish audience.
That's where DTF comes in -- which Dershowitz said many young people will recognize as an acronym to describe someone's eagerness to have sex (the real translation isn't suitable for print in the Exponent). He's appropriated the letters for four other meanings -- Defend the Future, Demand the Facts, Defeat the Fanaticism and Diversity Triumphs over Fear. Postcard-sized handouts describe how those phrases relate to Israel, but don't call for a specific peace plan.
"We're kind of beyond the point of politics," said Dershowitz. "We're not going to say how peace should be achieved, just that it has to be."
Other than Dershowitz and three other organizers, only a handful of more than 100 artists who have worked on Artists 4 Israel projects to date are Jewish. The others, said Mike Baca, a Hispanic Brooklynite who's participated in two painting trips in Israel and calls himself an "honorary Jew," are just passionate about spreading a positive message. "You've got to show there's beauty to everything," said the 27-year-old.
Romero, also from Brooklyn, said being in Israel gave him the chance to experience all the good things happening there that you don't hear about, like Shabbat or staying on a kibbutz. The news that reaches here is one aspect, he said, "but it's not life."
"It's like going into uncharted territory and we came back and now we have a story to tell," said Romero, 33. "I'm not pro-Israel, I'm pro-peace. It's not about you're right, or my religion. War is not the answer. We can find a way and it doesn't have to be so harsh."