Learning Hebrew language through graffiti

Interviste

It’s Friday night in the Florentin neighborhood, Tel Aviv: at shabbat hour streets are almost deserted and shops and clubs’ shutters are lowered. Only a human presence animates the district: that of Guy Sharett, 43-year old Israeli linguist who guides students and tourists to discover the Florentin’s graffiti . Guy’s aim is as simple as noble: teaching Hebrew language through the places where those graffiti born, the street, through a real graffiti tour bookable on his website. I’ve never been to Israel, but I had the pleasure of meeting Guy on another kind of square, the digital once, to have with him a  really unconventional chat.

I read your presentation: You know a lot of languages, have traveled the world, your biography is wonderful. Wanna tell me who you are?

Yes, but firstly I must say I am not an expert on graffiti: I use graffiti as a method to teach a language by an anthropological, sociological, historical, linguistic analysis of my original culture. But I do not pretend to be an expert in street art: basically I’m a linguist.

You teach Hebrew language?

Yes, I teach Hebrew, sometimes on Skype, sometimes one on one but the thing I like the most is teaching into the street using the texts on the walls as learning material, as valid content to do research on a language.

Where does your passion for the road start?

It was bornt three years and a half ago when here began the manifestations of social justice: people were protesting against the government, against the high prices of the apartments; among the protesters there were many banners and I saw that my students understood only the literal sense of the writing, but not the codes of pop culture, the iconography. From that point I started my business.

In Tel Aviv you don’t speak only Hebrew but also Arabic, French, a bit of English: in which language writers work? And how do you teach to foreigners who follow your tour?

I make the mediation of language and, together, the Israeli society and history. If there is something in Hebrew I always choose the Hebrew texts because this is the issue, but there is also English, there is also the French Murielle Street Art: she is from Quebec, Montreal. You know, I started learning languages at the age of three: languages chose me, I chose anything, and here I am knowing Arabic, French, English, Hebrew, Indonesian, Thai, a bit of Dutch and Mandarine. But my mother language is Hebrew.

So you come back to your house, where you continue to raise awareness of culture of your land to foreigners: what binds you so much to Israel?

When I was younger I was always an outsider in Israel and in my city of Ashdod, a port in the south of Tel Aviv: I saw the language and Israeli culture from outside because my dad has always invited to our home Filipino, Germans, Croats sailors, without telling my mother they would come to eat. And my house was transformed into a living room open house. But at the end of my four years in Thailand I understood to be local, not to be an outsider in my country and I thought I could do many things with these new eyes, starting from linguistic.

So you’ve started the “graffitology”: what is it?

Everything started when, during a tour, I spoke of “archeology of graffiti”; then a Süddeutsche Zeitung journalist coined the German “graffitologie” and I started to use it (but the credit is about him!). For me graffitology is talking about what there was here on this wall two hours ago, two months ago, two years ago if the wall still exists, otherwise we have Instagram, Facebook, websites and blogs.

Have writers ever contacted you to come to your tuor or, on the contrary, have you ever contacted someone to have a direct comparison?

That’s an interesting question: I once invited Sharon Pazner, an artist who works with concrete, and with her came Tra, a twelve-year-old writer who applies botox on everything (he’s very dysturbing but also very interesting). I still prefer not taking part of the graffiti scene, I’d rather be a fly on the wall in the scene of this open-air gallery. For example, Epk is an artist who draws eggplants everywhere in Tel Aviv and people want to know why, but, despite our chats on Facebook, I don’t wanna know because I prefer thinking that a work is opened to any interpretation.

What are the most popoluar themes between writers? And on the other hand, which theme tourists appreciate the most in graffiti?

I begin by telling you who comes to my graffiti tuor: they are survived of my course of Jewish, refugees of this methodology a bit Nineteenth Century who want to study the language. There are tourists, Germans, for example, who don’t know Hebrew and don’t want to study it; there are Israelis with American families that, on the contrary, want to know something about their culture of origin; there are both children and eighties. Everyone has a personal approach to graffiti: however, people who can read Hebrew is very interested in reading, understanding the voice of Israel, and for those who have no connection with language and Hebrew letters art plays the mos interesting role. But I think that the text and the metaphor of the image are a unique work.

Have graffiti ever been deleted by municipality?

Yes..five or six years ago Florentin was the Wild West, and no law enforcement agency dared to enter. Today things have changed and sometimes we can see a horrible beige color that cover the pieces. But it seems that the City has realized that graffiti is such an attraction that it organizes a free tour every Friday afternoon. It’s a turning a blind eye: it isn’t legal, however they do it.

So writers are not discouraged from beige opaque?

There is a large area with demolished buildings: it is the largest concentration of semi-legal graffiti in Israel, where there are many writers who are working on it, even from Rome. In this area where it is almost possible (or, to tell the truth, not prohibited) to do graffiti they are not covered even if it’s a jungle. But that’s ok: it is the street, we can find everything!

Is this what you mean by “telavivness”?

I do not know if there is a definition of telavivness..it’s like an enclave that pretends to be like New York or Europe..but is in the Middle East! It is an energy that is on the street, with activity 24 hours per day, to speak with peolpe..c’è there is a telavivian groove.

You mentioned before an interesting thing: the future of those graffiti that face extinction can continue on Instagram, Facebook and so on. The future of graffiti can really be on line?

Artik is an invention by Guy Dubrovski: it’s an app for smartphones that documents the state of graffiti in Tel Aviv. Through a GPS system you can know where and at what level of processing it is. I therefore feel that yes, the network is suitable for this type of conservation and, if you think about, it was created to preserve a culture that maybe tomorrow there will be mainly due to gentrification.

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