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In Crown Heights, Hasidic Graffiti Artists Are Pushing The Boundaries

If you walk by Primo Hatters men’s hat shop on Kingston Avenue in the heart of Crown Heights, you might just miss it.

Look into the alleyway on the side of the store, and you’ll see a striking bright blue portrait of an old Hasidic rabbi.

Solomon Souza, a 25-year old graffiti artist, and 40-year-old Chassidic pop artist, Yitzchok Moully, decided to use Crown Heights’ walls as a gallery for their colorful street art last month. Visiting from Israel, Souza painted a blue portrait of the “Alter Rebbe,” also known as Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, whose yartzeit was commemorated this month.

But this is no Judaica shop art. This is street art — gone Hasidic. And the response from the local community has been mixed.

For many in the community, the idea of painting holy rabbis on walls of buildings seemed sacrosanct. “A disgrace to the Alter Rebbe,” one commenter wrote on a local news site. “There are many other ways to add color to Crown Heights streets, in a Hasidic way too… is nothing sacred any more?”
Others found the art uplifting. “I just love walking down Kingston Ave and seeing the face of the Alter Rebbe,” one commentator wrote. “There is enough shmutz out there all over the place, on every bus stop, the subway station, billboards, etc.,” wrote another. “We need something kosher to be available.”

Others found it downright inspiring. “A few people passed by as I was working on it and said critical things,” said Souza. “But one woman walked over and said she’s actually a descendant of the Alter Rebbe and she loved it and thought it was suitable and respectful. So I have one of his descendants’ approval.”

The London-born artist, known for his hundreds of spray paint portraits in Israel’s Mahane Yehuda market that came alive at night after shops shuttered their doors, has been creating street art since he was 15. His portraits take up to four hours to complete, and subjects include political personalities, thinkers and rabbinical figures. Souza was an artist in residence this past year with The Israel Innovation Fund, which supports art in Tel Aviv, where Souza completed the largest mural on a building there.

And he isn’t the first to try his hand in Crown Heights.

Two years ago, a Montreal Hasidic street artist, Zreyli, painted five portraits of the Lubavitcher Rebbe along with the Seven Noahide Laws on Crown Heights street walls. Shortly afterwards, some local Chabad youths defaced it, painting over images of the Rebbe with a blackout square. A year later, the same murals got defaced again, this time with an image of a dark-skinned woman with bright red lips, accompanied by Hebrew writing. Zreyli, a 56-year-old father of 10 children, who had gotten permission to paint the murals, called the culprits “zealots with a fanatical attitude.”

Originally from France and inspired by the French graffiti artist “Mr. Brainwash,” Zreyli has done street art in Montreal on many walls that are legally designated for art. Featuring the Lubavitcher Rebbes and also the Satmar Rebbe from Poland, they lasted at times for several years.

“When you put art in the street, you don’t expect it to stay there,” Zreyli said. “We put it there as a gift for everyone to see. We don’t get paid, some people help with providing paint, but we do it because we believe in it. It’s a shock when it’s destroyed, and yet we do it again and again.”

“Zreyli did a beautiful thing [in Crown Heights], but some thought it was more respectful to paint over the Rebbe than leave it up, which doesn’t make sense,” Moully said.

Moully certainly challenges the “old” way of thinking while embracing the outdoor art scene there. Raised on a commune in the Australian outback, he left his job in the rabbinate a few years ago to pursue painting full-time. Last month, he created a mural called “#weallbelong” outside the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights. The museum was chosen as the home for the painting, after it was rejected by another building, a legacy Lubavitch organization, whose leadership worried about backlash. One elderly Hasidic lay leader called his wash of bright colors “a shock to the senses,” Moully said. After numerous rounds of negotiations, the board voted against it, though Moully had tried appeasing them by tweaking the design through toning down the color and making it less outlandish. Eventually, instead of attempting to engage in a compromise, the board member said “it’s easier to say no than yes” to the idea.

“They didn’t see the value of positive change to risk the potential community pushback among the old-school, traditional Hasidic members who might find it offensive,” Moully said. “Today their building’s wall, which had so much potential for art, remains an ugly gray with years of dirt.”

With inclusion as its theme, Moully’s image had all types of Jews, featuring a cross section of the community, including two Jews of color. The rabbis he consulted didn’t approve of both men and women painted on the same wall — deemed immodest — so Moully created shadow-like silhouettes, creating a portrait of both men and women.

Yitzchak Moully’s “We All Belong” mural. Image by Yitzchak Moully

“We all belong in the community as contributing members in spite of our different appearances, colors, male or female,” said Moully. “In order to create change you have to work with the establishment to make small steps with the current realities on the ground. It’s about brotherly love, a closeness, not making people feel uncomfortable.”

Moully aspires to create ten murals on Kingston Avenue using a contemporary spin of the Rebbe’s campaigns, such as a rabbi putting tefillin on passersby. Legally, whoever owns the wall can decide what goes up on it, so he’s busy approaching wall owners with ideas and asking permission.

Solomon Souza’s Bushwick mural. Image by Solomon Souza

It seems the resistance may be a generational issue. “There’s always going to be that disagreement between the young and the old of Crown Heights,” wrote one online commentator. Rabbi Yosef Braun of the Crown Heights Beth Din told the Forward that it’s an issue of “Hasidic feeling” more than Jewish law. “I see both sides of the argument; it depends on how you look at it, how respectfully it’s painted. It’s not clear to me what the answer is with this.”

“My art is controversial because some people within the Jewish community say you shouldn’t paint faces of people, especially of rabbis, that it’s not respectful, although Crown Heights is full of shops selling the images of rabbis,” noted Souza. “People were saying it’s not right to paint a picture of a Rebbe in an alleyway where people are going to relieve themselves there and do rubbish there.”

Yet, today, Souza’s paintings remain up — and Moully has plans to continue, too.

“I want to paint holy things, but the issue is that it’s unchartered territory, it’s new and the old guard is scared of what’s new,” Moully said. “Two years ago [the Rebbe] was painted over straight away. Now Crown Heights has grown, the level of tolerance has gone up. There’s still grumblings, but they’re not painting over it. You can call it progress.”

Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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