John Kiss

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John Kiss
Graffiti in Florentin, Tel Aviv, by artist Jonathan Kis-Lev.jpg
John Kiss
Jonathan Kis-Lev

(1985-09-12) 12 September 1985 (age 36)
EducationPearson College UWC
Known forPublic art, Stenciling
Notable work
The Peace Kids (mural)
27 Club Graffiti in Tel Aviv
Homage to Banksy
Spray Me

John Kiss (born Jonathan Kis-Lev, 12 September 1985) is an Israeli street artist and Peace Activist.[1][2][3] His graffiti work, political installations, community-based projects and public artworks have granted him the title the "Israeli Banksy."[4][5][6] Kiss' work has been featured in various books[7][8] and magazines,[9][10] including magazine-covers.[11][12]

Kiss' work centers on the transformative capacity of art as a catalyst for healing within communities experiencing conflict or crisis.[13] Involved in various peace organizations since his teens, including the Bereaved Families for Peace and Peace Now,[2][14] his longing for peace is often reflected in his work. In the mural The Peace Kids, painted on the Palestinian-Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, Kiss created work which is considered optimistic, with a "message of hope"[15] and a "spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood" between the Israelis and the Palestinians.[16] The artwork triggered "enormous controversy"[10] and was included in various essays and articles,[1][17] as well as on the front cover of Peace Science Digest.[12]

The artist's work is both locally and internationally acclaimed, with his artwork shown in solo art exhibitions around the world,[18][19] and included in the Israeli National Bank permanent collection.[20][21] He also received recognition for his artwork in his hometown of Tel Aviv, with the mayor of Tel Aviv Ron Huldai supporting his art,[22] and his graffiti work 27 Club becoming an icon of the city.[23][24][25] Time Out Magazine cited Kiss' work among "The most beautiful in Tel Aviv."[26] In March 2020 the artist legally shortened his name from Jonathan Kis-Lev to John Kiss.[27]

Early life and education[change | change source]

Kiss was born to parents who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.[28][29] Showing talent for drawing, he began private art classes beginning at age five.[15][28][30] Having grown up in Israel at the peak of the Palestinian Intifada bombings and the missiles of the Gulf War, Kiss was, according to his own account, a "child of the conflict"[13] who had grown to fear and hate Arabs.[13][31]

At the age of eleven, Kiss was selected, along with a dozen Israeli students with interest in the arts, to attend a peace art camp in the Palestinian city of Nablus.[13][31] It was there that Kiss encountered Palestinian children face to face for the first time. "That was the day my life began to get complicated," he later said. "Suddenly, there was no more black and white."[31] The art camp experience developed his passion for peacemaking, seeing the power of art in creating bridges and reconciliation.[13] At age 13 he joined the Jewish-Arab youth movement Sadaka Reut and began studying Arabic.[32]

At the age of 16 Kiss was selected by the Israeli committee of the United World Colleges (UWC) to be a Young Ambassador of Israel at Lester B. Pearson College in BC, Canada.[20][33] There Kiss majored in Visual arts[13][34] receiving a classical Western art education which he later viewed as being too limiting and constricting.[13][33]

After finishing his studies in Canada, Kiss returned to Israel to serve in the mandatory Israeli Army where he fought to be stationed at a unit that he considered as "promoting peace" rather than war and occupation.[29] Following his struggle he was stationed at the headquarters of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, where he was in charge of coordination of entrance of medicines into the Gaza Strip, enabling Palestinian patients to be treated in Israeli hospitals, and working with UNRWA, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.[35]

Peace activism[change | change source]

Reconciliation groups[change | change source]

Following the completion of his mandatory military service, Kiss joined Palestinian activists Haneen Jounis and Janan Adawi,[36] in examining possible solutions for Middle East peace through conflict resolution and peace psychology.[13][31][36]

In his workshop, Seeking Peace: The Israeli-Palestinian Situation[36] Kiss developed his approach to addressing the conflict: to expose children from both sides to each other by offering them human encounters with the other side of the conflict, and to give both Arabs and Jews equal rights and security.[31][36] Although he was labeled by the media as an "optimist",[31] Kiss often admitted that peace activists in the Middle East were "in the minority."[31] According to Kiss, Islam in and of itself does not encourage violence, and "Islamist fanatics are a tiny minority."[31] In interviews, he shared that he and his Arab friends often disagree around political issues, yet the mere culture of conversing peacefully was, in his view, to be celebrated.[31]

Following his activism, Kiss was selected to join the Tikvah Leadership Forum at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, under the leadership of Peter Berkowitz.[37] He was subsequently selected as a young member of Israeli President Shimon Peres' Young Leaders Forum.[38]

Artists For Peace[change | change source]

Throughout his peace efforts, Kiss remembered his first encounter with Arab youth at age 11, in which he learned of the power of art in creating bridges.[29] As an adult, Kiss joined the Bereaved Families for Peace,[39] and participated in the establishment of the first joint Palestinian-Israeli artists group within the organization's Narratives Project.[40] The artists group brought together an equal number of artists from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[40] The group focused on both narratives, the Israeli and the Palestinian.[39] As part of understanding the Palestinian narrative, the group studied the Nakba and visited the Palestinian village Lifta, which was evacuated during the 1947-1949 Palestine war.[41] As part of understanding the Israeli narrative, the group learned extensively about the Holocaust. "Learning about the Holocaust," Kiss said later, "helped the Palestinian members of our binational group to better understand the Jewish perspective and was a turning point in improving our relationship."[42] The initiative won extensive media coverage for being a unique collaboration of artists from both sides of the conflict.[40][43]

The Hallelujah Dialogue Project[change | change source]

Hoping to find more ways to bridge the Israeli-Arab chasm, Kiss learned the international language Esperanto, and organized Middle Eastern conventions.[44][45] In 2014, due to the rising violence during the Silent Intifada, Kiss collaborated with Palestinian activist Riman Barakat of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information and Breaking the Impasse. Together Barakat and Kiss began to convene meetings in Jerusalem, encouraging dialogue.[46] The project was called The Hallelujah Dialogue Project, and took place even in the face of terrorism in Jerusalem, in days when similar activities ceased to operate.[39][47][48] Kiss, wishing to introduce the group to various projects of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis, invited the Jerusalem Arab-Jewish Youth Chorus to sing,[49] while introducing peace-related activities such as Ultimate sport, poetry reading, discussion groups, etc.[50] According to Kiss, "encouraging encounters designed to eliminating mutual fear need have no relations to political stances."[13]

It's Time For Peace[change | change source]

In 2017 Kiss came together with a group of Israelis and Palestinians who believed that "peace and reconciliation between the two peoples is possible"[51] The group worked both through social media and in one-on-one interactions. The meetings were co-led by both Palestinian and Israeli facilitators.[51]

In a campaign to generate social media awareness of their "time for peace" message, the organization's slogan was printed next to photos of group participants from both sides of the conflict. Kiss was joined by Palestinian artist Muhammad El-Wahush, who expressed a belief in "a shared future" while sharing his dream of "establishing schools for Jews and Arabs specifically in the West Bank."[52] A campaign of joint photographs of Jews and Arabs showing their friendships were shared on social media raising awareness of the "silent majority" wishing for peace.[53] These encounters used the participants' experience of suffering to develop social representations of reconciliation.[2] These encounters broadened the dialogue from adult activists to whole families, bringing together several generations to meet the other side face to face.[2][54][55]

Art as Activism[change | change source]

From his beginnings as a graffiti artist, Kiss infused activism into his work, creating dialogue and social practice art. Kiss’ site-specific exhibitions are in close dialogue with his activism and advocacy efforts, which explore the power of art to respond to crises caused by exclusion from society, structural violence, depression, mental illness, and addiction.[46]

The autism murals[change | change source]

Autism, often considered as taboo within ultraorthodox Jewish communities, was a subject Kiss focused on since his early career, seeking to bring awareness to the cause.[46] Kiss mentioned in interviews that he grew up with a cousin with autism, which gave Kiss a positive and affectionate experience of people on the autistic spectrum.[46] Wishing to show autism as a blessing rather than a curse, Kiss used his art of portraiture to encourage inclusion and to embrace children of autism and their families.[46][56]

One particular issue that Kiss strongly opposed was Judaism's traditional rejection of autistic children from the bar mitzvah ceremony.[57][58] In the Jewish religion, the ceremony is the rite of passage from childhood towards adulthood. In classical Jewish tradition, the ceremony requires developed mental capacities proving the child is "eligible" to be announced as an adult; thus, exemptions or disqualifications from the ceremony were given, traditionally, to the mentally handicapped, essentially rejecting these youngsters from the bar mitzvah ceremony for being "ineligible."[58][59]

Kiss pursued strategies to include youngsters with autism in this coming-of-age ritual.[46] He partnered with Israeli NGO Small Heroes (Hebrew: Giborim Ktanim) to bring hundreds of youngsters with autism to celebrate the rite of passage ritual. Kiss collaborated with these children to show these pre-teens' creative abilities and prove their "eligibility" to participate in the bar mitzvah ceremony.[56]

Kiss distributed 200 of his illustrations among these pre-teens and their families.[60][61] Kiss then created an art installation from the joint drawings of these 200 children. These illustrations, colored by the autistic boys and girls, were joined together to a large-scale mural.[62] The mural, presented at Jerusalem's Western Wall, drew public attention to the cause of inclusion.[60] Presenting the 200-piece-mural in front of Judaism's holiest site was to encourage Jewish reflection at what Kiss called "the dark rejection" of people with special needs, and to turn the page towards a more inclusive future.[46] The autistic children who participated in the initiative were subsequently welcomed into the bar mitzvah ceremony.[63][64]

Art in Dark Places[change | change source]

Kiss partnered with curators Doron Polak and Iris Elhanani to create a series of permanent parking lot exhibits, to be well-lit and to bring a sense of calm to these "forgotten" areas.[46] These installations were aimed at making the experience of the car owners and passers-by "safer and friendlier."[46] The goal of the project was "to bring inspiration even at surprising and unexpected venues."[65] Unlike a museum, which requires an entry ticket, this exhibition was open to the public for free.[65] The idea was "to make art accessible to the wide public" as well as "add art and culture" to an otherwise mundane experience,[66] an ongoing project that Kiss was involved in for several years.[67] The exhibitions were staged in parking lots throughout Israel[66] and included the "best"[65] of Israeli artists, including Dudu Gerstein, Raphael Perez, Naftali Bezem,[65] Nachum Gutman, Menashe Kadishman, Lea Nikel, Eran Shakine and others.[68] Kiss himself presented some of his Naïve Series works in these exhibitions, a large scale triptych of Tel Aviv was presented in Herzliya,[66][69] as well as other paintings of large scale.[70]

The Peace Envelopes[change | change source]

Kiss contributed his paintings for The Peace Envelopes exhibitions in 2019, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Israel's peace agreement with Egypt. According to curator Iris Elhanani, the exhibition was to express the artists' "longing and dream for peace and tranquility."[71] The exhibition was aimed at "promoting peace" to "mark peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt."[71] Among Kiss' works in the exhibition was a painting with a pomegranate at Mamilla,[72][73] as well as a large scale painting of Jerusalem.[66][74]

Criticism[change | change source]

According to Haaretz's Haneen Majadala, Kiss' textual graffiti "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies" was considered "condescending." These works were signs not of peaceful intentions but of gentrification, and in their nature alluded to "symmetry" which did not exist.[75] As such, Kiss' work was repeatedly criticized as naïve.[28][76]

According to Booknik's Ariel Bulstein, Kiss' omissions of certain elements in his naive paintings raise a question of possible ignorance. Depicting "Jerusalem without traffic jams and exhaust gases, a city without dirty streets and hindering issues" presents a complicated albeit ignorant view. This is also evident in the absence of people in Kiss' urban cityscapes, which may be interpreted as "misanthropy."[28]

According to The Forward, Kiss' graffiti attempts to encourage change but missed the point. The simplicity and aesthetics of the works serve as a detractor from their messages: "it would be easy to mistake an appreciation for them for a real understanding of the wrongs they tried to address."[17] Any social activism hoped to be encouraged through the form of graffiti is bound to be forgotten as viewers turn their "backs on [the work], laughing and chatting, and moving on."[17]

Author Samuel Thrope criticized Kiss' portrayal of an ideal Jerusalem, stating that "depicting the church, mosque, and synagogue as sharing the same urban space is not a replacement for, and will not bring about, a just solution to the violence and oppression that plague this city."[76] Thrope blamed the artist for disengagement from the political reality of the city as one of "graft, poverty, demolitions, oppression, hate" and called Kiss' approach "a counterfeit coin."[76]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

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Further reading[change | change source]

Street Art Tel Aviv: In a Time of Transition. Lois Stavsky, 2021 Sussex Academic Press ISBN 978-0764354731

Very Good Word: Mila Tova Me'od, 2016. Matah Press, Tel Aviv. Israeli Dana Code: 78-1052623, p. 251

Other websites[change | change source]