By Tanner Woodford
Earlier this year, anonymous street artist and political activist Banksy opened a pop-up art hotel in the West Bank, just on the other side of a security checkpoint in Bethlehem, Palestine. The hotel’s website lists common questions, two of which had crossed my mind, “Why open a hotel there? What’s wrong with Shoreditch?” The answer: “This place is the centre of the universe—every time God comes to earth it seems to happen near here. The architecture and landscape are stunning, the food delicious and the current situation remarkable and touching. This is a place of immense spiritual and political significance—and very good falafel.” Compelling points. Like every Banksy project, the hotel appeared in the middle of the night, without permission granted or notice given, delivering a pithy, if not blunt statement most appropriate for its location.
Reflecting on a long flight home, it seems obvious that the Walled Off Hotel is Banksy’s most important work to date.
Before unpacking that sentiment (or my suitcase), I need to provide a little context. When I was invited to spend a few nights in the Middle East by Christopher Jobson (Colossal), I hesitated, asking for a week to consider the offer. Only marginally aware of the complicated and dangerous Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I settled into hours of primary and secondary research, hoping to educate myself on contemporary events and to gain top-level understanding of its history. I learned about the ongoing refugee crisis, and that Britain once held control of Palestine. I saw many pictures of police deploying tear gas and rubber bullets upon protesters. The Israeli West Bank barrier (the wall) is a military structure, built by the Israeli government to enclose Palestine. Israel considers it a security barrier against terrorism while Palestinians call it an apartheid wall. Further reading and discussions led to mixed emotions, as I oscillated between brazen confidence and cold feet. I remembered Chicago’s reputation for violence in national media in direct contrast to my actual experience of living safely in the city. I found further solace and comfort thumbing through Instagram posts and stories of everyday people who had visited.
Without risk, there would be no reward. And I was eager to experience a part of the world I never thought I would have the opportunity to, and suspected Banksy had good intentions.
We flew from Chicago to London, followed by a quick stop in Tel Aviv, Israel. There, we stayed for one night in a vibrant neighborhood, surrounded by nightlife and architecture in the International Style—a Bauhaus-inspired approach brought by German Jewish architects who immigrated to Palestine after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. With about twelve hours in the city of lines, I tried to sleep off the jet lag before grabbing an Americano and sprinting through the city to take in as much as possible. At noon, the Walled Off Hotel collected us in a cab. Our driver was kind and talkative, providing context on the journey and a warm welcome. We asked if he had chauffeured any celebrities. He couldn’t recall any specific names, before flashing a selfie of himself with Morgan Freeman. The voice of God appearing on the trip to the city where Jesus was supposedly born was serendipitous at worst. “He’s just a guy,” our driver confirmed about halfway through the one-hour commute. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Jesus or Morgan Freeman.
When we saw the foreboding concrete wall, I shifted uncomfortably. Its security checkpoint was protected by Israeli soldiers armed with semiautomatic machine guns. I was not prepared for what would happen next—a couple of simple questions, followed by a smile, a nod, and an open hand signaling we were allowed to proceed through the gate. It was surprisingly easy, and sadly, reminded me of the inherent privilege I receive because of my passport, skin color and sex. As we passed through the gate, I saw that the wall displays more graffiti than concrete. Every square inch is layered with paint, color, typography and texture. This is in part due to the local Wall-Mart, a small store next to the Walled Off Hotel that sells paint, stencils and ladder service for you to try your hand at tagging the wall. Is it illegal, you may wonder? The response is that it’s not “not” legal, as the wall itself is illegal under international law, and putting art on it is a form of nonviolent protest. When a substantially thoughtful piece is made, it is left alone by other artists. This creates a remarkably contrasted experience, an open-air museum comprised of decades-old original artworks by Banksy and his friends painted directly on the separation wall, surrounded by thousands of amateur experiments. The first substantial piece rocketed me home—a twenty-five-foot-tall realistic portrait of President Trump by Melbourne-based Lush. Trump’s eyes are closed, his hand on the wall, with an excerpt reading, “I’m going to build you a brother.”
The hotel was less than one hundred yards away.
Climbing out of the car, we were surrounded by Walled Off staff. (The hotel employs forty-eight Palestinians.) A taxi driver dedicated to the location gave us a business card, offering to take us anywhere, anytime. Another employee grabbed our bags. As we walked past a lifelike sculpture of a chimpanzee in a doorman’s uniform spilling clothing from a suitcases it’s carrying, another staff member opened the door. “Welcome to the Walled Off Hotel,” he said. “You’ve made it.”
We walked through the doors, then through a red velvet curtain under a hand-painted sign that read “BANKS’S” and were transported into a lobby gallery filled with resolute original works with an obsessive attention to detail. Of course, the subtly textured, floral-patterned wallpaper was spray-painted directly on the wall, revealed only by over-spraying on one of the prominent outlet fixtures; the rest were intentionally brand new, clean white. Three oil paintings clad with life rafts, buoys and life jackets hung above a mantle containing a sculpture of a shipwrecked boat. A fireplace made from a pile of separation-wall rubble atop a spinning orange emergency light provided faux warmth. Guests from across the region and world were staggered under CCTV security cameras mounted to taxidermy panels, found oil paintings covered with protective wire to obscure the imagery, a realistic sculpture of a black-and-white cat trying to eat a dove in a cage, and a concrete bust with soft cotton tear gas swirling around it. Having never seen an original Banksy, the experience was a feast.
Time to check in. I received a key for my room, attached to a miniature reproduction of the separation wall turned into a fob. The lobby attendant directed us to a bookcase, and waved the fob in front of a marble statue of a woman. Her breasts lit up, and the bookcase opened, revealing a staircase to our rooms. The first thing I encountered was a framed 1949 passage from Picasso that attempted to put context around the experience we were about to have. “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.” Walking up the stairs, I found paintings burnt and ripped out of their frames, phrases like “dog,” “rural landscape,” “picture of a horse,” and “two dogs” stenciled directly on the wall with an empty frame hanging over them, and a menagerie of British tableware, war toys for children and living plants. It was more cozy than it sounds.
Banksy was officially designated as a British cultural icon in 2014, with people around the world naming him in polls about who they most associated with U. K. culture. (The list also includes Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth II and The Beatles.) As you might imagine, his original artwork is rare and, well, expensive. Locking yourself in a room with a lot of it feels surreal, to say the least. To deter theft, the hotel’s website assures “any person found attempting to steal or deface hotel property will be arrested, transported to the police station in Ramallah, and prosecuted to the full extent of local law.” Though you would think that’s enough, there were still plenty of stories of tourists attempting to lift anything that moves.
After settling in, washing up with soap specifying it was tested on orphans (not animals), and taking in a series of found and original paintings with glitches and unexpected additions, we checked out the downstairs museum and gallery.
The museum’s exhibition is revealing, thorough and fair, describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with raw emotion, original artworks, motion graphics, timelines and objects contributed by locals. The contents are spread across seven small rooms. The most moving experience was a small, unassuming telephone mounted to the wall. Upon picking it up, a recording from an Israeli soldier informs you they have decided to demolish your home to build a section of wall. He gives you fifteen-to-thirty minutes to pack your belongings. I was also moved by an image of a salesman holding a machine gun with a stuffed animal mounted to its barrel. It was in a museum case containing promotional mints shaped like drones from a military-supply trade show. The museum is free for locals and guests of the hotel and costs fifteen shekels (roughly $4) for other tourists. Of course, it exits through a gift shop, a nod to Banksy’s 2010 documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” I scored a Walled Off Hotel t-shirt boasting “The Worst View in the World,” and more excitingly, a miniature wall section that was designed by Banksy and painted by Palestinians. A quick trek upstairs to the gallery revealed a wealth of original artwork made by the best artists of Palestine. About half had sold, some for tens of thousands of dollars. Prints, posters and postcards with images from the show were available in the museum’s gift shop.
That night, we ate pizza in the lobby, serenaded by an automatic player piano programmed to play songs by Tom Waits, Flea, Massive Attack and Trent Reznor. The lights dimmed promptly at 8pm, followed by the concert. Though we were the only two guests—without a musician on site—we clapped at the end of the performance anyway. The staff laughed, then joined us. Cocktails included the Half Nelson, the Full Nelson and the Nelson From The Simpsons.
We booked two tours on the second day—one of the Aida Refugee Camp next to the hotel, and another of the old city of Jerusalem. The tours were more moving, revealing and enlightening than the hotel itself. In retrospect, it feels obvious that the hotel is a way to directly experience the intense and horrific cruelness of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb, the Aida Refugee Camp is comprised of about 5,000 Palestinians forced to live in close quarters with no privacy and under strict curfew. On this side of the wall, the street art is heartbreaking, listing names of refugees killed in the camp with highly detailed portraits to memorialize them. The camp has two schools, one of which echoed with children’s laughter through its tall, barbed-wire-lined walls. The other contained a football field covered with a safety net so the kids have time to safely run away should rubber-coated steel bullets, stun grenades, or tear gas be deployed while they are playing. Speaking of tear gas, thousands of used canisters littered the streets and rooftops of the camp. They felt like gravel under my feet. Our tour guide picked up a canister and brought it over. He wanted me to see with my own eyes that it was proudly labeled, “Made in the USA.” I wanted to apologize, but knew it wouldn’t help. When asked what the most important issue is, he answered without hesitation: water. The pipes that deliver to the area are two-inches thick and rusted. They lose approximately thirty percent of the water that passes through and what arrives is unclean and unsafe to drink. The Israeli military supposedly delivers clean water to the camp every ten days, which is then stored in plastic tanks on the rooftops. Water delivery can be used as leverage during things like the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel. The longest stretch without a water delivery was forty days. “What might cause it to stop entirely?” our guide wondered. He told us of the so-called “skunk truck,” which uses a water cannon to spray a foul-smelling slurry of sewage and chemicals that leaves a weeks-long stench behind. We exited the camp through a gate containing a huge “key of return,” a symbol of the homes they used to own. The gate was adjacent to a mural commemorating hundreds of Palestinian children that had been killed in the conflict, beside a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
The morning tour was devastating.
Walking through the old town of Jerusalem that afternoon, I felt so small and so privileged. Realizing how little I understood about our world was overwhelming. I wondered if other tourists, residents and soldiers walking past felt similarly. Though I knew beforehand the situation was complicated, I was beguiled by the number of cultures, churches and homes that sit atop one another. Modern archaeologists have discovered dozens of layers of civilization going back thousands of years. Religions are smashed together, sharing the same holy sites with different words and names to describe them. Though the groups have competing ideologies, they all feel ownership of the same physical landmarks, an impossible situation with a topic as sensitive as religion. As we walked throughout the interwoven and connected churches, a priest approached me, pointed at my shorts, told me bare legs are not allowed in the holy area, and scolded, “Cover yourself.” Our guide apologized, then continued his story, explaining that children are brought up to be fearful of and hate one another. As he was talking, an Israeli soldier approached us to ask what we were discussing. Later, I learned he overheard our guide being sympathetic toward Palestine, and wanted to control the narrative. Truthfully, he was describing the conflict more broadly, which included multiple perspectives. We left the church, and found the oldest tattoo shop in the world, founded in 1300. It was fully booked, so we got a coffee and a kanafah instead.
Returning to the Walled Off Hotel after a visit to the Wailing Wall, I was desperate for a “Nelson From The Simpsons.” Halfway through my cocktail, I met the owner of the hotel. He invited us to dinner with him and his wife, an architect. They drove us through the city’s hills and valleys, telling us stories of the politicians, celebrities, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and British that had visited since its opening only a few months ago. He lives in the same house he was born in. His father lives upstairs, his grandfather used to live there, and his cousins live next door. For him, the hotel has transformed people’s expectations of Bethlehem, a city he loves. When I asked how long the hotel would be open, he said that he doesn’t think the locals will ever allow it to close, as it communicates transparently about an unjustly complicated situation.
I mentioned that the Walled Off Hotel is Banksy’s most important work. This is not because the artwork inside is particularly compelling, although it is. It’s more because the experience breeds dialogue, opens eyes and asks visitors to reevaluate their assumptions.
One of the questions on the hotel’s website asks, “Are you just making a profit from other people’s misery?” It answers: “The hotel is now an independent local business. The aim is to break even and put any profits back into local projects.” In order to bring peace to the Middle East, we’ve now tried building a new hotel that employs dozens, exposure from the inimitable Banksy, and apparently, a visit from the one and only Morgan Freeman. What’s next?
Tanner Woodford is founder, executive director and bartender of the Chicago Design Museum. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and makes Iterative Work. As a designer, educator and entrepreneur, he has taught, lectured and led workshops on design issues, social change and design history in classrooms and at conferences. He believes design has the capacity to fundamentally improve the human condition. He lives and works in Chicago. More online at tannerwoodford.com