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EAST JERUSALEM — Walking through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City it is hard not be to fascinated by the folk paintings appearing on the homes of pilgrims who returned from the Hajj in Mecca. The freestyle aerosol paintings and stencils decorate the doorways and alleys of the ancient city’s narrow streets. In other places, Hajj paintings are often a more developed art form, revealing personal traits of the pilgrim (even portraits) or religious tales, but here they are expressive, simple, and vibrant images on largely uneven walls. They are dominated by Hajj-related blessings, images of the rectilinear kaaba, the Prophet’s Mosque, and a number of abstractions that are harder to decipher. There are even local landmarks like the Dome of the Rock, but there are no images of living creatures, which is not typical of Hajj paintings elsewhere.
We often don’t associate this type of street art with religion, but historically graffiti has been the mark of pilgrims to a holy site, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Even during last century, modern graffiti pioneer Arthur Stace scrawled the word “Eternity” throughout Melbourne beginning in the 1930s an act of Christian devotion. Today, other Christians have continued what he started and turned his act of personal faith into a communal tradition.
Like most folk art, the Hajj paintings in the streets of Jerusalem have the aura of authenticity, that elusive sense that something comes from a raw unadulterated energy born from utility rather than style. They appear to follow few aesthetic rules as they cluster and breathe in a visual stream of consciousness that crawls across walls.
The study of Palestinian Hajj paintings is still a young discipline, but as author Hafida Talhaoui explains in Religious Folk Art as an Expression of Palestinian Identity: Jerusalemite Hajj Paintings and Plates, there is a regional character to these painting, and a political dimension as well. The reds, blacks, and greens of the Palestinian flag dominate the color schemes, while the image of the Dome of the Rock “is used to make Palestinian presence visible in an environment which is hostile to this identity.” Even the presence of olive branches, which are not really found in Egyptian Hajj paintings, have a pointed meaning in an occupied land. It’s inevitable that local aspirations meld with folk art.