Israelis drink coffee in front of a graffiti depicting film director Steven Spielberg which was painted over a closed shutter next to a home utilities store, at the Mahane Yehuda Market, often called ‘The Shuk’ on Feb. 24 in Jerusalem. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

A good argument can be made that the soul of Jewish Jerusalem is the old Mahane Yehuda market, known as “the shuk.” Now it is set to become the largest Jewish portrait gallery in the world.

The open-air food mart is a beautiful chaos of jostling capitalism 5 1/2 days a week, while at night, it is dark and spooky. A good place to be a rat, or better, a cat.

But in the past few years, the shuk has transformed itself into an improbable nightlife hot spot, the narrow alleys and stalls taken over by dozens of micropubs, fish-and-chips joints and live music bars.

An Israeli woman drinks beer at a bar as shoppers walk through the Mahane Yehuda Market. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

A vendor throws crushed ice over fish at the Mahane Yehuda Market. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

If there is a slice of hip in fusty Jewish Jerusalem, this is it.

And now a prolific street artist and his pal are adding the color.

There are about 360 metal shutters that roll down to protect the fruit, fish and bakery stalls at night. Solomon Souza has spray-painted portraits on 140 of them. He has another few months to go and thinks he and other artists will do a couple hundred more.

Using spray cans he pulls out of grocery sacks, Souza has painted portraits of Jews, famous and obscure. There is the founding generation of Israel: David Ben-Gurion, featured upside down, and Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky (but pointedly no Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat).

He has painted famous Jews, such as Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and the medieval philosopher and astronomer Maimonides, and the less well-known, such as Gracia Mendes Nasi, a spice trader and perhaps the wealthiest Jewish woman in the Renaissance world, who helped resettle Jews in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in the 16th century, making her an early Zionist.

There is a portrait of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent executed in Pakistan by al-Qaeda operatives in 2002, whose last words were “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. . . . ”

There is Bob Marley, too. (Babylon, Zion, Rastafarians; it is a complicated connection, but it works. Also, at night, the shuk smells like marijuana; it is not legal in Israel but is tolerated.)

Israeli women enjoy at a local bar as they sit in front of a graffiti depicting the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man passes in front of a graffiti depicting King Solomon. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Vendors make preparations to close their stall as they pass in front of a graffiti depicting Rabbi Shlomo Ben David Lakein. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Souza is a 22-year-old transplant from London. Mostly self-taught, he can paint up to four shutters a night.

On a recent day, Souza and his crew walked from their nearby home over to the shuk, lugging cans of paint and video equipment.

At the Levi brothers’ falafel shop, they scraped and cleaned the metal shutters as Souza asked his friends whom he should paint.

He did not have a plan, but he did have a smartphone. Someone suggested Lucy Aharish, a Muslim Arab Israeli and popular TV news anchor. So

uza found a photo of Aharish he liked on Google Images, then put on his gas mask and went to work, a can of paint in his right hand, the phone photo in his left.

Souza will not paint a shutter unless shopkeepers give their permission. His artistic partner and the P.T. Barnum of the team, Berel Hahn, prowls the shuk during the day, cajoling vendors to allow their shutters to be sprayed.

“At first we got a bunch of requests to paint the shopkeepers’ favorite rabbis, so a lot of the early shutters are old men, which is fine, but our friends said, ‘Hey, where are the women? Where’s everybody else?’ ” said Hahn, 26, a transplant from Crown Heights in Brooklyn who wears a gold-sequined yarmulke.

People watch artist Solomon Souza as he spray-paints a portrait depicting Israeli-Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish over a closed shutter at the Mahane Yehuda Market. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Souza painted many grandfathers of today’s stall owners; other vendors tell the artist to paint whomever he likes. The pair ask not only for permission to paint, but also for a donation. Many shop owners decline; some offer to buy the paint.

“This is a labor of love,” Hahn said.

They want to open a nonprofit gallery in the market to sell
T-shirts, coffee cups, posters
and refrigerator magnets of the portraits.

Hahn said the idea is to paint “everybody who helped the Jews get here, to support indigenous Jewish culture.” He said one day he had a vision. “I saw the shuk exploding at night with color and history.”

Merchants in the shuk are hagglers. “They’re suspicious,” said Shuki Haidu, a tour guide and a friend of the artist. “They want to know, ‘What’s the catch? Why are these guys painting shutters for free?’ They think, ‘Maybe this artist will be famous and somebody is going to steal my shutters?’­ ” That kind of thing,”

Artist Solomon Souza (L) and Berel Hahn (R). (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Some of the vendors wanted the art to serve as an advertisement, which Souza and Hahn declined. A coffee shop wanted a painting of coffee. A mobile-phone dealer wanted phones. So Souza painted Samson fighting the lion, and at the very bottom of the shutter, he drew a fallen cellphone.

Sara Hannah Ekaireb, 20, a New Yorker spending the year in a religious studies program in Jerusalem, said she comes to the shuk most evenings and enjoys seeing the how the project is taking shape.

“It’s fun to see snippets of Jewish history with this work,” she said. “Although I think there could be more women.”

Her friend, Rachel Sneiderman, who moved to Israel from Delaware and will be joining the Israeli army in April, said the shuk is a “super cool place to be.”

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

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