Pop artist Dan Groover plied his art from Paris to Guadeloupe until he settled in to his Jerusalem studio
The smell of spray paint and vegetable soup permeated the unheated Talpiot studio on a chilly day in March, as Dan Groover, his cap perched firmly on his black curls, and long tzitzit draped over his jeans, spray-painted a Magen David on the cement wall.
It’s one of the familiar symbols Groover uses in his art, a potent mix of bold street art and bright graffiti that tells the journey of the Jews, from creation to David Ben-Gurion and beyond, mirroring his own evolution as an artist and Israeli of French and Tunisian origins.
A Groover work — no, that’s not his real last name, but he won’t share that piece of information — is part-paint and part-performance art, as he attacks each work with a heady mix of hip-hop music blasting, spraying his stencils, words and images with seeming abandon on the walls or canvas at hand.
But there is a plan at hand — and it’s quite clear to Groover, who has been plying his work for years.
“I look at these images from modern Israeli history as part of a project that began with creation,” said Groover. “It’s another stop in a long history. And I look at it like that because I understand that the project is one in which there are Jews and other nations, it’s part of a process.”
There’s a spoken word element as well in these performances, thanks to Groover’s work partner, Sarah SaHaD, a poet and essayist whom he met through one of his gallery showings in Tel Aviv. Now any show is a mix of Groover’s art and Sarah’s poetry against the background music of anyone from Dr. Dre and James Brown to Hadag Nachash and Jay Z.
Sarah SaHaD and Dan Groover, partners in art, at Groover’s studio in Jerusalem, March 14, 2017 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
People don’t always get the combination of pop art and Judaism, said Groover.
“I’m this religious guy, but I do street art, and I listen to James Brown,” he said. “It’s a synergy of all worlds. I’ll be what you want.”
Groover began drawing while still a young teen, living with his parents in the rough environs of France’s renowned Department 93, an enclave of Arab and African immigrants northeast of Paris.
He first doodled in his school notebooks before heading out to the streets of his neighborhood, where his graffiti was more of an outlet for the hip-hop music emerging at the time than as a method of anti-establishment vandalism.
“It was easy for me, and I was good at it, and then I started doing it publicly,” he said. “A street artist who does his work when no one’s around and no one knows who he is, feels very different. I didn’t even know what it was going to look like in the daytime. I loved that.”
He also had parents who were somewhat unusual in their acceptance of who he was and what he did. Groover said his father knew he was going out in the middle of the night to do street art, and didn’t forbid him, but instead made sure that Groover understood how to take care of himself.
At the time, Groover thought of his street art as an expression of hip-hop, not as a kind of art or discipline.
“It was called art, but that didn’t interest me,” said Groover. “We wanted to have fun and make music, and there was a sense of survival in that culture.”
It was his family’s unexpected move to Guadeloupe, the Caribbean island that is a French overseas territory, that helped Groover grow and advance as an artist, and later on, as a Jew.
“My dad had work there. I didn’t want to go, because there was nothing there for me, no hip-hop or walls to paint,” he said. “But you could do whatever you wanted, so I searched for myself.”
Groover remembers the plane landing in Guadeloupe and, seeing expanses of walls surrounding a local stadium, he began thinking that he could, maybe, survive in this new place.
“Little by little I entered the world of art,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily interested in it, I just wanted to make art.”
His early pieces sold at local galleries and festivals, offering recognition from a different kind of audience. Groover began approaching his street art with a different eye, seeing it as an outlet for answering other kinds of questions.
He was 24 at that time, and was thinking about Judaism, wondering what it meant for him. Groover began reading books about Jewish identity, given to him by the local rabbi, and it wasn’t long before he headed to Israel, studying for seven years in a Kiryat Moshe yeshiva in Jerusalem, and marrying briefly during that period as well.
“I barely painted in those years,” said Groover. “I was in a kind of Shimon Bar Yochai in a cave situation,” referring to the second-century sage who was forced into hiding after criticizing the Romans who were in power in ancient Israel.
“It was an experience of thousands of paintings, but I didn’t paint,” he said.
His next step was to figure out how to connect his street art with what he’d learned, and who he’d become religiously in his own life.
“I’m not a teacher, I’m not a seeker, I make something,” he said.
What he began was what Groover calls the Ladder Project, connecting the heavens and the earth, Judaism and real life, a bridge between “this world and that world.”
It’s what he does now, throwing Jewish symbols — ranging from the Bible to David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir — onto his canvases, creating a melange of color and thoughts.
“I”m not asking people to read half a book to understand it,” added Groover. “They experience the art and the pleasure of the art and from that if they want to ask and understand, they can.”
Dan Groover’s work will be on exhibit at Oknin Gallery in Netanya, from March 28.
He has a permanent exhibition at the Terminal Gallery at Jerusalem’s First Station, and will be performing there for 700 bloggers on March 22.
Groover’s work is also permanently on exhibit at the Art’Drenaline Gallery in Harav Yedidia Frenkel Street, Florentin, Tel Avi