Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

'I don’t know how his mind works': what it's really like working with the elusive street artist Banksy

'He was always interested in Palestine; he didn’t like what was happening here. He felt compelled to do something,' says the Walled Off Hotel’s co-founder Wissam Salsa

Co-founder Wissam Salsa stands at the entrance of the Walled Off Hotel, which has attracted more than 60,000 visitors since March this year, helping the tourism industry in Palestine go from strength to strength. Heidi Levine for The National
Co-founder Wissam Salsa stands at the entrance of the Walled Off Hotel, which has attracted more than 60,000 visitors since March this year, helping the tourism industry in Palestine go from strength to strength. Heidi Levine for The National

The number of confidantes privy to street artist Banksy’s true identity is notoriously small. Those who can call him a business partner, and a friend, number far fewer. In fact, Wissam Salsa might be one of the only people in the world who can tick all three boxes.

The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem was as much a labour of love for owner and general manager Salsa and his wife Rasha, as it was for Banksy himself. It’s the culmination of a decade of friendship between the artist and the Palestinian national, Salsa tells me as we chat at the hotel bar, sitting beneath the Banksy-curated security camera wall art and central grand piano.

Indeed, everything in this room has had the Banksy touch, Salsa says. “He thought of everything … I don’t know how his mind works – he’s a freak,” he adds. “He chose the carpet – he even told us how to put out the salt and pepper.”

A blossoming friendship

The pair have something of an unlikely friendship, forged more than 10 years ago when Banksy came to the city to paint the controversial security wall – one of the first times the street artist made a public show of support to Palestine – with Salsa having been hired as his guide.

The only thing was, Salsa was none the wiser to his seemingly run-of-the-mill client’s famous alter ego. “I didn’t know it was him,” Salsa says. “Months after he left I started to see it [on the news], and they said his name and I was like, ‘oh my goodness’.

“He was always interested in Palestine; he didn’t like what was happening here. He always felt compelled to do something. He’s human. He’s a good man and he has a heart – we kept in touch and we became friends.”

Shortly afterwards, the pair worked on another artistic venture intended to bring attention to the situation in Palestine. The project – entitled “Santa’s Ghetto Bethlehem 2007” – involved adorning the controversial wall with spray paint and works of art. The pair loosely kept in touch, mulling over something bigger constantly.

In 2015, Banksy cemented his pro-Palestinian status with a trip to Gaza to paint murals in the war zone. It’s that act, Salsa says, which proves that Banksy is not simply looking for kudos, or is even worried about alienating his fan base. “When Banksy comes to Palestine he puts himself in danger, but what showed he’s passionate and cares about it was when he went to Gaza,” Salsa says. “He went through tunnels, he went through Egypt – that was crazy. No artist – or anyone else – would put themselves in [that kind of] danger. Banksy is not a normal human being. He does not need more fans. He’s making some people angry, but he doesn’t care about that.”

Salsa always envisaged a permanent fixture to make the world really take notice of Palestine. But, while he was mulling over the idea of a small gallery, his artist friend had much grander plans.

“My dream was to make him do something influential here,” Salsa says. “We Palestinians have a misshapen perception created by the western media and the Israelis. This always bothered me, being labelled a terrorist or violent. I always thought Banksy could make a big push.”

Plans for a lasting project

The building that houses the hotel, located about five metres from the security wall, was once a pottery shop on what was once a bustling shopping street, before it became a run-down potholed thoroughfare and a regular patrol site for Israeli soldiers. The building had been abandoned for 14 years before Salsa came across it during his search for a location for a lasting Banksy project.

“Banksy had said to me, ‘okay, find me a location’. In 2014, I found this place,” he says. “The families had all left, because of the soldiers and the tear gas and bullets. It took me a long time to convince the owners to lease it to me.”

In the end, the hotel was Banksy’s idea. So too was the adjoining art gallery promoting Palestinian artists, the museum on the occupation and the Wall Mart – a one-stop shop for stencils and spray paint for others who want to add their own artwork to the wall. Salsa’s wife was involved with the interior design and worked “10 hours a day, every day”.

The Walled-Off hotel is hemmed by an eight-metre concrete wall built by Israel. Courtesy Walled-Off Hotel
The Walled-Off hotel is hemmed by an eight-metre concrete wall built by Israel. Courtesy Walled-Off Hotel

Salsa kept Banksy’s involvement a complete secret throughout the process. He took great care to ensure the guise of a run-of-the-mill guesthouse renovation stayed in tact, even erecting a cheap-looking, tie-dyed sign over the entrance which read: Opening soon… Bethlehem Flowers Guest House.

“We looked so stupid in front of everyone,” Salsa says. “No one expected me to do such a stupid guesthouse in such a stupid location.”

Banksy picked out the furniture in the UK and sent it over, with his artwork also exported from the UK. Towards the end of the renovation, the artist sneaked into the hotel in and continued to work for several weeks. “I call this hotel the Banksy prison,” says Salsa. “I used to sneak food in, and trash out.”

'He never made a statement against Israel'

Banksy left surreptitiously, with a team then sent in to apply the finishing touches during a marathon 24 hours before the hotel opened the following day. As with most things associated with Banksy, the hotel was an immediate hit. In the year up to March 3, 2018, the complex welcomed 50,000 visitors, while it has already had 60,000 visitors in the eight months since then.

In 2017, the UN’s World Tourism Organisation placed Palestine at the top of its fastest-growing destinations list. Many attribute that growth to Banksy.

However, Salsa wants to make one thing clear: his business partner isn’t anti-Israel and neither is the artist nor the hotel trying to take a political stance. The hotel is simply there to spearhead the “creative resistance movement”.

“Banksy is anti-occupation, he never made a statement against Israel,” Salsa says. “When things get better here, when the occupation is over, Banksy will be the first one to do activities in Israel.”

Heidi Levine / The National
The angels are painted where by a slight gap, and appears that as if the two angels on either side of the gap, breaking through the wall. Heidi Levine for The National

Salsa is quick to downplay that idea that the project has been an easy ride. He makes less money now than when he was working as a travel agent, although he believes that he’s become part of a greater cause.

Walking around parts of Bethlehem, it seems as though the city has almost become an open-air Banksy museum. Outside the Milk Grotto, a simple spray-painted dedication reads: #WeAreBanksy – a silent resistance movement that seems to only be garnering strength.

Salsa agrees. He thinks Palestinians look to the hotel as a “monument or shrine in the middle of Bethlehem”, and believes Banksy tourists to Bethlehem have now outnumber traditional pilgrims to the city.

“The people of Bethlehem are protecting his paintings, it’s becoming like a national treasure,” he says.

“Everything that I do here is something that I believe in. We are here to make our people stronger, to bring life to a dead area, to employ 45 people, and to support 45 families.

“We’re educating tens of thousands of people around the world about Palestine, we’re making the Palestinian voice heard, with no casualties. So many of our friends and kids have been killed to make people hear us. We’re encouraging the creative resistance, the non-violent resistance.

“We are making people much better for everyone, for the region and for Israel too. What matters is that Palestinians and Israelis learn how to respect each other.”

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Read more:

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Updated: December 22, 2018 12:37 PM

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