The lions of jerusalem. I was their caretaker, or “apotropus”, as I liked to say, for five years. That’s a joke that you’ll get when you know the talmudic adage “there is no apotropus for arayot“.
How did I get started? Well, these lions were a big deal, back in 2002. Not unlike the Chicago cows in 1999 (I happened to be there), a large amount of standing or sitting lions were decorating Jerusalem, each individually painted. Here is an article I found about it.
While you may spot the occasional lion still hanging around, they have been mostly bought and moved. Two of them were bought by a Mr. and Mrs. Hakimian from Jerusalem, and placed on Misgav Ladakh st. in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem. When in the Jewish Quarter, they are on the right hand side before you descend the main staircase to the Western Wall, or the Kotel.
They were placed there, facing the mount of olives, where Mrs. Hakimian’s sister, Mrs. Makovsky, is buried. Her sister loved children, and Mrs. Hakimian wanted to honor her sister’s legacy and place something for children to play with. However, there is a lot of wear and tear from tourists – young and old – touching and climbing the lions. So there is a municipality contractual agreement with Mrs. Hakimian that she is responsible for the upkeep and “well being” of the lions.
As it turns out, Mrs. Hakimian was friendly with the grandmother of my classmate, Yonatan. Yonatan asked me if I’d be interested in a painting job, since there current painter and “lion caretaker” was on maternity leave. I took the job, thinking it was just a painting job. Little did I know…
As an artist, I do get interesting jobs, which go beyond the occasional mural and construction work. This one involved learning which paints to use to withstand the weather, and wear and tear, the occasional car backing into the lions and smashing off a piece, and sadly enough, vandalism. I’ve had to deal with several of those, many times over. I got better over the years. One morning, for example, I strolled by the lions to see how they are doing, and I saw this:
That is no accident. Somebody intentionally destroyed it. For what purpose? Why? I do not know. And as you can see, this is after I already fixed it once. I learned how to use epoxy, a special type of clay that comes in two colors. When you mix the two, they form a putty that hardens like rock within an hour, and an be sanded down and perfected to make up the broken pieces. Below is an example of a facial reconstruction, before the epoxy is dry and ready to sand down and repaint.
There are so many good stories that come with painting the lions. When I actually paint them, I have to close the area off, finding police fences and tape that will keep people out. The hundreds of tourists that stop by often stop to look, talk about Jerusalem and its connection to Lions – the symbol of the tribe of Judah, in which Jerusalem is located – and many times I’ve had fascinating conversations. I learned, for example, that “Assad” is Arabic for lion, el’malik el-hayatna – king of the animals.
Sometimes it gets crazy. Once, as I was actively painting the back of the lion, some children approached out of curiosity. This happens a lot. But they usually have the common sense to stay behind the tape, or not to touch. One kid, however, decided to start climbing up the lion, while I was painting the very place he was trying to put his hands to climb. What would you do? Well, I kept painting, right over his hand. That got his attention, and a good laugh from his siblings, as it turns out.
Now here is the difficult part: The paint can take 6-12 hours to dry. What’s the problem? Well, people’s curiosity and desire to climb the lions. So I had to be very, very clear that the paint was wet, and shouldn’t be touched. I placed three police metal fences round the lions, with tape surrounding it, and a “wet paint – don’t touch” sign in three languages. Next morning, when I came to survey the lions, I found that the signs and fences have been moved, probably because they were in the way of the person who wanted to sit on the lions. As annoyed as I was, I was happy to see that their jeans were well imprinted on the damp paint. I hope they were expensive!
Anyway, those lovely five years were over, when I moved to New York in the summer of 2013. I did my final job, and passed the torch to a local artist. And with this I will end. Though I was required to stick to the classic lion colors – with some artistic license – I never went overboard. The frequency of having to upkeep and paint made it worthwhile to stick with a simple, clean coating, nothing complicated. The new artist, however, has taken the liberty to experiment with the lions. I’ve been getting the periodic update of Purim costumes, Pesach “crossing the sea” paintings on them, and lots more. Fascinating, though not my taste.
On my last visit in July 2016, I came to say hello to my lions. I hope they still recognize me!