Street artist Banksy is best known for works that toe the line between art and activism. Like graffiti itself, a subversive act that can transform public and private spaces into canvases, the anonymous artist’s practice is one largely built on the idea of reclaiming spaces. Banksy also resists the idea of art as commodity or capital; he recently made headlines when one of his most famous paintings was sold in a Sotheby’s auction and was promptly shredded through a hidden mechanism in the bottom of the frame.
One of Banksy’s most political ventures to date is also one of his grandest in scale: the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Palestine.
Its name, of course, is a play on the prestigious hotel chain Waldorf Astoria. But the Walled Off is a far cry from Waldorf’s luxurious suites and spas. In fact, the BBC reports that Banksy has described the Walled Off as having “the worst view of any hotel in the world.” The reason? It sits beside the Israeli West Bank barrier, a controversial wall that Israel erected as security against terrorism; Palestinians, however, view it as a means of racial segregation or apartheid. The Walled Off is located just five hundred metres from the checkpoint to Jerusalem.
The hotel opened in 2017, the centenary year of British rule in Palestine. Fully funded by Banksy, it now operates as a local business that employs — and is run by — Palestinians. And while it may seem like something of a joke, the Walled Off is a genuine, full functioning art hotel.
Designed by Banksy, the interiors are deeply embedded with Palestinian history, with motifs reflecting the conflict prompted by foreign rule. The piano bar, for instance, is designed to reflect a colonial outpost circa 1917, the year Britain began its long governance. “It is equipped with languid ceiling fans, leather bound couches, and an air of undeserved authority,” the hotel’s official website bluntly describes. Banksy artworks, like vandalized oil paintings and statues choking on tear gas fumes, are places throughout. Slingshots line the walls alongside pastoral and religious paintings with surreal, conflict-laden intrusions — a portrait of Christ with a laser bulls eye on his forehead, for instance, or a quaint medieval village being trampled by an oppressive grey bulldozer. The room also features a self-playing piano, its brand name obscured with a single streak of spray paint. This remote control operated baby grand is programmed to play bespoke contemporary arrangements, including nightly concerts recorded exclusively for the hotel (think artists like Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Flea).
Also not to be missed when visiting the piano bar? The Walled Off Salad, of course.
As one might expect of an art hotel, it features an impressive art gallery with works independently curated by historian and critic Dr. Housni Alkhateeb Shehada. The permanent collection here contains many of Palestine’s most notable contemporary artists.
The hotel also contains a museum entirely dedicated to the history of the controversial wall. Filled with artefacts, it offers guests and visitors state-of-the-art audio visual presentations about the region’s turbulent history. Of interest to cinephiles will be a camera used in the filming of the Oscar-nominated Palestinian documentary Five Broken Cameras (2011). Self-taught Palestinian Filmmaker Emad Burnet purchased a camera in 2005, the year his fourth son was born. He used it to record the growth and first milestones of his child — and also began to film the Israeli encroachment on his village, as olive groves were bulldozed for an Israeli barrier separating the village from a Jewish settlement. The camera on display in the Walled Off Museum shows signs of the gunfire it received during filming.
While there are no TVs in the hotel, there is a bookshop, which contains every known title ever published about the wall.
Each guest room is unique and artist-designed by Sami Musa, Dominque Petrin, and Banksy himself, while the hotel promises more to follow. Some are colourful, peppered with objets d’art reflecting Palestinian culture or snide references to colonial rule. Others are of the more budget-friendly variety, kitted out with Israeli military paraphernalia and looking every bit like an army barracks. These rooms include a locker, personal safe, shared bathroom, and…complimentary earplugs.
In stark juxtaposition to these barebones accommodations is the Palatial Suite, described by the hotel as being equipped with “everything a corrupt head of state would need — a plunge bath able to accommodate up to four revellers, original artwork, library, home cinema, roof garden, tiki bar, and a water feature made from a bullet riddled water tank.
And of course, in nearly every room, there are expansive views of graffiti-strewn concrete and the looming watchtower.
All photos via The Walled Off Hotel.