The vivid blue mural with swimming fish on the side of a duplex at the corner of Victoria and Kent avenues in Montreal has been attracting attention for months. It’s obviously the creation of a professional – but who?
Passersby in this multicultural neighbourhood probably appreciate how the painting, which measures about 30 m by 3 m, has transformed the brick wall that borders a parking lot.
Only the members of the surrounding Lubavitch community likely recognize the elderly bearded man at the centre – its the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.
They also understand what the writing is all about: written in French are the seven laws of Noah that, according to the Talmud, are basic commandments for a righteous life. They are believed to be binding on “the children of Noah” – in other words, all of humanity.
Similar murals have appeared in the past year in Outremont and downtown, near the Quartier des Spectacles.
With a little sleuthing, The CJN was able to track down the artist. Although he keeps a low profile, he was eager to talk about his work and his mission.
Michael Israily – a.k.a., Zreyli – is a Lubavitcher, but he made it clear that he is making this street art at his own initiative and expense. He admits that some members of the community are hesitant about his method of spreading the Noahide imperatives, but no one has stopped him.
The father of 10 gave up working as a sofer (scribe) three years ago, to devote himself totally to art – specifically, street art.
The Noahide laws, in the version used by Zreyli, mandate belief in one God, respect for human and animal life, family values, honesty and the establishment of courts “that enforce these laws.”
A modest man who it would be hard to characterize as preachy or judgemental, Zreyli said his goal is simply to spread this “covenant that God made with Noah for his children forever.” He believes that racism would end if everyone adhered to the laws.
“Every human being living today is a descendant of Noah. We are one human family,” he said.
Behind the rebbe’s portrait is a white “7” that has become Zreyli’s trademark. The fish were the only creatures that survived the flood that did not board the ark, he explained.
Zreyli, who was born in France, came to Montreal when he was five years old. At 19, he became religious. Since he was a child, he has had a love for drawing and painting, but he had put it aside for many years.
After laser surgery left his eyesight diminished, the fine work of inscribing was no longer possible for him. Searching for a new direction, he flipped through the rebbe’s writings and stopped at a random page for inspiration.
“He said if you go into a small business, it brings small returns, but a big business brings big returns. I didn’t know what it could mean, but it opened a whole series of events,” said Zreyli.
The omen that set Zreyli on his current course was the chance spotting of a license plate in the Van Horne shopping centre parking lot, just opposite the mural, which said, “DO7 ART.”
Around the same time, Zreyli had become aware of the work of the French-born, Los Angeles-based Jewish street artist known as Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta). His sister in L.A. knew someone who knew Mr. Brainwash. Zreyli flew out and met briefly with him. After showing him the license plate, although he is secular, Mr. Brainwash “told me, ‘foncez, go for it.’ ”
Zreyli began with smaller, less sophisticated paintings on places where street art is legal.
He painted all over the city – the east end, Pointe St-Charles, near the Mont Royal metro – wherever he could get space. The problem was that his works would get painted over a few months later, sometimes even the next day, he said.
Zreyli is assisted by his 22-year-old son, Menachem, whose paint-spattered Crocs beneath his sombre black suit attest to his role.
‘We are one human family.’
Zreyli chose the predominant blue colour in the mural because it is so eye-catching, and added red and white for a combination that’s found in numerous flags and sports uniforms – for good reason.
He estimates that up to 6,000 people a day passed by his work near the Quartier des Spectacles this summer.
The duplex is owned by a woman who is Jewish, but not a Lubavitcher, he said. He simply went to her door, introduced himself, showed her his work and she gave him the go-ahead.
He knows the owners of the building on St. Laurent Boulevard and the one near Bernard and Park avenues. Those works have not been defaced, but the one on Victoria, his largest so far, had to be redone twice because people had tagged it.
But Zreyli shrugs off the intrusion, saying that it’s part of the risk of doing public art. The Victoria Avenue mural, which has remained unmolested since the summer, could last up to 20 years, he said.
The coincidences – or signs – just keep coming. During this interview, a francophone woman approached. She said she lives near a similar “beautiful” mural in Outremont and wondered who the artist is.
Zreyli quietly admitted it is he. He’s pleased that the word of the Almighty is getting out there.