Alex Woz Does Not Want to Make Art About Antisemitism

The Argentinian Jewish artist, better known as @woz_art on Instagram, talked to Hey Alma about making art in spite of hatred and the exciting world of Hebrew fonts.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen art quite like that of 24-year-old artist Alex Woz, perhaps better known as @woz_art on Instagram. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure of the best words to describe it. But here’s my best shot: His signature style collages and prints are like vibrant educational posters ripped off the walls of classrooms that simultaneously exist in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the present, and thousands of years into the future.

And they are irrevocably, deliciously Jewish.

With art that prominently features Stars of David, Hebrew words and phrases like “Am Yisrael Chai” and photos of multi-ethnic Jewish people — and is shared frequently by his nearly 14K Instagram followers — it’s undeniable that celebrating Jewish joy and beauty is at the center of Woz’s artistic world. And yet, that’s not what initially inspired him to become a full-time Jewish artist. Actually, it’s far from it.

Alex recently caught up with Hey Alma to talk about how antisemitism led him to art, his Argentinian Jewish identity and — hold on to your hats — the exciting world of Hebrew fonts.

Alex Woz
Courtesy of Alex Woz

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

Could you tell me a bit about your Jewish identity and background?

My family is Argentinian; both of my parents are from Argentina. I lived there for quite a while as a kid. And before that, my family members were Shoah survivors and immigrants from the war. So that identity has kind of leached into my own in some ways, through the trauma.

But people don’t know a lot about Argentinian Jewish history. A lot of Jews arrived in Argentina after the war, but people also know that Argentina let in a lot of Nazis and Germans as well. So over the years, whenever I would tell people we are Argentinian, they’d be like, “Oh, so you’re a Nazi.” And I’m like, “Actually, the opposite.”

There were so many Nazis that came to Argentina and they were so accepted by the dominant society that my family referred to it as a silent segregation. Which means that maybe there were no official laws segregating the Jews from the rest of the society. But there was very much a fear that was prevalent among the Jews to live in spaces with Nazis. So what a lot of the Jews did was they actually moved and built settlements in the farmland, where most of the Indigenous people of Argentina lived. And actually they got along pretty well with the Indigenous population — a lot more than the other Europeans that had arrived at the time — and started working with them. Through this, a new kind of archetype of Argentina was born called a Jewish Gaucho. My dad grew up on one of these settlements after the war, and was very much this Latino cowboy, but make it Jewish. So that is a huge part of my identity today.

So did you experience antisemitism growing up?

Growing up, my family moved around a lot and then eventually, we moved to America. We moved to the West Coast, to a town called Huntington Beach. Colloquially, it’s known as the Florida of California. It’s also known as one of the most antisemitic cities in the country. It is very much a haven for people who believe in QAnon and who are alt-right. I’ve dealt with so many of these people in my life. It started when I was young – we moved here when I was about 6. Everything was OK… and then I had my bar mitzvah, and around those years of transitioning into high school is when things got really hard. There are no Jews in this area, and after I had a bar mitzvah, it was very known in our small community that I was a Jew. As we moved into high school, around 5 or 6 of the people that had attended my bar mitzvah ended up turning into skinheads, neo-Nazis.

Oh my God.

Yeah. And they would try to hold my head down at lunch and they tried to shave my head. There was also a scandal at my school where some kids decorated my locker with swastikas when I was in class. I told my parents and they got really upset. They took it to the school and the school basically told them, “Listen, we don’t want to make this a big deal. Don’t talk about it.” And my parents listened.

So, you know, a lot of stuff like that. It would take hours to recount everything. At the time, I don’t think I was equipped with the right mentality to deal with it in a productive and healthy way. So I turned inward on my identity and I started to loathe it. I started to dislike that aspect of myself because it was the cause of ridicule and harm.

But I’ve always been making art. My mother is an artist, and she really nurtured that in me. And then, in May 2021, which was not a great time for Jews, it got to a point where I started to feel really frustrated with everyone around me speaking over Jews so much. So I asked myself, “What can I do to remedy this?” and “How can I help in my own way?”

At the time, I had been dipping my feet into the waters of Instagram art. I had been painting for years, and then I moved into graphic design. But during that time, I saw everyone in my community feeling really frustrated and really upset and sad, and needing an outlet. And I needed an outlet for my frustrations, too. So I made my first Jewish designs. I made a set of three of them, and those are still up on my page. And while they didn’t get the most attention, I got the most feedback from them. I had Jews reaching out to me that were like, “Hey, this really made my day. It’s really cool to see an artist online who’s standing up for us, being unapologetically Jewish and making designs about that, instead of cowering away from their identity when things are really hard.” So from there, I realized, OK, this is my tikkun. This is everything for me in my life. Over time, I’ve really narrowed down on my mission: I make art and sell prints today, so no Jewish person ever has to experience what I went through without coming home and seeing something empowering on their walls.

First of all, I’m so sorry you experienced that. Is it bittersweet for you that you’ve cultivated this rich, art-filled Jewish identity for yourself that came from a place of such virulent antisemitism?

Totally. I found my Jewish identity through antisemitism, and that’s a shame. I do what I do so kids, or people in general, don’t have to do that. My parents are secular; we’re more culturally Jewish and ethnically Jewish. But going through those antisemitic experiences, there came a point where I just stopped and asked myself, “What is it about this one facet of my identity that people care about so much, way more than I do? They don’t care that I’m Latin, they don’t care that my parents are immigrants or whatever else.” And then I started reading and started  gathering resources to educate myself and getting in touch with a local Chabad community, and I found Jewishness through that. But it’s a shame.

Alex Woz
Courtesy of Alex Woz

So you said you started posting Jewish content in May 2021. When did you start gaining traction in the Jewish social media space?

Around May 2021 I probably had – I could be wrong – but I think I had like 1000 followers. So not too many. But by making Jewish art, getting myself out there into the community and really making my presence more known and refining my mission (not in a salesperson way, but in my own personal spiritual way) people naturally gravitated towards my page. I feel I can create authentically now. And maybe people see that and they’re like, “OK, this is an artist that represents me.”

Obviously, every artist creates for themselves, and I’m a huge proponent of that. But at the same time, I do feel a huge connection to my community and an insane love for my community and our people. So that love really drives me to create for them, too.

Can you tell me a bit about the process of making your collages and digital prints? Where do you draw inspiration from them?

I have a really robust collection of books that my family and I have collected of Israeli culture and pictures of Israel. So, when I first started making Jewish art, I just went into my books. I have this book called “Painting with Light: The Photographic Aspect in the Work of E. M. Lilien” and a few other books of portraits – I think there’s one called something like “Portraits of Israel.” And it’s pictures of a bunch of Jewish diaspora groups, mostly Mizrahim and Sephardim, who came to Israel. And it’s pictures of them, a photo in their host countries, and then photos of them assimilating to Israel in the early ‘50s. So some of these pictures were of Bukharian Jews, of Syrian Jews, and whatnot. And that really fascinated me, because in America it’s very Ashkenormative.

I took this “Portraits of Israel” book, and I literally cut out portraits of Mizrahim, and I scanned them into a printer and then put them into Illustrator and Photoshop. So, for example, for a collage of a Bukharian Jew, which is one of the first Jewish designs I ever made, I cut the portrait out and did typography along the lines of his head that say, “The best revenge is to love all your features.” And then I actually took an image of the “Juden” star from the ‘40s, the one the Nazis used during the Holocaust, and I created a pattern out of it. And then I set that in the background. So a lot of my work comes from cutting stuff out from books. I’ve actually gotten a lot more savvy to taking ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi book covers and cutting images from those and using them. So I’m always collaging and then finding ways to incorporate other stuff in that.

Generally, how long does it take for you to make a collage?

I would say, on average, it probably takes like six hours. Which for artists is actually a really short period of time.

Who are some Jewish artists that you draw inspiration from? 

Baruch Nachshon, whose yahrzeit was recently, Marc Chagall, and Herbert Pagani are some of my inspirations. Herbert Pagani is probably my biggest inspiration, actually. This sounds super out there, but sometimes when I create I feel his spirit is in the air, sitting on my shoulder or something.

The moment I found the ethos of my work was after I created my first three pieces of Jewish art and I was going to design something else. And I sat down and I asked myself, “Should I make more Jewish art? Or should I do something different?” And then I asked myself, “Am I an artist who is Jewish? Or am I a Jewish artist?” And I started really reflecting on the differences between what those two could mean. I have a Herbert Pagani poster in my room, and I looked up and I made eye contact with the poster, with him. And I realized I’m a Jewish artist, that’s it. There’s no debating it, there was not a single other thought in my head.

I love that. So your main mode of expression is collaging and the prints, but do you make art outside of that medium? I ask because I was scrolling through your Instagram feed and I saw the mitzvah pants that you had made, which is so fun.

Yeah, my mom is a tailor and her dad was a tailor. So it runs in the family to make and design clothing. I grew up with my mom always sewing and teaching me how to sew. So over time, I was like, “How can I make some cool Jewish-themed clothing?” I know a little bit of embroidery. I’m not amazing at it, but I know how to do it. So I bought a bunch of Jewish patches and then I sewed them and I embroidered some, and that’s how the mitzvah pants came to be. And I love how it turned out, so I made some more.

That developed into a project that I started a few months ago called Woz Threads. Basically I released a line of vintage streetwear Jewish shirts. When I was brainstorming this project, I was trying to figure out how to take my philosophy of empowering Jews and bring it outside of the house — not just inside the house with prints. And since I’m into designing clothing and into fashion designer streetwear, I was like, “How about I make some cool vintage shirts, not just some standard white or black t-shirt with a design I’ve already made thrown onto it.”

I’ve looked around at other Jewish brands that are also amazing and are Jewish-inspired and by Jewish values and ethics. But I couldn’t find one that was like, straight-up Jewish, or if they had Jewish stuff, they wouldn’t say outright that they’re a Jewish brand that runs on Jewish ethics. It’s just like, “Oh, we sell shirts of matzah balls and pickles.” And I love that, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like it was a good time for there to be some shirts with proud Jewish designs.

Something I really love about your art is the Hebrew fonts and typography. I feel like there are such limited options with Hebrew typography, and, personally, I find a lot of them to be really boring. But your Hebrew lettering always stands out to me – do you design it yourself?

You’re right, there is such a limited availability of fonts in Hebrew. And I feel like maybe that’s a symptom of how diverse the written script of Hebrew can be; there’s cursive type, and there’s Yiddishkeit type, modern Hebrew type and even ancient Hebrew type. And so, I’ve gone on kind of a quest to find the best Hebrew fonts that I can. I don’t design the fonts myself, but I do work with typography. I’ll take words in certain fonts into Illustrator, define the outlines, and then play with them in a free-form way to stylize them more. But it is a hard game in the Hebrew font world [laughing].

Alex Woz
Courtesy of Alex Woz

Do you speak or understand Hebrew? Or has that been part of your more recent journey in connecting to Judaism?

So I’ll say: “קצת” or “a little bit.” I’m totally learning. The thing is, I didn’t grow up around other Jews or going to Jewish school or yeshiva. So with every post that I do, I have to learn and do research. I know this is a very Jewish thing, but I always feel like I’m playing catch up with my Jewishness. I started studying with my local Chabad rabbi, and I’ll ask him about concepts. And then after he explains them, I’ll go home and research it at home for hours, and then be like, “OK, I feel like I can visually relate to this and find a way to visually explain these topics.” So then I’ll create a design from there.  I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, you know so much about Judaism. Your page is so informative!” And I’m like, “I’m glad it looks that way. But I’ve had to really learn from the ground up.”

You’re so right, I think nearly every Jewish person I’ve encountered has always been like, “I’m still learning.”

Seriously. It’s so interesting, I actually went to Israel for the first time this year. It was amazing for so many reasons, but seeing the cultural differences of Israeli Jews versus diaspora Jews, and I don’t mean the difference of religious sects or even ethnic groups like Sephardim versus Ashkenazim, I mean like Jews born and raised in Israel versus diaspora Jews — the mentality is so different there. It was really interesting for me to take part of that home with me and then infuse more designs with that. I feel like especially after going to Israel, I was more inclined to not make art about antisemitism, just educational Jewish art.

I don’t want Jews to connect to their Jewish identity through antisemitism. I see so many Jewish creators highlighting that all the time, and don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that as someone who has experienced violent antisemitism in their life. But I think if we want to empower the next generation, it means being Jewish. Jews have lives and we want to live them, we don’t want to be talking about antisemitism, we don’t want to be making infographics. I don’t want to be making art about antisemitism. Every now and then I’ll feel very strongly and I will [make art about antisemitism] and I have in the past. But moving forward, especially after going to Israel, there’s so much more to talk about, like the beauty of our culture.

Do you have any other projects coming up?

I’m going to be continuing with Woz Threads. And I want to get it into different spaces. The thing is that I’m making it for all Jews, but I’m not making it just for Jews to be amongst themselves. Even with my art, the demographic that I really want to reach is non-Jewish people.

As far as upcoming projects, my mission is to just keep going and keep creating art and to get better and better and refine my technique and, b’ezrat Hashem, bring more Jewish art into the mainstream.

Alex Woz
Courtesy of Alex Woz

Last question: What advice would you have for Hey Alma readers that are interested in making their own Jewish art?

First of all: I think you have a great idea. That’s an awesome motivation. That’s an awesome goal. I would say to be wary of your audience. Not only for artists, but even for people who are wanting to get in the Jewish creator scene. If you are making slides that contain information that is mostly known among Jews, you should tell yourself, “OK, I want this to reach non-Jewish people, and how can I reach non-Jewish people, too?”

But specifically for Jewish artists, I would say: Take your Jewish identity and ask your neshama [soul] what it wants to say. And make that in an authentic way. All art is beautiful, all Jewish art is beautiful. It’s taken me seven years of creating art in design to get remotely to this point, and I feel like I’m only just getting started. So just stay persistent and really highlight the joy of being Jewish more than antisemitism.

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