Street Art: Painting a Greater Picture of Jesus
My lecturer told us that when the fast food chain KFC expanded its growth into the Chinese market, they tried to carry over their slogan of ‘finger licking good’ but to their shock the equivalent translation in Chinese was ‘eat your fingers off’! I have wondered at times as I’m biting into a wicked wing, that it tastes a bit suspicious. Now I know why!
It was a great reminder to me about the cultural gap between the USA and China. I find there is a great big gap in my life, of being a bible college student and pastoral youth worker, and being a street artist. It’s quite a juggling act to try and marry up the culture and attitudes of the church, and the culture and attitudes of street art. I have been surprised by the ways I’ve found Christ in the street art scene. Here are a few things I’m working through, and a few things I have found that were encouraging to me.
I appreciate the street artist who questions the norm, and challenges others in fun and creative ways to take a step back and to look at their life. They challenge consumerism; the rat race of western culture; treating possessions greater than human relationships. The cool thing is that I see Jesus spreading the same message, but in a slightly different form! I guess this is where I see the biggest gap and what I’m in the process of trying to bridge. Some of the message of the gospel and the message of a lot of street artists aren’t too far apart (except for the whole Jesus thing, which us Christian artists are trying to work on telling them about!).
I think a lot of people see a gang territorial tag or graffiti piece over a business sign, and see it as no more than an angry act of vandalism, which can definitely be the case at times. I think far too often all street art is categorised into this ‘angry act of vandalism’, but for a whole bunch of street artists that’s definitely not the case. It’s similar to the way that Muslims get categorised by many westerners as all being terrorist bombers, which simply isn’t the case. Some people do graffiti as a pure act of vandalism. Others do street art as a means of release of creative expression; as a refined art and as their craft; or for a way of temporary fame (getting their name out there); others as a political statement; and others as a social statement. A lot of the modern street artists do it to colour the grey concrete jungle, to make the ordinary fun and interesting!
So there are many motivations and reasons for street artists to do their work. I think we need to approach it a bit like Jesus approached foul language. He didn’t so much approach the words they were saying as much as he did the intent and heart behind the words. I must add that I have Christian street artist mates that don’t have a problem with writing a message on the walls of an abandoned warehouse, or a thought provoking piece on a dark alley which is only covering a wall of mould and dirty bricks. I personally have chosen not to do any illegal work as I know a lot of the youth in my church look up to me in my role. I need to set a good example for them. Whilst I know I may have good intentions, they might not see that and merely see me doing ‘vandalism’. So I need to tread carefully.
I feel I need to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, which to me are buildings, walls and all. As for creativity, colour and artistic creation, all those belong to the Lord. Thus I should be giving them all back to him as a sacrifice, as he is the giver of the gift. If I can challenge people’s lifestyle and way of living to a more godly one, then I think I should, because if I didn’t I would feel like I was burying my talent in the ground, instead of using it for the master’s gain. I get plenty of opportunities to put my work in exhibitions, galleries, pubs, cafes, mural work, commission pieces and free walls (places created by local councils for people to do street art). But by far the way I have seen God most at work in the street art culture in my home town is not by Christian artists writing John 3:16 on walls, but by letting our lives be our message.
I did a paid, government sponsored, collaborative piece with a quite well known graffiti artist in my town. He discovered some differences between my life and his. I explained how I was a Jesus follower; that I try and live in God’s kindness and grace, and try to reflect that to others around me. I really got a chance to share my story and how God’s the centre now. He told me that he’d done a collaboration with another artist that was a Christian, who apparently just did a massive, fluoro picture of Jesus. It didn’t seem like he talked much to this guy at all, and left not only a pretty strange piece on the wall, but a strange taste in this guy’s mouth of what it was to be a follower of Jesus. I hope that when my friend finished that job with me, that he knew something about Jesus. I tried to be kind to people who might be rejected, being generous with what I had, to encourage the good in people, helping other artists for free, not asking for payment but blessing people, trying to bring hope to hopeless situations. I really hope that the month I spent with him painted a picture of Jesus Christ far greater than any paint on canvas, or aerosol on a wall could ever do.
My daily challenge is not just to paint a fluoro Jesus, say I’m a Christian and be distant to people, but to be close to people through the thick and thin, show Jesus’ love, and pray that one day they might choose to follow too!
As a street artist Josh Routley is known by the name ‘No Hoper’ because Jesus came for the no hopers (Mark 2:17).
Street Artist: Painting a Greater Picture of Jesus, By Josh Routley. Ptac 14