A Philadelphia high school student who went by the moniker, Cornbread, started tagging city walls in 1967 to get the attention of a girl. Since then, an eruption of artwork onto city walls and trains has evolved into an art form accepted by some of the most prestigious galleries. This 40-day spiritual practice is exposing to me to some very interesting things that happened in the year of my birth! [All of the pictures here I took during my journeys to Ireland and Bali]
Graffiti is archeologically defined as, “writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view.” Of course, in this sense, graffiti has been around since ancient times in Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. Contemporary graffiti, though, is often controversial as it is frequently deemed vandalism (subject to prosecution) and/or illustrating a social or political message.
On the streets of Paris in 1981, Xavier Prou began creating stencil graffiti to highlight social injustices (homelessness, in particular). And, of course, Banksy, in early 1990s Bristol, UK, garnered international attention transitioning from stencil art to a more “proper” art form. They are visual satire, usually anti-war and anti-establishment. And now this kind of art is found on city walls all over the world. Indeed, I admired such art in Dublin and Cork, in Canggu and Ubud.
Today is, in the Catholic tradition, the Feast of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Though Catherine did not write on walls, she did write letters. And she wrote a lot of letters. Some were to encourage others in the faith, some to leaders begging for peace and the reform of clergy, and to many around her to extend her influence outward for greater impact on accomplishing that peace. She engaged in protest fasts and was nearly assassinated in June 1378, but peace between Florence and Rome was finally accomplished shortly thereafter.
Catherine spoke often about love as the standard of Christian work and witness of God’s presence in it. She also wrote how love is often expressed in sacrifice, action, and even if perceived as aggressive. In one letter she challenges, “If you are what you should be, you will set all of Italy ablaze!” She did not mean this to be a literal blaze, of course, but she was indicating that the power of the Holy Spirit is most effective when the ones in whom the Spirit dwells act.
The 1960s saw a shift, something like an awakening for those who were historically rendered powerless. And 1967, was certainly an eventful year in protest. Art on city walls frightens the establishment. No guns are leveled but disenfranchisement is given voice. And any change requires a certain creativity to enact. Indeed, poetry has been a very compelling means of dissent. It is dangerous and it is effective. When it is a woman or of other marginalized groups, the act is nearly always regarded as hostile. But change is a breed of violence – the new thing must put the old to the death, after all. Yet when there remains injustice, righteousness – making things right – is imperative. Being human, I am obligated to be part of doing justice, loving mercy, all the while walking humbly with my God. It only requires that I am what I should be . . . then, perhaps, I may set my domain ablaze!