Around 200 A.D., a figure was scratched into a wall of a building on Palatine Hill in Rome.
The piece, referred to as the Alexamenos graffito, is possibly the oldest depiction of Jesus available for the historical record. The piece represents something of a starting point in the long, but not often recognized, history of Christian expression in street art.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and the Florence Jesus graffiti – equally crudely written – wouldn’t be out of place on that timeline. Drive around the area enough and you'll see the graffiti, its large, looping white letters spray-painted on regularly traveled roadways.
The messages – “Jesus is lord,” “Jesus the grace of God,” “Jesus son of God,” – would be palatable to many people if not for their illegal placement. Instead, the graffiti provides a window into the anonymous person’s (or persons’) unique understanding of what’s “good” and what’s “bad.”
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Good and bad, after all, are colored by individual interpretation and context. In practice, a teenager’s “good” can be different than an adult’s “good.” One man’s public nuisance is another man’s public preaching. In its day, the Alexamenos graffito was a childish send-up of Christianity. Now, it’s a historical treasure.
Rob Shaw noticed the Florence Jesus pieces while driving around the area. They pepper the roadways in south Florence and outside of Timmonsville.
“Spray-painting his name on the road is childish, cowardly and illegal,” he said. “I am a Christ follower, so I am not antagonistic toward Jesus. Quite the contrary; but I believe evangelism is about telling people about Jesus, not vandalizing in the name of Jesus. I don’t think people seeing Christians commit vandalism makes anyone suddenly say, ‘Yes! I need what that offers!’
“I believe that when you build a relationship with someone and live out Jesus for them in your words and your actions, that’s what makes the difference in their life.”
At the same time, though, Shaw stopped short of covering up the graffiti.
“I even thought about blacking them out,” he said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to obliterate the name of Jesus, even if it came about in the wrong way.”
His friend had a similar moral double-take about the inspirational messages.
“A good friend of mine noted that it’s probably wrong, but sometimes she appreciates the reminder,” Shaw said.
Shaw noted that he has seen discussions about the graffiti on Facebook but speculates that people have stopped short of logging formal complaints.
“We are not aware of any spray-painting,” said Chuck Pope, public works director for the city of Florence. “Lately, knock on wood, we have been pretty fortunate.”
Around the world, overtly religious-themed graffiti isn’t common, but it’s not nonexistent either. Stars of David are sometimes sprayed on temple doorways and on gravestones in anti-Semitic acts. Huge murals of Buddha can be found in Kathmandu, Nepal, a city that is recovering from a recent earthquake and was emerging as a street art destination.
Aaron Vickery, who uses the name Fasm in his artwork, is a graffiti muralist based in Modesto, Calif. He helped start the Gospel Graffiti crew in 1996, a collective of Christian artists.
“I basically was raised going to church,” he said. “But I went through a lot of rebellion as a teenager. I met another graffiti artist who was a Christian. He was writing gospel graffiti next to all his drawings. He was a big encouragement to me as far as where I was at in life.”
Vickery started a web forum and found other Christian street artists.
“I just started meeting tons of people,” he said. “A lot of them were like, ‘I thought I was the only person.’ “
Amanda Dillon, a PhD researcher at the Mater Dei Institute of Education at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, who focuses on the intersection between street art and religion, sees increased practice and recognition of Christian street art as part of broader acceptance of street art.
“There is definitely more Christian-themed street art emerging - all around the world,” she said.
For Vickery, finding and creating a Christian graffiti community also entailed a transition from illegal to legal art pieces. Now he’s commissioned to create elaborate and colorful spray-painted pieces that are far from the tags found on stop signs or utility boxes that are thrown up in seconds.
Illegal graffiti can be alluring for young people, he said.
“There’s an addiction in it that a lot of people don’t talk about,” he said. “The addiction of popularity.”
In many instances , the transgression is part of the art, Dillon said.
“The deliberate breaking of a social taboo or law is an essential aspect of the artwork that embodies its subversive character,” she said. “It is about speaking from the margins, from the edge, from a place of powerlessness.”
As creative expression, graffiti is traditionally seen as a rejection of the established art world - galleries, studio spaces, formal training - though there is convergence these days. Similarly, religious-themed street art can be a rejection of artwork found in places of worship.
“Often ‘church art' still falls within the realm of ‘safe' and often very outdated styles - a harking back to artistic styles and periods long passed,” Dillon said.
Vickery holds legal graffiti battles to help channel the competitive spirit and desire for notoriety found in illegal graffiti.
“I just figure I’m gonna set a good example,” he said. “That’s kind of the best thing I can do: just live what I’ve given. Set a good example of respect to people’s property. I’m constantly trying to get people to understand it’s an art form. It’s not going anywhere, just like rock n' roll wasn’t going anywhere.”
The Florence Jesus graffiti doesn’t seem to be going anywhere either. While Shaw first started noticing the pieces approximately a year ago, he thinks some might be as fresh as a few weeks old.