The street artist Banksy, who made a name for himself by making ironic stencils on urban installations all over England and overseas, has brought international attention to the resurgence of graffiti as an art form.
Art critics and cultural analysts have given attention to the phenomenon, whether at the level of artistic merit, commercialisation and the renegotiation of public space. The Church, on the other hand, has given little if any consideration to it, very often preferring the sophistication and the loftiness of the higher arts.
While one must not ignore the arguments about vandalising public space for one’s own benefit, confining the consideration of street artists to just this trope is crude at best. More significantly, it is quite possible that the passing over of the implications of urban art for the Church may be to its detriment, and there are historical and cultural reasons for thinking so.
In the first instance, before there were frescoes and icons, the earliest examples of ecclesial art constituted scrapings on the ground and the walls of either streets or tombs.
In the second instance, graffiti artists like Banksy are making many stop and think about the role of public space. The graffiti artist practices on a space that is controlled by others, and possibly recognises that because of that lack of control of space renders the practice ephemeral, which tempers the graffiti artist’s sense of triumphalism. Put in this way, the graffiti artist operates on what the Jesuit social theorist Michel de Certeau calls in his Practice of Everyday Life a “tactical” way of living – a playful embracing of a space, followed by the release of control that space.
Why this conception of inhabiting public space is significant for Christianity is because Certeau suggests that the Church must similarly recognise that, as a pilgrim through this world to the next, it occupies space “tactically”. As such, it must not seek to presume that where Christians stand is theirs to own and control, for eventually other agents would come and be far more efficient at wresting control of that space.
At the same that the Church moves through one public space, however, it must also not forget that the Church declares to that public space the impending arrival of another public – the reign of Christ. The occupation of that space is not for its own benefit, should be the opportunity to open itself out in practices that declare the reign of God, such as the worship of the one true God and the full array of the practices of mercy.