I have written and spoken a lot about my work alongside unemployed young men on the large Bromford estate in Birmingham and about the graffiti spiritualities project, ‘Bromford Dreams’ that we developed together in 2012 – Urban Theology in action…..Enough words, here is the project in pictures…
Is popular culture empty ‘lift music’ or bubble gum pop intended to keep us whistling on the way to work as Theodor Adorno might have argued or might it, as Antonio Gramsci insists, be the possible site of liberative struggle against oppression?
Arising from my own research working alongside unemployed young men on a large urban housing estate this is something I have thought a lot about recently.
Have a read of the paper I gave at the University of Manchester entitled ‘Social Exclusion & Graffiti Spirituality and let me know what you think. Perhaps also have a ponder about what implications this way of thinking about theology might have for faith groups, theologians and those involved in education….
Here is a brief interview I gave just over a year ago about my two year ethnographic project working alongside unemployed young men on a large Birmingham housing estate – graffiti arts meets and challenges social exclusion and provides a new mode of theological discourse for young men who have no time at all for organised religion.
City councils, tabloid newspapers, neighbourhood forum meetings call it vandalism – anti social behaviour. The graffiti art of Banksy hangs in art galleries and sells for tens of thousands and the Birmingham based ‘spiritual’ graffiti artist Mohammed ‘aerosol’ Ali has had his work exhibited in the UK, in Australia and in the Middle East. Is that what graffiti is, the new art? Or again think of the way that the Berlin Wall, the ‘security’ fence between Israel and Gaza or the murals that filled Belfast during the troubles became canvases for political protest. Is that it, graffiti as the new politics? Alternatively since its emergence in New York during the early 1970s has graffiti been a way in which alienated young adults have raised their voice and made their mark – graffiti as identity?
In a world where organised religion has less and less hold over people’s sense of value, purpose or truth is it possible as Tom Beaudoin (1998) suggested that popular culture has become a ‘surrogate clergy’ for a post-religious but not secularised ‘Generation X’ (and ‘Y’….)? After all from the slave spirituals of the 19th century, through the Soul music that accompanied the civil rights movement, the progressive anti-racist multiculturalism of Two Tone and the Black Power of early rap music has encapsulated movements for liberation and articulated truths in a manner not possible within many books or sermons.
I’m not suggesting that the spiritual graffiti of Mohammed Ali or the
challenging imagery of Banksy can be seen as a systematic, patient, doctrinally solid ‘theological’ statement….That’s not what they are and maybe that’s the way it should be. What I do want to suggest is the perhaps (just perhaps) such graffiti art can be seen as urban Icons -windows into meaning and questioning, just like the classical Icons of Christianity or the ornate calligraphy of Islam….What do you say?
For what seems like forever European theology has been bound up in words and often only in words. And yet the icon of Jesus above reminds us of the power of the picture…reaching the parts words just can’t touch and expressing a truth beyond language. Orthodox Christians have known for centuries that we are drawn into a depth of engagement with Christ in an icon, almost becoming part of the story ourselves. The power of an image can summarise a revolution, resistance and uprising…
But what about now? What about the city where religious imagery has ceased to be meaningful for millions; the city where images of Che Guevara and Martin Luther King are more likely to adorn T-shirts than stimulate action for justice? Might it be that a new ‘post-book-bound’ spirituality, a new iconography is awaiting us within the contradictory world of graffiti? Alongside the tags and expletives is there a new set of graffiti-gospels pregnant with meaning but ignored, misunderstood or white-washed over? If we have eyes to see then a whole new world of meaning beckons us….Are we ready to see?