May 25, 2013

Australia: Graffiti Gospel

Graffiti artists in South Australia are bringing hope to an underground scene dominated by rebellion and anger.

  • Street Art

    Friends Josh Routley and Jack Franceschini collaborate on art projects with Christian themes, using the "free walls" designated by the city for legally created street art.

  • Hopeful Message

    Graffiti artist Josh Routley goes by the street name "No Hoper," taking that name because he says, "Jesus came for the no-hopes."

  • Public Space

    Commuters stop to watch the progress of artists who paint on prominent free public walls.

  • Student Life

    After spending the morning spray painting, Josh Routley spends the afternoon sitting in classes at Adelaide College of Ministries, where he's studying youth ministry.

  • Ministry Platform

    Josh Routley painted an image representing the questions people have about life and death. Christian graffiti artists hope their artwork will provoke passers-by into deeper reflection.

The Morphett Street Bridge in Adelaide carries six lanes of busy commuters over a warren of railroad tracks and past the city’s shining convention center, whisking drivers between downtown offices and one of Australia’s wealthiest suburbs.

Beneath the bridge, hidden from all of them, Jack Franceschini preaches the gospel with an aerosol can. Balancing atop a milk crate, he sprays the good news onto the cold concrete until paint covers his hands and stains his skinny jeans.

If most graffiti artists work covertly to turn highway overpasses and back alleys into echo chambers for subversive messages, then Franceschini is subversive in his own way. He paints the urban underbelly to reflect the truth of Christ. Maneuvering a stencil across the wall, he sprays “there is hope” in white blocky letters, a message for passersby who might read it and find the will to make it through another day.

“I love that graffiti makes you think,” says Franceschini, the son of an Italian dad and a Tongan mom. He tags his work with the name Black Jack. “I have the greatest message in the world, and that’s why I want to portray that through graffiti.”

Franceschini is one of a handful of Christians in Adelaide’s up-and-coming street art scene. Exactly how many there are, no one knows for sure, because some are more closed about their faith than others. But in a profession defined by rebellion, drugs, and alcohol, artists like Franceschini stand out both in the content of their art and the lifestyles they live.

Christian street art is not new. Its gradual growth around the world has rough similarities to the growth and increasing acceptance within the church of Christian hip hop, if on a smaller scale. Unlike much Christian hip hop, however, Christian street artists in Adelaide do not necessarily target Christian audiences. Their work is meant for a broad urban public, to be (someday) on the same canvas as big names like Banksy, an elusive British street artist and arguably the world’s leading graffiti maker, brought to mainstream fame by the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop.

“With street art, you see an element to a piece like a Banksy piece and you go, ‘OK, that’s Banksy and I love it and I know what he stands for’,” says Josh Routley, a Christian artist in Adelaide whose street name is No Hoper. “Hopefully, when people see my work, they say, ‘Yeah, that’s No Hoper, and I know what he stands for.’”

Routley, like many Christian street artists, grew up with a natural bent toward underground culture. He was raised in what he calls a “really traditional” church but was unimpressed, focusing instead on drinking and drumming with a punk-rock band. Some days he would show up to church hungover, smoke clinging to his clothes.

Then he met TEAM missionaries Ray and Marti Williams, (“The first time I actually saw faith lived out,” he says). After a hard skating fall left him with a broken wrist, and a bad prank with a toy gun landed some of his friends in jail for a week, Routley decided he had to make some changes. He got serious about following Christ and eventually enrolled at Adelaide College of Ministries, a local Christian college where Ray Williams is a professor.

Routley did his first paintings on a whim two years ago, entering them in Adelaide Fringe, a local arts festival that claims to be the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. To his shock, his pieces nearly sold out. Then he picked up his first can of spray paint. Now he’s been hired to work with some of Adelaide’s biggest street artists on commissioned public art projects, a milestone he says artists sometimes work for a decade to achieve.

Routley gives all the credit to God for any success he’s had, and is quick to clarify that he’s not driven by accolades: “I’m called to be faithful, not successful.” If anything, he describes himself as a misfit Christian who has found a platform to minister to other misfits. As a youth who struggled with dyslexia and thought he had no hope of succeeding in life, Routley uses his street name as a conversation starter. “Christ came for the no-hopes,” he says. “I’m proud of that. Paul says, I boast in my weakness. I boast in the fact that I’m a no-hope without Christ.”

Close friends, Routley and Franceschini are always looking for chances to share that truth in the graffiti scene, whether staying up late with painters or hanging out at skate parks, a staple of street art culture. They are vigilant to live responsibly and work respectably. Lifestyle, they say, paints a clearer picture of Christ than any aerosol can could.

Yet, having credible art of their own is critical for building credibility and relationships. “Some graph cats are really rough,” Franceschini says. “If I were to just randomly, without even knowing them, tell them the gospel, they wouldn’t listen.”

Birthed out of a culture of illegality, graffiti has not found a huge welcome within the church, where street art is more likely to be painted over during an inner-city missions trip than included in church decor. But that is slowly changing, at least in Adelaide. For Saturday-night worship services, Franceschini’s church invites him to create pieces on a large window using liquid chalk. They are eventually washed off, but Franceschini hopes his art will start a few conversations first.

“The devil plans for graffiti to be a bad thing, but God could actually win it back,” Franceschini says. “If I could portray God in a stencil or in a throw-up or whatever, and someone actually gets it, that’s awesome. That’s the point of it.”

Christian street-art groups have popped up around the globe, and churches have occasionally even commissioned street artists for works. The shift mirrors a larger embrace of street art in major cities. A few hundred miles east of Adelaide, the city of Melbourne is an international hub of street art, in part because the city government was one of the first to publicly embrace some forms of graffiti. In Adelaide, city officials have worked with the community since 2011 to provide public “free walls” for artists to paint on legally. They’re a godsend for Franceschini, who has done graffiti since he was a kid but stopped after he become a Christian at age 15 and swore off vandalism. Now he’s building his reputation painting in legal spaces, like the Morphett Street Bridge.

As with the church windows, paintings on public walls don’t last long. They will be painted over by someone else and replaced by new works in as little as a few hours. So Franceschini and Routley seek a fine line in their work, images that are quick to grasp but don’t appear overtly “Christian.”

“That’s the thing with street art, it’s temporal,” Franceschini says. “It won’t last forever. So my message is short and sharp. I hope people see that and say, ‘there is hope.’”

Under the bridge, Routley is painting, too. He finishes up an image of a face flanked by a baby on the left and a skull on the right. Beneath it all hangs a question mark, prompting onlookers to consider carefully what they will do with their finite lives. He’s not exactly sure what he’s going to do with his own life. “Whatever God wants,” he says. He’s a part-time youth pastor and about to finish ministry school. Two years ago, he wasn’t even doing art. “And to think, two years later, this is sort of happening now, this is pretty bizarre.”

He looks at the faces on the wall. In a few days or weeks, they will probably be gone.

- Written by Andy Olsen
- Photography by Robert Johnson

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