Graffiti is My Religion

Evangelizing Evanescence in Belfast, N Ireland

by Mary Taylor

from Signs of the Times, No. 40 - Jan 2011

Belfast graffiti Authenticity in art is equivalent to truth in religion. Graffiti, which bears witness to evanescence, is perhaps the most authentic religion of our time.

Graffiti occupies neglected spaces, unused viaducts, derelict buildings, temporary structures. When it appears in a relatively permanent, central, well-used space, it is likely to be removed promptly. Graffiti's presence affirms the unnoticed; its vulnerability expresses the transient.

An amorphous group of young Belfast graffitists create and recreate designs identifiable by the letters "JND". This has no connection with the political murals which proliferated throughout the Troubles, advertising the rigid views of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. Nothing about the new graffiti is fixed. Some of the designs are carefully crafted, with intricate lettering and images; others are a mere dribble of paint, or a scribble with a broad-tipped marker. Colour and style are diverse. Beyond "JND" and its accompanying tag "Joker", there is nothing to connect them. True street art - as opposed to the commercial, commissioned, or institutionally funded kind - has no copyright. Anyone is free to create a design in the same idiom if they so choose. "JND", some viewers speculate, stands for "Juve Nile Delinquent". But who knows? It could mean "Jolly Nice Day". Scripture is open to many interpretations.

Graff is my religionThe Joker and his followers drew my attention with a slogan on my neighbour's dustbin: "Graff is my Religion, and I only worship at the Church of JND". The sentence could have been written anywhere; but the choice of a garbage container elevates it from slogan to artwork.

Trash is the overflow of a clogged consumer culture. Large corporations have been exposed as decayed, unstable, unworthy of the worship accorded to them. The banking system is well past its sell-by date. A political pamphlet might state these things, but an unknown artist's scrawl on my neighbour's bin expresses them directly and concisely. Transience is the only reality, it says. Focus on this truth, and transcend it. The bin is the beyond.

What is normally classed as 'religion' offers an illusion of permanence. Continuity over the ages gives the impression of solidity, but this is deceptive. Everything dissolves. When objects and traditions seem solid, they may be dissolving too slowly for our short attention span. Or they may be crumbling fast, behind a faade.

The role of art is to point beyond, behind, or beneath, to something unseen, hidden or merely unnoticed because over-familiar. Living art, which is the same as living religion, constantly adapts, alters its perspective, finds another position from which to point, another dark corner to reveal. Prayer takes many forms, and the act of spray-painting can be one of them. The graffitist's images, a spattering of spontaneous births and rebirths, celebrate incompleteness, metamorphosis, freedom.

Graffiti is by nature spontaneous, creative, free-spirited. A scripture which does not answer this description is not true scripture, in my book. Or on my wall. Or on my neighbour's dustbin.

Mary Taylor is a freelance writer on religious affairs. She lives in Belfast, N Ireland.