You can see it in a spray-painted scribble calling for “Freedom for Father Giorgi” or in a stencil of a priest on a construction barricade. In a country where one religious institution, the Georgian Orthodox Church, sparks both heated criticism and devout devotion, it’s no surprise that street artists want their say, too.
Most of the artwork, often anonymous, is in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, a city of well over a million people where public debates of any kind run loudest.
Most of it takes aim at the ancient Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s majority Christian denomination, which many Georgians consider synonymous with their national identity.
The graffiti does not attack the Church’s faith itself, but much of it does target perceived abuses by priests or parishioners. It may also express indifference or a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward religion. None of it appears to target religious minorities.
The art’s opinions often spark a response. Unidentified individuals routinely repaint, remove or conceal Tbilisi’s religious-themed (and other) street art.
The Church itself has not officially addressed any of these images and did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
As this art form gains greater popularity among Georgians, the messaging about religion is hard to overlook, however.
Over the past year, “Freedom for Father Giorgi” has been a recurring slogan on the walls of Tbilisi’s underground pedestrian passageways. In 2017, 32-year-old deacon Giorgi Mamaladze, a past critic of alleged Church corruption, was sentenced to nine years in prison for the attempted cyanide murder of Shorena Tetruashvili, executive assistant to Patriarch Ilia II. A 2018 appeal of his sentence failed.
Controversy over the courts’ response to the case and longstanding questions about the extent of the Church’s influence on Georgian society spilled over from media onto the streets. Those who opposed the verdict against Mamaladze and believed that the courts or Church could not hear their criticism took to the city’s heavily frequented pedestrian passageways to express themselves.
Often, the slogan calling for Father Giorgi’s release is just a scrawl on a wall. In one case, though, it was placed next to an existing image of a voluptuous, naked woman to heighten the impact. A solo scrawl may attract less attention, even though this site, near the downtown Rustaveli subway station, is sure to be frequented by many.
Those who choose to take aim at priests themselves – criticized by some Georgians for alleged abuses of office – can often see their work obscured.
In early 2014, a priest with a dollar sign was noticed on a wall near Rustaveli subway station in downtown Tbilisi. The image reflected a common belief that many priests hit up their parishioners for unreasonable financial donations.
By late July 2018, the area had been partially plastered, though a cryptic “VIP 77” overhead was left intact.
One piece of religious-themed artwork by Lamb, a prolific Georgian street artist, has experienced several waves of “correction.” Past alterations can be seen under his image of a lamb, dressed in priestly robes, that he placed in a building alcove (near the Georgian Public Broadcaster station) that, to him, resembled that of a church. At one point, white paint obscured the entire image.
By contrast, another image by Lamb, showing a priest hugging a lamb, so far remains untouched. It can be seen at the entrance to the Technical University subway station, not far up the street from the Georgian Public Broadcaster headquarters.
Lamb’s images do not reflect the news, but many street artists have focused on a four-legged stool wielded by a priest who took part in a 2013 attack against anti-homophobia activists in Tbilisi as a way to condemn religious bigotry and violence. Various depictions of the stool can be found throughout Tbilisi.
One graphic (shown above) urges “Condemn the stool.” On a kiosk shutter, another (below), now removed, displayed the “Stool’s Evolution,” from monkey to man to clergyman to stool.
In some cases, location appears to determine the public response to these images.
The underground passageway in front of the city’s Opera-Ballet State Theatre features a large painting of a man in ancient, clerical-style attire alongside Jesus Christ’s injunction “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1). An obvious poke at censorious clergymen, the artwork, by painter and street artist Luka Japaridze, features scratch marks, but has not been defaced.
By contrast, a short way down the street, unknown individuals regularly cover up religious-themed graffiti in the underground passageway located between the city’s landmark Kashueti Church and Public School #1.
In one part of the passageway, a blotted-out line paraphrased from the Bible’s John 8:7 reads “Whoever is without sin, let him throw the stool first.”
Other religion-related graffiti in this underground passageway near the Kashueti Church also has been defaced. A two-message stencil next to the stool art once read “The heart of Jesus” and “The heart of a priest.” Black paint has concealed the latter, though the former now has a veneer of red paint.
Proximity to Kashueti Church might explain why grey paint eventually obscured a rendition of a man and woman on the verge of a kiss. The work was painted by Gagosh, the pseudonym for one of the city’s most prolific street artists, in the underground passageway in front of the church.
The artist emphasizes, though, that the painting, called “International Love,” had no religious significance. “It was just a kiss,” meant to show that people can fall in love through online, long-distance relationships, he says.
After the original artwork was partly concealed, Gagosh simply reproduced the image elsewhere in the same passageway -- but, this time, in a larger version.
Artist: Gagosh. Photo Date: September 8, 2016. Location: Underground passageway between Kashueti Church and Public School #1 on Rustaveli Avenue (on the left)
Artist: Gagosh. Photo Date: March 10, 2017. Location: Underground passageway between Kashueti Church and Public School #1 on Rustaveli Avenue (on the right)
Map of Religion-Related Street Art in Tbilisi: