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.