Church graffiti, medieval and modern


I’m living in Washington, DC until May, and since I’ve already visited many of the museums and tourist attractions, I’m on a mission to discover hidden gems in the city.

First one down: A random link on Twitter led me to this church yesterday. It was worth the trip.


It’s the former building of Friendship Baptist Church in Southwest DC, just a short walk from the Waterfront Metro station (the current church congregation meets just down the road).

Courtesy Wikipedia, Creative Commons use

This is what the building looked like in 2008. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons use)

These layers of paint combined with something dead–abandoned, empty, unnoticed–and made it come alive. I don’t know what the artist’s intentions were, but that’s why I think it’s beautiful.

Atlanta-based graffiti artist Hense painted the church for a private commission last October. The building was built in 1902 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the website Cultural Tourism DC, the church survived when most of Southwest DC was razed in the 1950s to clear the way for new urban renewal projects.

Let’s travel back about 800 years and about 3,500 miles across the Atlantic. I stumbled upon a blog post this week about medieval church graffiti that was recently discovered in Norfolk, England.

Apparently, parishioners wrote names and drew pictures on the church walls throughout the centuries, like an abstract form of prayer:

“It’s social history, contributions of the regular parishioners who attended church but couldn’t afford to leave their mark by sponsoring rich vestments, dazzling stained glass or soaring bell towers… In some of the churches, the lower walls were crowded with graffiti but they did not overlap, suggesting that people made a point of not messing up earlier works, perhaps because they had a devotional purpose.”

I wonder if something similar could be said of the graffiti in DC. There’s something poignant about adorning a church with color, shape and expression. In the case of the old Friendship Baptist Church building, I think the paint signals something about redemption. And I doubt this church’s story is finished yet.


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