Graffiti artists have been painting on buildings and structures around St. Louis for years, but the Kosciusko Graffiti Wall near the Mississippi riverfront is the first of its kind to provide a communal space for artists to show their talents. The wall had its official beginning in 1995 when a group of friends combined their love of graffiti art and hip-hop to create "an open graffiti jam." Multiple area hip-hop groups like STUN ONE, KMS Crew, and FCC all joined the occasion that later was named Paint Louis. The three-day event continually gained popularity, and eventually hundreds of artists from all around the country would descend onto St. Louis every year. Its popularity peaked in 1998 when t-shirts were made and a documentary featuring the wall was released. Guinness Book of World Records even named it the longest graffiti wall in the world. However, artists who came to the event in 2001 bombed the city, causing millions of dollars in damage. City officials shut down the event until 2013, when two of the original committee members invited 300 artists and 1,000 attendees to the revival. Today, Paint Louis is thriving as it brings in new artists each year to paint the Kosciusko Graffiti Wall with new, unique creations. The pieces of artwork provide an outlet of creativity for the artists along with a means of religious expression in the city of St. Louis.
Note: We have not edited the images for profanity or vulgarity. Some readers may find the images from the graffiti wall to be offensive or inflammatory. We provide the following images for research purposes and do not endorse any messages they may contain.
The Kosciusko Graffiti Wall runs along the St. Louis riverfront right below the I-64/40 overpass. Although it is surrounded by dilapidated buildings and roads, the fifteen-foot tall, mile-long concrete wall stands out as a beacon of artistic expression. The site is filled with colorful graffiti art from a multitude of artists, including over 175 different images that leave only sparse amounts of blank space. Each creation is unique in its own style and message it portrays. Some pieces are fun and cartoonish, while others are political and inspiring. It is evident that most artists paint what they are passionate about. The fact that the tallest portion of the wall is covered with painting shows the amount of dedication that the artists put into their work. Whether it is a tribute to the St. Louis Cardinals or a message to a significant other, each image is unique and special to the artist. Many images are blemished by profanities and crude images over the original artist’s rendering. Both the style and look is different, marking the new artist’s additions. Nevertheless, each creation is remarkable in its own right, and the time and skill that the artist invested is apparent.
The wall itself represents several aspects. Even though it started out as an outlet of self-expression, the wall has evolved into a space for social critique and political commentary. There are no restrictions on what can be painted, so artists are allowed to express themselves in any way they want to. Overall, the graffiti wall, especially during the yearly Paint Louis event, brings a whole new set of intricately painted artwork--provocative, critical, and often beautiful--to the city.
When we consider how the Kosciusko Graffiti Wall compares to religion, we must consider how art as a whole compares to religion. Spirituality and worship are very much individualistic rituals that can be obtained through many different means. Some achieve this rightness from traditional prayer, some through relationships with friends and family, and others through the channel of art. For those people, the Graffiti Wall is an essential outlet to achieve various spiritual goals. One might paint to convey their own ideology or passion; this would be a more internal approach to religious art. As expressed in Pinault’s quote, others paint to unite people and convey a message of common humanity. This is shown on the Graffiti Wall through portrayal of St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Skyline, and messages depicting Jesus as savior. Not only are the messages through art bringing together the community, but also the entire Paint Louis event is a gathering of artists to collaborate, appreciate, and experience the work of others; isn’t that what religion is? So when we analyze various means of religious expression we must not overlook the importance of art. Though it may not be an ideal spiritual revelation for every person, those who contribute to the Kosciusko Graffiti Wall know that these many individual pieces of art create a masterpiece of great spiritual significance.
The Kosciusko Graffiti Wall is representative of St. Louis culture, which undoubtedly includes the influence of religion. It creatively displays the considerable religious culture of St. Louis, the Gateway City. And while it is not unique in its cultural issues, being the “Gateway to the West” makes it symbolically open to change and progression. The Pew Research Center has reported that St. Louis is 75% Christian as of 2014. This presence is apparent in the art of the city’s people. The effects of both religious people and religious places are seen on this wall, as it sits in a religiously-contested city and within a quarter-mile of the St. Mary of Victories Roman Catholic Church.
See, for example, the painting by Jesus Saves NYC, a graffiti artist from New York who finds a powerful tool for Christian evangelism--"this was my way of preaching the gospel to influence a lot of young cats in the streets na’mean"--in a spray can. On the wall, “Jesus Saves” is in large blue print with a smaller speech bubble that says “Jesus Saves Missouri.” Many of the paintings currently on the wall, which is in a constant state of revision, were drawn after the 2016 presidential election and reflect a clear political divide in the city that echoes the divisions throughout the country. This particular campaign, “Jesus Saves NYC,” is staged much like those in Chicago where the goal is to make religion relatable.
In this work, the word “Beauty” is drawn to come out of the cement of the wall in different forms. The “T” looks to be a type of cross, set aflame. Many common religious symbols are scattered throughout the years and years of graffiti art and tags among the wall.
This Kosciusko Graffiti Wall, as a kind of urban archeological site, leaves many signs and symbols of the culture that dwells in St. Louis. We can physically see the spirit of religion and faith traipse through the streets. On this wall, we can observe over ten years of St. Louisans’ voices, many of which display religious themes as strong as those statistically presented in the city itself.