Idiot graffiti

I’ve been walking across to Newtown every other week for the last year or so. I usually go via Hopper St. There’s a bunch of council housing along Hopper St, as well as a church, a car sales yard, a butchers, a dairy. About a month ago, on approaching Hopper St I saw that several blocks of flats were being demolished. I stood in the early evening light feeling pretty sad at the destruction. It was after five but the bulldozers continued, sending loud thuds out into the surrounding streets. I took a photo.


I don’t really know why the destruction of these Arlington council flats bummed me out so much. But it really did. I thought about all those living in the neighboring council provided housing – how would it be to live in one of them and watch/listen to this happen next door?

I find the indiscriminate nature of demolition difficult; the bulldozers had piled rubble of wall, door, kitchen sink, and window all together to be discarded. It reminded me of when the historic church down the street I grew up on was demolished (it wasn’t sufficiently earthquake safe). Apparently they saved the bricks, because these could be sold, but all of the stain glass windows were crushed.

A few weeks later, with all the Arlington flats flatten and the bulldozers standing aimless in the middle of the blank section, someone put this sign up:


I think maybe it’s meant to be hopeful. But against the backdrop it looks surreal: It is a large picture of happy diverse people standing proudly in front of what looks like reasonable housing; but the picture is nowhere near large enough to cover the empty square of debris behind it, a square enclosed with thick high wire and heavily securitised. It’s a totally imagined picture, a literal façade of what social housing actually looks like. And one can stare right through to the other side and see: there are no houses.

It’s also a piece of signage trying to compete with – or annul – current media attention on the ‘housing crisis’. Trying to show case the council as having a positive role in the situation.

I didn’t find this hopeful, I kept on feeling blue as I walked along Hopper St.

Soon after though, this graffiti appeared:


And this…


And also this…


These were the signs that restored my hope.

In urban places, we are surrounded by words – especially the words of advertising. Shop frontage, billboards, traffic signage, street names, bus timetables etc. For me, and most people, these are not words of our own making or that we choose to put up around the place. Regardless, they fill the streets we walk and, in a certain sense, we consume them.

Seldom do we produce the words that speak to us from city walls. We’re passive to it, mostly.

But graffiti changes this passive relation. It’s not the council’s and it’s not commercial: I like to think of it as a way of speaking back to the walls of the city that usually yell so loudly. A small but important sort of agency.

Even if the words are aggressive or strike me as ‘stupid’ I still think there’s something powerful in writing back on the city’s walls. Sometimes aggression is all that holds us back from depression. I think of depression as a sort of withdrawal and emptiness – which if the Arlington flats had been my home, seems a quite reasonable response to their destruction. At the very least, aggression still seeks out a relationship with the world, it’s unlikely to render one passive, like depression’s withdrawal might. For in aggression there is still some hope of maintaining our voice.

The fact people continue to ‘speak’ through graffiti in situations that seem desperate, reminds of David’s psalms in the Bible. In the psalms, David praises God, gets frustrated at God, loves God, hates God, laments and celebrates with God. A friend of mine suggested that the beauty of the psalms is that David keeps on talking, even in his frustration. He is always engaged in life, even if only to voice his deep dissatisfaction with it: ‘you me in lay the dust of death’.

And like the graffiti that graces the empty lot where the Arlington flats once stood, I find that continued engagement hopeful.

So here is some more graffiti from around Newtown and Aro Valley. I’ve tried to find the sneaky stuff rather than the council-sanctioned ‘street-art’ sort.




Jonah: Justice & compassion

I’ve been thinking a lot about justice and compassion, and the book of Jonah.

Jonah is a very short, myth-like, book near the end of the Old Testament.

In it, God asks Jonah to go and help the people in the city of Nineveh.

Jonah doesn’t go to Nineveh, instead he gets on a boat and tries to run from God. A storm comes up and threatens to destroy the boat that Jonah is trying to escape in – so the others in the boat, sure that Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of the storm, throw him overboard.

Jonah survives being thrown into the sea by living in the belly of a fish (which God provides).

Once Jonah arrives on land (the fish vomits him up) God again asks him to go to the city of Nineveh.

This time Jonah goes: he tells the people of Nineveh that God wants them to change their ways, they do so, and in turn God relents from ‘the destruction he had planned.’

The next part of the story is what interests me, in many versions it comes under the heading: Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion.

Jonah gets angry: he is annoyed that God made him go all the way to Nineveh, and he is annoyed that God threatened punishment to the people of Nineveh and then did not follow through. Jonah wants to know, why, if God was always going to relent and show compassion, did he need Jonah to go in the first place?

To me Jonah is like the voice of justice – God was always going to save Nineveh, why involve Jonah? Why act otherwise?

At this point in the story Jonah is still hanging around the fringe of the city, it’s very hot. And while Jonah complains to God about how wasteful this whole thing has been, God makes a gourd to shade Jonah from the sun (different translations say ‘leafy plant’, like the whale, not so physically possible, but a beautiful image).

After a short time the gourd disappears and Jonah becomes very angry again, becomes suicidal even, in his anger at God’s arbitrariness: he says, ‘It would be better for me to die than live.’ Better dead than to live in this injustice, in this world which requires journeys to save a city whose sins I did not commit, better dead than trying to live with this inconsistent compassion, which both makes a gourd and takes it away.

I am often Jonah. I am impatient with compassion and eager for justice. I like the consistency justice promises – you will get what you merit, no more no less, a bit like karma. I like the universal nature of justice – an equal, even handed approach for everyone.

In comparison to justice, compassion seems sloppy, without pattern, and deeply unfair. I agree with Jonah, why send the stupid gourd if you’re just going to take it away again? When I encounter compassion, I too am angry.

Yet lately I’ve found myself rethinking my hostility towards compassion. For in the book of Jonah, it is the compassionate God who actually cares for the city of Nineveh. The story finishes with God asking Jonah, ‘And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?’

Jonah never asks after the city, Jonah never speaks of the animals.

I suspect it is often compassion who asks after the little animals.

When I was working in Fiji, a friend who lived nearby told me another story of compassion and justice.

Her host family in Fiji was a mother, her husband and her child. One cold morning the child cried and complained at having to have his usual cold shower before school. The mother heated some water on the stove, poured a warm bath, and gave it to the child who was instantly grateful.

My friend thought about the precedent this would set: would he demand warm baths on all cold mornings from now on? Would the mother be able to keep up this routine? Would the child cry every morning until he got the desired result?

Simply, she asked the questions of justice, of fairness.

But this act was one of compassion – it was never again repeated, nor requested, during the year my friend spent with the family. It was a one-off, a gift. It was an act comparable to the gourd that God provides Jonah in the story above, yet it did not lead to Jonah’s lament: ‘I am so angry I wish I were dead.’ The child simply received the gift.

So I am rethinking the relationship between justice and compassion – which I previously held in hierarchical relation. Perhaps they are better thought of as sisters, friendly and equal to one another.