Writing on the wall
There is a long tradition in the Catholic Church of artistic patronage. From the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, to Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, the Church has been paymaster and provider to countless artists, masons and draughtsman.
St John Rigby Catholic College in West Wickham, Kent, has recently joined the list. But the art is a long way from the work of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino. For whereas those artists worked with brush and palette, the artists commissioned by St John Rigby used the scourge of the modern houseowner, the aerosol spray can. St John Rigby has been professionally "graffed".
Although the college is tucked away where the suburbs of Bromley give way to the countryside of Kent, many of the college's 1,100-odd students come from nearby Croydon and Addington where graffiti is not an unknown art form. But early this year, when they returned from their Christmas holidays, a surprise lay in store. Their head, John Stanley, had commissioned two graffiti artists, Ser and Aroe (graffiti artists are known only by their "tags", or signatures), to create frescoes on the college walls, paid for from the school's building and maintenance budget. "It cost the same as it would to paint the walls," says the affable Ulsterman.
Two striking pieces of graffiti art now cover the stairwell going up to the modern languages area, and the walls leading from the dining room to the maths department. "A lot of damage had been done and it was a problem," says Mr Stanley. "I wanted something better in these two areas which were continually being abused by our kids' tagging"
When he was showing Jackie Lait, the local MP, around, instead of covering up the walls, he asked her advice. "She mentioned Eden Park station where the artwork had been created by Ser. He'd started spray-painting illegally, gone straight and was now doing graffiti art and youth work with young 'graffers'."
Ser had cred: sponsorship from the National Basketball Association, his contact with the graffers and the high visibility of his tag gave him celebrity status. He and Mr Stanley discussed possible approaches.
The design on the stairwell to the modern languages department incorporates a map of Europe, a section showing the flags of the world, and in the lower part of the stairwell the word "welcome" in as many languages as the graffers could find. What makes the designs distinctive is the graffiti style, half comic book, half atlas.
The maths department mural is equally striking with its mathematical symbols, formulae, and cartoonish professors. Head of maths Parry Ahmedzai admits he had to correct one of the graffers. "An equation was slightly off," he says. "I wish now that I hadn't pointed it out: it would have been a talking point." Mr Ahmedzai has seen a change in his students' attitude to their environment. "They protect the piece. The value they place on it stems for their view of the artists. They look up to them."
And what about the students? Luke Beresford in Year 10 is clear about the artwork's impact. "It would cost the school more to be cleaning off the graffs all the time. Because people respect the artwork no one's going to damage it. It makes the place look neater."
John O'Donoghue is a teacher and freelance journalist. He lives in Brighton