For two Mormon missionaries, last Saturday was a long day of sharing their gospel message in the hot streets of St. Louis. But the pair of missionaries was not knocking doors. They were tagging a public wall with spray paint.
Their graffiti? An 11-foot, four-layer image of Jesus, emblazoned with the web address MORMON.ORG.
Elder Jacob Burgoyne, 19, the lead artist, had worked toward this moment for nearly a year. One day last fall, he stumbled on photos of the international street art festival Paint Louis, held annually at the flood wall south of the Gateway Arch.
Burgoyne knew he wanted to be part of it in 2017.
He prepared a portfolio of his artwork and submitted it to festival organizers. Once he got notice of acceptance, he had to sell the idea to his mission president, the church official who supervises the missionary force in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois.
After that, it was just a matter of finding time in their proselytizing schedule to prepare the complex stencils out of taped-together cardstock. Burgoyne enlisted the help of his companions to hold the stencils steady for hours as he painstakingly cut out the design with X-acto knives. They went through dozens of blades.
The design he produced is imposing and spare. An 11-foot Christ dominates the wall against a background of colorful galaxies, a reference to Christ’s creation of the cosmos in Mormon teaching.
In a clever nod, Burgoyne’s and McIntyre’s traditional black missionary name tags appear as the graffiti “tag” of the artists.
Burgoyne has a simple message to communicate with this mural: Mormons worship Christ. Every visual element is designed to reinforce that concept. Like the stained-glass windows in medieval cathedrals designed to teach Bible stories, Burgoyne’s street mural is designed to teach the viewer. It’s the same message Mormon missionaries share everywhere: Jesus Christ is Lord.
Mormon missionary life is highly regimented to minimize individuality and emphasize discipline and selflessness. Most missionaries set aside their personal passions during their two years of service.
Burgoyne thought the same would be true for him.
He studied art for five years in California before his mission. He discovered the work of street artist Banksy, and obsessively studied his techniques. He reproduced Banksy murals step by step, learning how to create depth and shadow with layered stencils.
When he came to Missouri, he abandoned his art for a time. Then he decided to create an intricate paper representation of a Mormon temple for a woman he was teaching. It inspired her to be baptized into the faith.
Burgoyne realized that he could use his art in his missionary efforts. He started painting again. His reproduction of the famous Banksy image “Balloon Girl” hangs on a canvas in one of his former missionary apartments.
The Paint Louis mural, however, was a bigger and more complex project than he had ever tackled before.
The irony of representing the Mormon faith, typically considered buttoned-up and conservative, in the edgy style of graffiti street art was not lost on Burgoyne. Could a law-abiding Mormon communicate in the artistic language of outsiders and outlaws?
Yes, it turns out. Mormons were literally outsiders in the 19th century, expelled from the United States and from “respectable” mainstream society. For Mormons, the sense of being outsiders is never far away.
On Sept. 22, Burgoyne and his companion, Elder Scott McIntyre, arrived early at the flood wall armed with stencils, paint and a borrowed ladder. They got to work on a 20-foot section of wall, laying down bright colors and textures. Other artists arrived and began working around them.
But things soon went awry. The intense heat and humidity of the weekend compromised the adhesive meant to hold the stencils to the wall, and Burgoyne struggled to align his layers. A renowned tag artist known as Fleks struck up a conversation with the missionaries and gave them a few pointers.
It was the first of many times that weekend that they enjoyed the camaraderie of other artists. Despite different backgrounds, they traded tips with the artists around them. One painter suggested they add tattoos to their Jesus. When a few passers heckled the missionaries, tag artists around them came to their defense.
It seems oddly appropriate, placing Jesus in the midst of drinking, smoking and swearing. After all, the gospels depict Jesus visiting with those who scandalized polite society.
Since the mural’s completion, hundreds of passersby have stopped to admire or stare in curiosity. Whatever they make of it, they leave with the message that Mormons worship Jesus Christ.
Well, most of them do. “Oh look, it’s the Statue of Liberty!” one little girl exclaimed.
Many people stop to take selfies. Christ’s painted hands are situated at the perfect height to look as though they are resting on a person’s head. Some people have begun to call the mural “Touched by the Lord.”
Burgoyne hopes that some will be spiritually touched, as well.
Rosalynde Welch is an active Mormon and a writer and independent scholar of contemporary Mormonism. She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.