The hooded figure got off a bike, walked to the CCTV camera recording the scene and raised a fire extinguisher toward it. A blast of blue paint put the camera out of commission.
The next morning, July 23, Bristol, England awoke to one of its most famous murals marred by the same shade of blue. Cosmo Sarson, the British artist who painted it in 2013, was in his garden nursing a hangover from a music festival the previous day when his friend and fellow artist Tom “Inkie” Bingle sent him a picture.
“Someone in Bristol must be covered in blue paint and have a massive hangover,” Sarson wrote on his social media pages along with an image of the damage. “Sad to see it so violently taken out but it had a good innings. Look forward to seeing what goes up in its place. Bristol, I loves ya. X.”
Breakdancing Jesus was intended to be temporary. It was the winning design in a contest held in 2013 by The Canteen, a diner with a 28-foot-high (8.5-meter) wall on one end of its front patio. Sarson spent four days painting it and used a kilogram of gold glitter, about 2 pounds, mixed in paint to fill in the space around the handstanding Christ.
Sean Redmond, one of the judges of the contest, said at the time, “The work raises questions about how Christ would interact and communicate with contemporary culture if He returned today.”
Jamie Pike, founder of The Canteen, praised the mural as representing what makes Bristol special. “We have a proud history of religious tolerance, incredible cultural diversity and a vibrant creative history,” he said. “Breakdancing Jesus is a celebration of that.”
The port city of just under 500,000 on England’s southwest coast is the hometown of world-famous street artist Banksy. One of his murals graces the wall opposite Sarson’s. The site is in the middle of the Stokes Croft neighborhood, a diverse community on Bristol’s north side.
Bristol is known for its street art. Visitors can take walking tours to see it all, and Stokes Croft is comparable to New York’s famous 5Pointz graffiti haven, Sarson said. (That site’s artwork was also destroyed overnight).
Breakdancing Jesus became an iconic feature of the area’s art-scape. Once it became a stop on the walking tour, Pike abandoned any thought of having another competition for the wall.
“You could just jump in a taxi and say, ‘Take me to Breakdancing Jesus’ and they’d know where to go,” Sarson said.
He got the idea for it from an event at the Vatican in 2004. A Polish dance group that helped poor and marginalized youth performed for Pope John Paul II, who applauded their spins and handstands from his throne.
“Artistic talent is a gift from God and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it,” the pontiff told the group.
Sarson clipped a newspaper photo of the scene and tucked it in his wallet. It stayed there for years before he started incorporating it into his studio work. It became a theme that he turned into a series of drawings and paintings.
One of them was turned into a meme that went viral. The image depicts Jesus performing what’s known in B-boy culture as a power move surrounded by clapping papal officials. Underneath it is a segment of the scriptural verse Matthew 20:28: “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve…”
It’s a play on the word serve, which can mean to dominate another person in a dance battle. Under the meme’s entry on KnowYourMeme.com, commenters mused about whether it constitutes sacrilege. User Flare Dancer opined that it is not.
“I’m sure Jesus can laugh at himself,” he wrote. “I mean, he himself was a pretty funny guy. Because if you don’t find telling Peter to find his tax money inside of a fish’s mouth funny in an otherwise-serious book, then you really need to reexamine your sense of humor.”
The verse comes from a story in the book of Matthew. After foreshadowing his death and crucifixion for the third time, Jesus instructs his disciples to achieve greatness through humility rather than power.
“Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be your slave —just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Sarson’s mural did generate some controversy when it appeared, said Amanda Olssom, an assistant manager at The Canteen, but not from Christians concerned about its depiction of Christ. Some people objected to what they saw as a Christian mural in an area as diverse as Stokes Croft.
The Catholic archdiocese of neighboring Clifton sent Pike an email saying they loved such a dynamic image of Jesus appearing in the public domain.
Sarson received some pushback from Christians who found it offensive, but not much. An “out-and-out” Catholic woman in Ireland sent him an email with the critique that the depiction of the loincloth was inappropriate because Jesus only wore it when he was nailed to the cross.
He heard others express the view that he was making light of the Messiah. Sarson admits that the motif was meant as a joke, but doesn’t see its lightness as disrespectful. Part of his inspiration for it was a song he heard as a boy, the chipper English hymn “Lord of the Dance.” Its lyrics are a first-person account by Jesus of his life and mission, described as a dance:
“They buried my body and they thought I’d gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.”
The song was written by Sydney Carter in 1963 and set to the tune of “Simple Gifts,” a song from the American Shaker tradition. Carter didn’t expect churches to approve of his ditty, and some did consider it heretical, but when Carter died in 2004 the London Daily Telegraphcalled it “the most celebrated religious song of the 20th century.”
Of his conception of the song, Carter wrote: “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best.”
Sarson does not identify with any religion. He has a slight suspicion, he said, that many people who read the Bible misinterpret it to their advantage. His childhood memories of Carter’s song left Sarson with an impression of Jesus as someone who spread love and happiness, which he doesn’t see reflected in those who claim Jesus wouldn’t breakdance.
“I always thought it was a positive thing,” he said. “But these dour-minded people are often too serious for their own good. [They] don’t think Jesus should be dancing.”
Sarson doesn’t generally use religious imagery in his work, although he has in three other pieces. “Screaming Pope” is a reference to Francis Bacon that appropriates Diego Velázquez’s celebrated portrait of Pope Innocent X, and includes Jesus breakdancing. In another painting, a man lays prone under a man with a knife under a graffiti-scrawled overpass, a modern take on Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.”
Asked about the pieces’ religiousness, Sarson was dismissive at first. His classical training inspires his Baroque influences, which were themselves religious because the only commissions for paintings in that era were being paid by the Vatican, he said.
“But now that you got me thinking about it, I suppose it’s really about the power of the church,” he continued. That power, and what happens when the people who hold it misread who Jesus was and what his message meant. “The whole Jesus thing seems very negative very often,” Sarson said.
Nearly a year after the 2017 death of his father Timothy, he unveiled a new mural in his memory. The Angel of Brighton is 20 feet high, set against a gold backdrop similar to his piece in Bristol. He didn’t mean it to be overtly religious, he told British media, but did intend the winged woman to symbolize his father’s possible ascension to heaven.
“It’s not like I haven’t thought about what comes after we go,” Sarson said.
The vandal’s identity remains as much a mystery. Bristol’s police are investigating. One commenter on a Facebook post about the incident joked that there must be a local priest somewhere with blue hands.
There have been other incidents of local street art being defaced with blue paint. A paintball gun was apparently used to hit a Banksy stencil in 2009. Sarson said he doesn’t take what happened to Breakdancing Jesus personally, but is angry that someone is being destructive to their own community.
Olssom, the assistant manager at The Canteen, said the piece will be missed.
“People were, like, screaming on the street when they saw [the defacing of] it,” she said. “It’s been a signature of this street since 2013.”
Pike, who helped restore the Banksy mural opposite Breakdancing Jesus after its own blue paint attack, wondered whether the behavior is a resentment to popularity or fame. Destruction of beauty is a shame, he said, but he’s taking it in stride. He mused: “Maybe there’s a temporality about street art that’s kind of interesting.”
Micah Danney is a recent graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He has freelanced for the New York Daily News, Voices of NY, The Mott Haven Herald, Mental Floss, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Sojourners, and The Times of Israel.