The Ghetto Pietà

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I am walking in Mount Oliver, a hilltop borough surrounded by the city of Pittsburgh, when I turn down a side street and see the building in the photo above. Living in Detroit, I am accustomed to corner shrines of stuffed animals, empty malt liquor bottles, and flowers taped to lampposts. I have seen half of the graffiti RIP murals between the Bay Area and Belfast. But I have never seen any piece of street art that blew me away like this one painted on a few plywood boards replacing the window of a vacant storefront:

The small piece of text on the right says simply, "In Loving Memory of a Brother Named Brice." The work is centered on one shirtless man looking skyward in anguish and holding the body of another man, presumably Brice:

The tattoo reads: "I don't know what tomorrow holds but I know who holds tomorrow," a religious saying without attribution. I consider the limpness of the dead man's head against the resolute stiffness of the mourner's, his bald head against the mourner's halo-like afro, the way the grain of the wood is left above above the dead man's head like emanating light. I feel like I'm staring at a medieval allegory or one of the elder Bruegel's aphoristic paintings. A boy, the victim's son, perhaps, pulls against a scantily-clad woman, reaching in vain towards the dead man. The look on the young woman's face suggests she may have been his girl, and perhaps the mother of this child:

Behind them, a witness yells into a cell phone, a cop seems poised in a fruitless search for the attacker, and then there is a woman, heavyset, her face sunk in grief, being comforted by another man. The dead man's mother?

A white police officer casually holds an attacking German Shepard-like dog, long a symbol of police brutality:

The painting seems to be focused on mourning rather than vengeance, though the artist has chosen to show a separate scene of violence. Three heavily-armed men fire upon another with a handgun hiding behind a tree while a ghostly face oversees the action:

The artist seems to say that even while people suffer, the acts that cause further suffering do not stop. Along the cityscape in the upper-left corner, we even catch a Hitchcockian glimpse of the artist himself, painting a similar scene on a different building:

The entire painting is done in this blueish-gray monochrome, except for the blood flowing from Brice's wounds at the center, the most striking part of the painting. The pietà is such a common theme in European and Christian art. The word itself comes from the Latin pietas, one of the core Roman virtues, untranslatable but something close to the prostration of one's self in duty to one's father or the gods. In medieval German and eastern Europe, pietà artists emphasized the gore of Christ's wounds.

I stand there looking at this anonymous painting, trying not to wallow in all this pretension, aware of myself as the white boy who cannot possibly understand the world the painting represents, associating it only with ancient things, with art born of suffering, art from a time when men were far closer to suffering than most of us are today.

They say Alexander the Great lamented at the tomb of Achilles, not for the dead hero but for the lack of a Homer to herald his own mighty deeds. The painting may be slightly amateurish, fading across two rickety sheets of plywood in Mount Oliver, Pennsylvania. But who among us will have something so heartfelt and beautiful created to remember us when we're gone? If we're lucky, maybe a few lines in the local paper about our works and days, the names of those we'll leave behind. A wake full of uncomfortable people eager to move on with their lives.

Yeah, the painting is no Picasso. But I am almost breathless when I finally walk away.