The Passion of Christ, As Seen in Murals Around America

Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara looks at depictions of Jesus in murals across America

Upshaw Temple, 595 South 18th Street, Newark, 2003 Camilo José Vergara
El Toro Meat Market, 3171 Cesar Chavez, Los Angeles, 2001, by artist Manuel G. Cruz Camilo José Vergara
Pontius Pilate washing his hands, Fresno Street by Cesar Chavez, Los Angeles, 2001, by artist Manuel G. Cruz Camilo José Vergara
Christ, 3121 Florence Avenue, Los Angeles, 2002. Bishop Margaret Ann Johnson said: "Jesus is not white or black, Jesus is a spirit, you are using these eyes here, use your spiritual eyes." Camilo José Vergara
Chavelita Market, 150 East 23rd Street, Los Angeles, 1998 Camilo José Vergara
Crossover Inner City Gospel Ministry, Cass Avenue at Temple Street, Detroit, 1994 Camilo José Vergara
2486-2488 Webster Avenue, Bronx, 2004, art work by Dezo Camilo José Vergara
Jefferson Church, Walton Avenue at Jefferson, Los Angeles, 2012 Camilo José Vergara
Mural of Christ behind the altar of the former Shiloh Temple Apostolic Faith. Christ is depicted in a bleak northern landscape, Linwood at Richton, Detroit, 2005 Camilo José Vergara
El Toro Meat Market, mural detail, 3171 Cesar Chavez, Los Angeles, 2004, by artist Manuel G. Cruz Camilo José Vergara
Gratiot, Detroit, 1995 Camilo José Vergara
Menahan Street at Evergreen Street, Brooklyn, 2003 Camilo José Vergara
Fifth Avenue at Rhode Island, Gary, Indiana, 1993 Camilo José Vergara
El Toro Meat Market, 3171 Cesar Chavez, Los Angeles, 2004, by artist Manuel G. Cruz Camilo José Vergara
Greater Ship of Zion COGIC, 8440 Joy Road, Detroit, 2000, Elder E. T. Williamson Camilo José Vergara
Alley south of Pico Boulevard by Union Avenue, Los Angeles, 1997 Camilo José Vergara
West California Machine Shop, 6917 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, 2004 Camilo José Vergara
Mama's Chicken, Slausson Avenue east of 4th Avenue, Los Angeles, 2000 Camilo José Vergara
Alley west of Western Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets, Los Angeles, 2002 Camilo José Vergara
1315 West El Segundo, Los Angeles, 2003, by Tim Morgan Camilo José Vergara
5137 Compton Avenue, Michoacan Meat Market, Los Angeles, 1999 Camilo José Vergara
House of Correction Church of God, 5144 West Madison Street, Chicago, 2003 Camilo José Vergara
Memorial to Chuco, Mexican Christ, San Pedro Place, SCLA, 1994 Camilo José Vergara
11171 South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, 1996, by artist Kent Twitchell Camilo José Vergara
97th Street at Holmes, Los Angeles,1994 Camilo José Vergara
11171, South Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, 1999, mural by artist Kent Twitchell Camilo José Vergara
Humanity Baptist Church, Bergen Street at 14th Avenue, Newark, 1986 Camilo José Vergara
God Tabernacle of Faith, 6522 Hoover Street, Los Angeles, 1996. Multicultural Christ by Nestor Camilo José Vergara
Schaffer Street at Broadway, Brooklyn, 2008 Camilo José Vergara

Chronicler of America’s urban streets for more than 40 years, Camilo Jose Vergara has been instrumental in understanding the nation’s poorest neighborhoods through its murals, graffiti and signs. Previous projects have looked at murals Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama, as well as a decades-long investigation into Harlem’s changing streetscapes. Below, Vergara writes about what he noticed as he catalogued depictions of Jesus Christ around the United States

Many inner-city walls bear images of Christ enduring his via crucis. We see him at the Last Supper accompanied by his disciples. There are more violent images, too, of Christ pushed and lashed by soldiers, and nailed to the cross. And there are Easter-related images of the Resurrection, in which, rising from the dead, he shows us his wounds.

Tears roll down Christ’s face in San Pedro Place, as he holds the dead body of Chuco, a notorious South Los Angeles pandillero [gang member]. “He Paid for it All” reads the top of a cross painted on the façade of a Detroit storefront church. I found only one image, in the Bronx, in which Christ confronts viewers directly, implicating them in his suffering.

Images of Christ vary widely in poor neighborhoods. He may be depicted with blue eyes or brown, with a physique like a body builder or with an almost feminine delicacy. Black, brown, white or multi-racial, Christ is painted on the walls of parking lots and alleys, and on the facade of churches and stores. Depictions of scenes of the Passion reflect the open religiosity of recent immigrants as well as cultural changes.

The backgrounds of these images often resemble the dry hills of northern Mexico. Sometimes the ocean and the clouds give the setting a Middle Eastern character. In Los Angeles, real palm trees often loom behind. In a Detroit church, Christ embracing his cross and sitting on a rock is shown alone, in a desolate northern Michigan landscape.

Some artists sign their murals with nicknames such as Chill, Nuke, Bugzy, Tommy. Others sign with their full names, among which are Tim Morgan, Kent Twitchell and folk artist Manuel G. Cruz.

The purposes of these images vary. In an interview, a Catholic priest in the Pico Union section of Los Angeles told of his hope that a dangerous, dark alley by Union Avenue would become safer under the presence of the suffering Christ. Perhaps, he imagined, that the image might remind gangsters of their childhood days when they were exposed to Christianity, and stop them from pulling the trigger.