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Art and graffiti on the Camino: How do we create connection?

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One example of a pilgrim-themed mural

Like any pathway of self-expression, The Camino is a repository for art and human musings. These range from professional sculptures and murals that depict a modern or ancient pilgrim to silly scribblings, wise reflections, and indulgent graffiti.


As an art devotee and long-time fan of street art, I was curious whether the offerings along The Way of St. James would reflect greater contemplative wisdom or spiritual enquiry than what usually appears in most cities in North America. After all, at least 100,000 people from around the world walk the route each year, many of them on a spiritual or religious quest. Surely, this motivation would produce words and images inspired by reverie, “aha” moments, and a questioning or deepening of faith?

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Some of the demon art displayed along the Camino

Yes and no. Most people on an inner search are probably less likely to scrawl graffiti across a public space, which I respect. I found that it takes time for many strangers to open up about their deepest reasons for doing the walk. Such revelations require a degree of intimacy, something that a public message can only imply. Graffiti can provide a big-picture view, connecting us in shared sentiment, conveying a sense of community. Yet, because it’s anonymous, we don’t grow any closer to the person who created it. It’s one-way dialogue.


For me, the Camino was very much about two-way communication in one-on-one encounters. However, I still appreciated both the “official” art I saw, publicly funded or in galleries, and found much of the pilgrimage-related graffiti either heartening or entertaining. Sometimes, a simple question spelled out in large capital letters “WHY ARE YOU WALKING?” could prompt some added introspection. Once, the short statement “Keep walking. Don’t give up” was just the extra boost I needed, as if from a silent coach. The suggestion “Open your heart wider,” spray-painted on a cement road barrier, made me smile.

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One high wall featured Spanish verse about the life of a pilgrim and what such a walk means. One pilgrim, an obvious Tom Petty fan, had sprinkled the route with quotes from the musician’s lyrics, written in small letters on the backs or tops of signs. At times, I found the quotations amusing or oddly appropriate. At others, they seemed to irritate me with intrusion.

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The wall of pilgrim-themed verse


Strangely, the quality of graffiti content seemed more puerile the closer I walked towards Santiago; evidently, walking the path produced no guarantee of gains in maturity. One pilgrim wrote on the back of a road sign: “Only pussies walk the last 100 kilometres.” This was a reference to those who walk the minimum distance required to obtain an official pilgrim certificate in Santiago. Ilke, a German pilgrim with whom I walked for the last four days, commented on this graffiti: “Sounds like he should walk the Camino again.”

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Art on a doorway in Chartres,
part of the Chemin de Paris Camino trail


In the final days of the Camino, I was disturbed to see a man’s open letter to a woman (I believe it was “Ann”), painted in about three-inch-high letters on the side of a house that faced the path. Admitting his love for her, he told her how much it meant to him that they had walked together. Her presence had made all the difference, he said.


Admirable sentiments, but why deface someone’s home to advertise your private thoughts? What arrogance and disrespect for others that required, despite an avowed love for one. Perhaps it’s easy to view all graffiti “artists” in this way.


Throughout the Camino, the murals and sculptures of pilgrims reminded me that I was part of a collective historical journey, an archetypal one that reached beyond my own personal trip. These visual reminders appeared on hilltops or town squares as unknown yet familiar faces. Like all meaningful art, they created connection.

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The most universal symbol or source of art on the Camino is the Christian cross. It appears in every imaginable form, from two crossed sticks stuck in a fence to intricately carved wooden ones and medieval or gothic gilt ones in cathedrals. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is impossible to ignore the evocative power, as an historical art piece alone, that this symbol carries.


From the Crusades to vampire-slaying, we have recognized across cultures, continents, and centuries that the cross carries significant weight. Whether it instills joy, faith, hatred, disdain, fear, guilt, love, anger or any other emotion, the cross communicates more in silence than a million graffiti artists could ever hope for with their messaging. Like great art, it is a mirror of our own projections, transforming us by how we choose to view it and what meaning we bring to it.

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A cross on one of the dozens of memorials that appear along the Camino.

NEXT WEEK: St. James and scallop shells

October 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm Comments (4)